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Nate Silver explains racism and elections with statistics

This post is part of a series from the TED 2009 conference held in Long Beach, California from February 4-8th. You can read other posts in the series here, and the TED site will release video from the talk in the coming weeks or months. Because I’m putting these posts together very quickly, I will get things wrong, will misspell names and bungle details. Please feel free to use the comments thread on this post to offer corrections. You may also want to follow the conference via Twitter or through other blogs tagged as on Technorati.

It’s the final morning of the TED 2009 conference, a cold, rainy winter day in Long Beach. The hall is part empty this early – lots of folks are still sleeping off last night’s series of parties. Chris Anderson, our host, chooses this quiet moment to talk about an issue that hasn’t been on the table at the conference – the current economic crisis.

Chris explains that he sees TED working on larger issues: “There might be some issues more important than whether our GDP will rise or fall a bit… like global warming, the oceans, happiness…”

He offers a long quote from John Maynard Keynes that begins, “This is a nightmare which will pass away with the morning…” The point – this is likely to be a difficult, but passing, moment in time, and we’ve got much bigger problems that won’t pass with time. Chris tells us that the team looked for the “brilliant minds” who had insights on the current economy, but failed… and feels like Davos failed as well in bringing in those insightful minds.

There’s a brief discussion with the audience about how TED is working in the new venue. Some feedback:
- The venue in Long Beach is really big, and there’s been less social interaction between attendees in years past
- The progam has grown so cramped that it might make sense to have less time on stage and more interaction
- Something that worked very well in Monterey was a simulcast lounge, a shared space that allowed people to experience TED in a more laid-back fashion. That space doesn’t exist here, and lots of people (myself included) miss it.

The lead-off presenter for the day is the extraordinary Nate Silver, the baseball statistician who offered such successful insights on the 2008 election on fivethirtyeight.com. Silber is on the stage in Palm Springs, the second location for the conference.

Silver offers a picture of electoral maps between 2004 and 2008 – a profound shift of the entire electoral map towards blue, or liberal, voting. He points out that there’s a block of states – centered on Arkansas – which voted more strongly against Obama than they did against Clinton.

Is this about race?, Silver wonders. In Louisiana, roughly 1 in 5 white voters told polsters that race had been a factor in choosing not to vote for Obama – that compares to roughly 4% in states like New York and California.

Is racism predictable? he asks. He looked for correlations between independent variables and racism and found a strong correlation to levels of education – low education levels correlate closely with racial-based voting. Highly rural states also showed this pattern, though it’s less dramatic than the educational pattern.

Using data from the General Social Survey which looked at people who had neighbors of another race, Silver looks at political affiliation – there are more Republicans in monoracial neighborhoods, but it’s not a dramatic difference. Similarly, there’s not much difference in opinion regarding affirmative action. But a question about interracial marriage gets dramatically different results in monoracial neighborhoods – people in these neighborhoods are twice as likely to support a law banning interracial marriage.

If you wanted to address racism, Silver suggests, you need to create interracial neighborhoods, which might mean thinking about reengineering cities. Cities designed in the 1970s and 80s, he suggests, might actually have helped America become more conservative under Reagan. He also proposes a university-based mixing program, sending students from NYU to the University of Arkansas as a form of cultural exchange.

2 Responses to “Nate Silver explains racism and elections with statistics”

  1. Justin H. says:

    With all due respect to Mr. Silver, could there possibly be another reason besides race that caused states bordering Arkansas to skew more favorably to Mr. Clinton than Mr. Obama? http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/121813/Bill-Clinton/215394/Governor-of-Arkansas

  2. andrew says:

    In considering Silver’s use of evidence, shouldn’t we be concerned that people who are already more supportive of interracial marriage would be more likely to live in mixed neighborhoods? The effect of attitudes on people’s choice of neighborhood may instead drive the correlation Silver sees.

    The suggestion that diverse neighborhoods *cause* better attitudes may well be true, and diverse neighborhoods may be a worthwhile goal in their own right. But it is misleading to infer causality from simple correlation based on the evidence presented.

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