Friday, October 17, 2008

Of Squigglies


If elected or appointed god, Nate Silver would scrap the squiggly, the dial-test graphs displaying audience reaction as used on CNN broadcasts of the presidential debates. Silver:

It's not that the squiggly lines aren't fun to watch. Rather, they're too much fun to watch. It's hard to avert your eyes from them. It's hard to separate your own, independent reaction from theirs. And it's certainly hard to integrate back into to the non-squiggly universe once you've gotten hooked on the squigglys.
He makes some reasonable points, but Daniel Davies is not convinced and speaks adoringly of the squiggly:
I love the crawler and think that it really helps you understand what’s going on in the debates – in particular, it helps you take one step back from your own prejudices. It’s also just about the only input into debate commentary that comes more or less unmediated; the anonymous “undecided” focus group participants might be dumb or irrational, but they’re at least not pushing an agenda.
I agree with Davies on this and disagree with Silver; I have no trouble separating my reaction from the reaction I see registered onscreen, and in fact I find it fascinating, as Davies does, to see what lines of argument succeed and fail at duping convincing people.

That being so, there's a defect in the system I'd like to see corrected. Participants turn the dial to indicate either approval or disapproval, but this creates ambiguity. Suppose John McCain says something idiotic in a debate, such as the following:
I want Joe the plumber to spread that wealth around. You [indicating Obama] told him you wanted to spread the wealth around. The whole premise behind Sen. Obama's plans are class warfare, let's spread the wealth around.
If the dials turn to "disapprove" here, what's being disapproved? That McCain's attack is unfair, baseless, detractive? Or is the audience signaling agreement with the attack and disapproving along with McCain in the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad prospect of "class warfare" that doesn't favor the wealthy? It's genuinely unclear.

Toward resolving this, I heartily second a recommendation made by Matt Yglesias:
[W]hy do the dial as a positive-negative axis rather than an Obama-McCain axis? The way they do it makes it very hard to interpret what’s happening when McCain attacks Obama and the dial goes negative. Does that mean the attack is working or that it’s backfiring?
This makes a lot of sense: turn the dial one way to indicate that what's being said inclines you to support candidate A, turn it the other way to indicate what's being said inclines you to support candidate B. It's slightly subtler than approve/disapprove or positive/negative, perhaps, but I think it's well within the capabilities of people, even the utter lunkheads undecided voters who participate in these measurements.

1 comment:

Lirone said...

This squiggly sounds very dubious to me given that people are known to be swayed by what they believe their peers are thinking - it seems designed to distort views.