This guy has a regular column at Reuters

Gingrich is a wild card. He probably would end up a flaming wreckage in electoral terms, but there’s a chance he could become seen as the man unafraid to bring sweeping change to an ossified Washington, D.C. There’s perhaps a 90 percent likelihood Obama would wipe the floor with Gingrich, versus a 10 percent likelihood Gingrich would stage an historic upset.

This is the dumbest thing I’ve seen since . . . ummm, I dunno, how bout this? It actually gets worse because Easterbrook then invokes game theory. What next? Catastrophe theory? Intelligent design?

P.S. Maybe I should explain for readers without an education in probability theory. Let’s suppose “wipe the floor” means that Obama gets 55%+ of the two-party vote, and let’s suppose that “an historic upset” means that Obama gets less than 50% of the vote. Now try to draw a forecast distribution that has 90% of its probability above 0.55 and 10% of it’s probability below 0.50. It’s a pretty weird-looking distribution, huh?

I will publicly offer Easterbrook a bet, conditional on Gingrich getting the nomination, that Obama receives between 50% and 55% of the two-party vote. My bet is based on Easterbrook’s implicit odds of infinity to 1. To keep it simple, I’ll set up the bet as follows: if Gingrich gets the nomination and Obama receives between 50% and 55% of the vote, Easterbrook gives me \$1000. If Gingrich gets the nomination and Obama receives more than 55% or less than 50% of the vote, I give Easterbrook \$0. That sounds fair to me!

A good classroom example, maybe? In statistics, political science, or journalism. (In the latter, it could be part of the ever-popular class on “How to get paid for writing about something you know nothing about.”)

P.P.S. To clarify why I wasted my time writing about this: Political reporting is important, and I have every reason to believe it affects how people think about politics. A bit of innumeracy in reporting is perhaps unavoidable—after all, Easterbrook is a journalist, not a scientist—but I still like to do my part and point out the gross innumeracies I happen to come across. Also, Easterbrook is an interesting target because he’s a political centrist (I guess I’d characterize him as slightly center-left in the U.S. political spectrum), so it’s harder to imagine his errors arising from simple bias.

P.P.P.S. And, no, I don’t think that Easterbrook was simply stating in a dramatic way that he thinks that Obama would have a 90% chance of beating Gingrich. For one thing, the terms “flaming wreckage in electoral terms” and “wipe the floor” suggest a non-close election. For another, Easterbrook explicitly makes a variance argument, writing, “In an Obama-Gingrich race, practically anything could happen.” Finally, Easterbrook writes, “If I am Barack Obama, I want to run against Mitt Romney,” thus implying that Obama’s chance of winning against Romney is more than 90%. That’s a 9:1 bet that I’d take. But Easterbrook doesn’t have to bet me on this one—he can go straight to Intrade, which currently has Romney with a 33% chance of being elected president in 2012, unconditional on the results of the Republican nomination. (Earlier, Easterbrook implies that running against Gingrich would “maximize [Obama's] chance of a huge victory,” while running against Romney would “minimize his chance of a stinging defeat.” Put the numbers together and you get that Easterbrook thinks that Obama’s chance of beating Romney is greater than his chance of beating Gingrich, thus more than 90%.)

1. Jeffrey Lax says:

I like that a paragraph aimed “for readers without an education in probability theory” tells them to “draw a forecast distribution.”

2. zbicyclist says:

Just overblown rhetoric. Stripped of that, he thinks there’s a 90% chance Obama would win, 10% chance Gingrich.

Of course, as you have pointed out in earlier posts, there are a LOT of shifts in the months before the election. At this point it would seem foolish to say Obama has a 90% chance of beating anybody.

• Andrew says:

See the P.P.P.S. that I added. It’s overkill but I wanted to make my point clear, that I think Easterbrook really did mean something close to what he was nonsensically saying. A lack of numeracy, combined with a lack of interest in thinking carefully, can result in some pretty stupid statements.

3. Roger says:

Yogi Berra was even more famous, and he said, “Baseball is 90% mental, the other half is physical.” Nobody asked him to draw the chart.

• Andrew says:

Roger:

I’ve heard that Yogi Berra was pretty good at baseball so it was ok that he said some silly things. The sad thing about Easterbrook is that he purports to be a political analyst but he’s not very good at it. The guy is a skilled writer; I just don’t see why he persists in writing about things he knows nothing about, nor do I think it’s a good idea for reputable journalistic outlets to hire him to write about politics. (I know little about football and won’t try to assess Easterbrook’s writing in that area.)

