You get a sense of why Nate Silver has annoyed politicians and pundits in the US when you have a look what he’s been saying in Edinburgh about a prospective Scottish Referendum whilst launching his book, The Signal and the Noise:
In an interview with The Scotsman, Mr Silver said polling data was “pretty definitive”. “There’s virtually no chance that the Yes side will win”, he said. “If you look at the polls, it’s pretty definitive really where the No side is at 60-55 per cent and Yes side is about 40 or so.
“Historically, in any Yes or No vote in a referendum, it’s actually the No side that tends to grow over time, people tend not to default to changing the status quo.
“The No side is even more dominant with the younger voters, so there’s not going to be any generational thing going on.”
Not that that’s not been said here before. As you might glean from his outline responses to the UK General Election here, Silver deals in probabilities, much in the way a good Poker player similarly pays attention to detail. His observations are made from studying patterns in broad datasets, and not just polling data.
He uses the Quebec referendum as a case in point:
The French-speaking province of Quebec in Canada has previously rejected a vote on independence, despite sharp “cultural differences and genuine hostility” with the wider Canadian state, Mr Silver added.
“That is a case where a smaller country reads more about the economic consequences and it becomes harder to change the status quo. That was one where the Yes vote had been ahead, then faded down the stretch and lost.
“So on general principle, even if you took all the undecided votes, they are more likely to end up being No votes than Yes votes.”
So that’s it then? Well, no. Even if we miss out on a nasty and disastrous downshift in wider economy, the referendum has at least been focusing minds creatively. On Belladonia, David Grieg outlines what he hopes for:
1) There are reasonable arguments for both sides. Most Yes voters have their private doubts as do No voters. The fruitful debate emerges when we share those doubts, not when we pretend to certainty.
2) Try to stay future focused. We can’t ignore the past but lets not dwell on it. This is the 21st century. Surely on behalf of our children surely we can imagine what might be best for them, and not get bogged down in a hundred quid in tax here or there, or whatever economic argument happens to suit your side politically right now.
3) Whichever way this vote goes it’s going to be close and we’re all going to have to live together in the same country afterwards. It will do no good if this debate is characterised by contempt or name calling. There’s no value in building up a new us and them, or fomenting new grudges. If either side feels defeated or humiliated in 2014 we will all be storing up serious trouble for the future.
Whatever the result of the referendum, there are in Scotland (indeed right across the democratic world) what Chris Dillow calls diseconomies of scale:
Scottish independence is a narrow, businesslike cost-benefit issue, in which nationalism is only part of the story – it matters in the sense that highly nationalist people feel alienated from the centre, and so the union breeds diseconomies of scale.[emphasis added]
Silver’s word certainly should not be taken as Gospel, but on the other hand living off planned outcomes as though they were already in the here and now is not great politics either. As Jon Greenaway put it earlier this year…
…this assumption of inevitable victory is intellectually dishonest and rhetorically cheap. The most important constitutional debate in the nation’s history should be treated properly. As the leaders of the nation the SNP should not be trying to ‘fast forward through the difficult bits’ as Michael Moore put it.
They should be better than that. The people of Scotland are owed an honest conversation and ignoring facts that happen to be unpalatable should not be a challenge from which we shy away in cowardice.
Finally, the idea of independence will remain a significant motivator for Scots whatever the outcome of next year’s referendum. Not least because it has considerable meaning for many who will not show in next year’s Yes tally.
“The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.”