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Hot Nerds & High Anxiety

For me, the nerdy hot thing started with Howard Bannister.  And, even if the term “nerdy hot” actually is an oxymoron, it didn’t much matter when Ryan O’Neal as Howard dropped his pajama bottoms in the bathroom doorway while Barbra Streisand was taking a bubble bath in What’s Up, Doc?  But Ryan O’Neal wasn’t really a nerd.  He was hot, but he wasn’t a nerd.

These days, Steve Kornacki has a near lock on the nerdy hot category, as I’ve written about before.  He has put the “strap” in extrapolate, and I’m going to have to leave it right there or else I’ll get distracted and spend the rest of the afternoon watching old clips of him on YouTube.

Another contender in the nerdy hot arena is Nate Silver.  Now before anyone starts mumbling about pollsters and how 2016 should have taught us not to trust them, it should be noted that my man Nate is not a pollster.  He’s a psephologist—one who engages in the scientific study of elections. (Even my spellcheck doesn’t know what to do with that word.) Kind of a political scientist on steroids.

And what Nate does, if you read his articles to the bitter end, is walk you through the “political” meadow, get you down on your knees looking at the weeds, pulls them up out of the ground, and then tells you all about the root structure.  I suspect I lost some of you when I referenced getting on your knees in a meadow, but you get the point. And even if you don’t want to go all the way down with Nate, you can just glean from the top line what his projected probabilities are for various possible outcomes.

At this writing, Nate’s forecasting models give the Democrats an 84.1 % shot at taking the House, with Republicans likely at 82.6% of holding the Senate.   Those probabilities are kind of high, don’t you think? Kind of splits it down the middle, so to speak. But are they high enough to ward off the angst many folks are feeling right about now?  Well, no.

Back in my college days, I availed myself of the math department’s resident nerd on probabilities.  (Some of you reading this may remember him.) We had somehow gotten into a conversation about gambling odds, and he explained to my inner nerd how to easily and quickly calculate things, such as the likelihood that a particular combination of numbers would show up when rolling a pair of dice or that a particular suit or rank of card would show up on the next card turn.  I don’t think it was his intention, but the result of this conversation was that I avoid slot machines and keno and head for the craps and blackjack tables in a casino.

He also explained how to calculate the probability that two separate things will occur, using the probability of occurrence of the individual things.  And when you multiply those two factors together to get that combined probability, those Nate Silver numbers hovering around 83% drop down to 69.5%–the current probability that the Democrats will take the House while the Republicans hold the Senate—leaving a 14.6% likelihood that the Democrats will take both houses and a 13.1% shot for the Republicans to hold both.  (Look, Steve Kornacki, I can extrapolate, too.)

Now the sum of the probabilities of two distinct outcomes yields the likelihood that one or the other will occur.  That means there’s about a 28% chance that there will be a winner-take-all outcome in Congress, which is very close to Nate’s last calculation of probability for Trump’s election win in 2016.  Are we feeling more anxious?

Most of us know the difference between possibility, probability, and inevitability.  And most of us have experienced the improbable—both good and bad. I’m hoping for some good improbable.  , but there’s nothing new about that.

But right now, I’m racing against the probability that Nate will change his numbers again—he’s done so twice while I’ve been writing and revising this column.  In case you’re wondering, both changes favored Democratic prospects.





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