4. A. Zarkov says:

Where are these probabilities coming from? Any of them? According to Hibbs Bread and Peace model (prediction as of last May) Obama will receive 46% of the popular vote. I don’t think the growth in real per capita disposable income has changed much since May. So if you believe Hibbs, the election might be close with the edge going to the Republican challenger regardless of who that is. If you don’t believe Bread and Peace, then what? The polls? Our host has shown that polls this far from the election provide little to no information. It sounds like Easterbrook just picks numbers out of the air according to how he feels. I can’t make sense out his game theory statement either.

Andrew I don’t think Easterbrook is center-left, I’d put him on the left. In any case this piece ranks as one of the worst pieces of punditry I’ve ever seem. He’s trying to make his opinions look credible by throwing out technical jargon which he doesn’t understand.

• Anonymous says:

Punters give Obama over 50% chance currently (odds 1.93-1.95). Odds have been below 2 for many months now. And as they say, always follow the money.

5. Manoel Galdino says:

“‘If I am Barack Obama, I want to run against Mitt Romney,’” thus implying that Obama’s chance of winning against Romney is more than 90%”

I don’t think he thinks that Obama’s chance of winning against Romney is more than 90%. I guess he’s saying that with Obama, things are pretty predictable (no black swans), but with Gingrich, there is the possibility of Black Swans (or unknowns unknown). And Obama should prefer a more predictable election than another with the possibility of black swans.

• Andrew says:

Manoel:

I suspect that’s what Easterbrook thought he was saying, but the only interpretation consistent with his claim about Gingrich is that Obama has a more than 90% chance of beating Romney. Read the above P.P.S. carefully. I don’t think Easterbrook really thought this through, though. And that would be ok—if he weren’t paid to be a political writer by a major news organization!

6. You're telling me this guy's not a careful thinker? says:

http://espn.go.com/espn/page2/story/_/id/7084785/is-year-round-football-putting-boys-girls-line-college

But why are women doing so well in college? Maybe one of the reasons is that many boys are seeing their college chances sabotaged by football.

Rising interest in athletics cannot in and of itself be the explanation, because in the last generation, girls’ and women’s participation in athletics has skyrocketed. But there is one sport girls do not play — football. The gender that plays football is falling behind in college. The gender that does not play football is excelling.

7. Peter Flom says:

An alternative is that Easterbrook means “wipe the floor” in terms of electoral vote. That would make a lot more sense, since the EV distribution is not anything like normal….

Recent EVs:
2008: 365-173
2004: 286-251
2000: 271-266
1996: 379-159
1992: 370-168
1988: 426-111
1984: 525-13
1980: 489-49
1976: 297-240
1972: 520-17
1968: 301-191-46
1964: 486-52
1960: 303-219
1956: 457-73
1952: 442-89
1948: 303-189

Of course, maybe Easterbrook was just writing without thinking much about what he meant, in terms of numbers

8. numeric says:

Hey, give the guy a break. He’s just expressing his subjective probabilities, which, as we all know, are unassailable.

9. Trey says:

I like that a paragraph aimed “for readers without an education in probability theory” tells them to “draw a forecast distribution.”

I have nothing to add but I also laughed when I read that.

10. ezra abrams says:

over analytical and missing the point
Consider HIS audience: the paragraph is perfectly clear; Obama will probably win, but there is a chance Gingrich could win.
IF his audience wants someone who is pompous and stupid enough to use big words, that is the audience’s right.

Anyway, why bother with this 3rd decimal place stuff when you ignore the 1st decimal place stuff: is there any reason to pay attention to anything pundits say, esp this early on ?
I was just reading thinking fast and slow, and Kahnemann goes thru the probably well known to this blog story of how the pundits are neve right.
Give the guy a break, he is just trying to make a living; it is no worse then a lot of other people.PS

PS: you have probably heard that Gingrich is worried that Sharia law will be imposed in the US. OF course Newt is worried; the Sharia penalty for adultery is stoning….

• Andrew says:

Ezra:

1. If Easterbrook needs to put food on the table, I’d prefer he just write a bit more about football rather than diluting Reuters’s reputation and misinforming his readers.

2. No, there’s no reason to pay attention to Easterbrook’s writing on the presidential race. But he’s (inadvertently, I’m sure) misinforming people, and I don’t like that. Calling out the Greg Easterbrooks of the world is not the most important thing I do, but I think it can be useful to do on occasion.

11. D.O. says:

What i think Mr. Easterbrook had in mind is that against Mr. Gingrich Mr. Obama will either win or loose by a landslide. And against Mr. Romney chances of the outcome in the usual range are much higher. No doubt, Mr. Easterbrook expressed his ideas rather unartfully.

12. [...] I recently criticized Gregg Easterbrook for assigning Obama an implausible 90+% chance of beating Mitt Romney, some [...]