‘Nuther Quick Hit: Nate Silver Temporarily Suspends Mathematical Rigor

During the presidential campaign I checked http://www.fivethirtyeight.com, like, several times a day. As one whose gifts lie not with the maths* I really appreciated his analysis, and the mounting sense of excitement I got that Indiana might go blue.

Yet even Nate Silver suspends his just-the-numbers-ma’am approach when it comes to obesity. Here he suggests that it’s “certainly true of Americans is that they don’t elect very many fat governors.”

CERTAINLY true. Well, okay. Please bring on the mathematical certitude then!

Running through pictures of the 50 sitting governors, I come up with only about 10 (20%) who are distinctly overweight, and only 3 (6%) — Haley Barbour, Bill Richardson, and Sonny Perdue — who are clearly obese. This compares with percentages on the order of 65 percent and 30 percent for the U.S. adult population.

Ah. So we’re using the rigorous look-at-the-pictures-and-see-if-someone’s-fat-fat-fatty-fat-as-determined-by-male-onlooker method for the governors, and then assuming that will track with the BMI’s, errm, fanciful standards for “overweight” and “obese.”

And what follows is a lot of stuff that you’ve all heard before [edited to add: and, actually, some nearly-there guesses about what it means that “fat” is now a political vulnerability. -AS]. Including Nate Silver demurring that “my classifications are probably a bit conservative given that overweight is the new normal in America.”

(Er, no, dear. It’s really not. “Normal” is the new “overweight.” You know when I first suspected, though, that you would not already be squared away on that point? When this post appeared at 538; and no, it wasn’t written by YOU, but rather by Sean Quinn, BUT STILL. IT IS YOUR BLOG. That’s when I first got wise to the fact that I was likely eavesdropping on a doodily doodily dood conversation, and not so much participating in a smart-people-talking-politics conversation. I mean, really? “Just for kicks!” Hee hee! “Just for kicks, here’s a leering photo at a woman, y’know, working in American politics.” So that’s now TWO kinda douchey things, fellas, that I know of. And I haven’t read your blog since the election, really. Might I gently suggest that you all suck on some male privilege mints before speaking further?)

Anyway, all that is just to say: on that “Signs of the Obesapocalypse” you have hanging on your fridge, please add “Governor-Electorate Corpulence Disproportion” right under “Declining Mitten Sales” and “Barbie Cankles.”

* – Side note: I actually enjoyed math until I had a math teacher in eighth grade who would say things, in class, like: “Oh, all these mistakes in the textbook? Are because there were so many women on the editorial board!” Or, “Hey! Let’s make a list of all the things that women are good at! Let me get a very very tiny piece of paper…” Now, would I have been a brilliant mathematician had it not been for him? Who knows; probably not. But that was it for me and math. Eighth fucking grade. Awesome, dude. “Children! Children! Future! Future!” [/jazz hands]

64 thoughts on “‘Nuther Quick Hit: Nate Silver Temporarily Suspends Mathematical Rigor”

  1. Yes, the famously very fit* governor of South Carolina has done such a great job.

    *you see him jogging everywhere–that’s why he was able to slip out and “hike the Appalachian Trail” and so few questioned it. That’s also why he’s permanently tanned. He also ostentatiously bicycles with his four boys long distances for the press. At least he used to, before the split.

  2. I would like to fly back in time, come into your classroom, and wrastle your 8th grade teacher to the ground in order to wash his mouth out with soap.

  3. Oh yes. Thank you, jennyknopinski! DO NOT read the comments! Just know that there are some people there who pointed out that his method is flawed.

    Arwen, be my guest! :) Perhaps you could borrow the Nobel Prize Committee’s time machine that Stephen Colbert’s been talking about?

  4. Signs of the Obesapocalypse, I love it! Am I the only one who’s inspired to get seven folksy wooden signs naming some horrors of obesity and hang them around in my house? Or maybe a nice collection in the hallway.

    Ahhh…but which seven to choose?

  5. A Sarah, I think your 8th grade math teacher and my 10th grade one must have been the same guy! Fortunately, my parents got me a math tutor who was also a high school math teacher who would routinely say things like “you know this stuff cold,” so I didn’t completely get the idea that I had no math sense, but like you say, who knows where I would have ended up without that other jerk.

  6. SM, I’m so glad you caught that reference. I worried I might be the only one with that in her mental junk drawer!

  7. A Sarah, I wish to blind that teacher with SCIENCE.

    Only vaguely related, but on the subject of apocolypses, this comic amuses me greatly.

    And yeah, I sincerely doubt that that guy’s judgments there are anywhere near correct. As mentioned above, the Governator!

  8. SM, I’m so glad you caught that reference. I worried I might be the only one with that in her mental junk drawer!

    Nope, I got it too!

  9. A Sarah and Ellen,

    I also had one of those douchey math teachers in grade 10 and 12 math that made me stop my half-interested plans to become a scientist. And if I hadn’t gotten a tutor and a fantastic teacher for algebra (who was a woman, and had written the textbook we used, but yet the douche was the math head…), I might never have attempted accounting, where I ended up. Not that accounting is my dream job, but I do much better in it (and likely make more) than I would in whatever jobs that douchenozzle thought were appropriate for women.

    Sorry for the off-topic, the Silver post itself is too annoying for me to make an intelligent comment on. Maybe you should send him to the “This is normal” photo gallery.

  10. Well, of course yo can tell just by looking at them! Didn’t you know that teh smart men are capable of guessing to the ounce a person’s weight by looking at a picture, and teh really smart math-men can then calculate who is and isn’t overweight or obese? How could you not know that? Everybody does.


    btw, regarding the comic, I would have laughed more if all four riders hadn’t been embodiments of privilege (except maybe for age).

  11. Oh goodie, the eyeball standard. He admits he’s just going by photos, too–a photo couldn’t ever be deceptive, could it? Nah. I guess there’s some small mercy that Nate Silver didn’t also decide to look at photos of the governors’ wives while he was at it, and tell us what he thought of their figures.

  12. So between the fact that we’re discussing Equal Protection in Constitution Law this week and my “friend” who thinks that sexual preference is a choice (like religion!) this post is finally the straw that broke the camel’s back. Nothing against you AS, you’re great, but you understand that a person only has so much sanity. So…I’m going to recuse myself from this one and hide under my desk for awhile. /Relurking/

  13. Technically it isn’t mathematical rigor he has suspended, but scientific. This is the kind of crap that was drilled into my head at my Math/Science Center–if you’re going to test a variable, you have to come up with an operational definition of that variable that can be measured, and for it to be a decent experiment it has to be repeatable by other people measuring it in the same way.

    Since “I do/don’t think that person is fat” is subjective, it is not a measurable operational definition of the variable.

    And to then compare the numbers he gets from that with the whole-population numbers generated by a completely different methodology with a different operational definition of fatness is simply ridiculous.

    Which, of course, you all already know. But what I’m saying is, it’s his science that’s bad, not necessarily his actual math. He probably did the math problem right, and would maybe even have gotten some interesting results if he had started with numbers that made any sense.

    Now, if he really wanted to use “what Americans perceive as fat” as his operational definition, he could have done that, but he would have had to:

    – get a group of people together to look at pictures, not just him, and do some statistical things with their responses
    – have them look at, in addition to pictures of governors, a random sample of photographs of Americans from across the country, and use those numbers for his population statistics

    That might have been interesting, actually.

  14. That whole post was just self indulgent drivel. I tried to post in the comments, but for some reason, blogger does not like my wordpress identity. What I would have written:

    Wow, this must be one of the stupider posts I’ve seen here. No, wait. It’s the stupidest. I didn’t realize the writers of FiveThirtyEight can magically know people’s BMIs based on a picture. There’s also a logic-fail here. If you think that “overweight is the new normal” then you should assume that a higher number of governors are overweight than your initial estimate, rather than a lower number.

    Of course, what you’re also doing is perpetuating the false assumption that fat = (ugly, lazy, undisciplined, unclean, etc.), when, in reality, fat is a description of a physical characteristic resulting from a combination of factors that might include: genetics, disability, illness, or other medical issues, non-nutritious diet, inactivity, etc. And looking at someone, you have no idea which of the above applies.

    Take a look at the BMI Project for more info: https://kateharding.net/bmi-illustrated/

  15. “Signs of the Obesapocalypse”

    Yeah, adipocalypse.

    I am science, no more shall ignorance handicap mankind’s potential! No more shall personal incredulity preclude the intake of knowledge.

    Oh, indeedy. Unless it’s produced by the incorruptable force of ‘science’ itself I suppose.

    Funny, but I’ve wondered for a while now, how long it’s going to take Dawkins to tackle ‘obesity’ since he likes to go after religion and alternative/ complementary medicine.

  16. As a secularist, humanist, Jew, and masters student in religion, I have a pretty strong conviction that Dawkins is an obnoxious idiot.

  17. Actually, I suspect that the “morbidly obese” may actually be OVER-represented among governorships. Only about 5% of the population falls into that BMI category, while it’s quite possible at least two of the governors (Richardson and Barbour), and possibly one or two of the others like Perdue, meet that criteria.

    If we were going to play the eyeball game, I think Silver might be wrong about the BMI classification of better than half the governors he identified as normal.

  18. Heck, I think Dawkins is arrogant and obnoxious, and I’m an atheist. I have a low tolerance for scienticism, however.

  19. Did we go to 8th Grade Math together. That exactly describes my teacher. I was getting an A in his class without trying but complained to him one day that I didn’t really like Math and he said, “That’s okay, dear, but girls are never good at math anyways.”

    This was the same teacher who knew I was being bullied in his class by three other girls (they wrote on my jacket back in ink in class one day and regularly hit or pinched me) but refused to do anything about it (including moving their assigned seats from directly behind me and to my right).

    Still hate math…

    “English major–you do the math….”

  20. @Eucritta, I forgot to include agnostic. Dawkins’ main problem in my opinion is that he also insults the people who should theoretically agree with him.

  21. @Meems, yes. Insulting natural allies is an unfortunately common practice, and IMHO it’s done untold harm to the progressive, environmentalist, and skeptical communities … to name but three.

    Also, I didn’t mention it before because I felt weird about doing it, but … well, teaspoons. ‘Idiot’ has such a long and dishonorable ableist history, I’ve been trying to purge it from my vocab.

  22. “English major–you do the math….”

    I am in love with that slogan. One of the girls in the choir I sing with has it on a t-shirt, and I WANT ONE.

    As far as math, I’m pretty decent at it. I pulled off an A average in high-school calculus, though I hated every minute of it. What I really liked was geometry, especially the proofs. For me to be interested in math, it has to either relate to something tangible, or be a logic puzzle. Like, once when I was severely bored on a long drive, I calculated the difference in arrival time going the speed limit versus ten over. (Needless to say, I decided to speed on that trip.)

    I don’t think I ever experienced a direct “girls can’t do math” thing. Then again, I’ve always thought of myself as better at the humanities than the sciences so it may have just been subtly internalized. But then, I *am* really good at English and love history. But I took comp sci in high school and not only got A’s and enjoyed it, but stayed over during study hall to fool around with programs.

    When your talents and inclinations fall along stereotypical lines, how the frack do you ever sort out what’s inherent and what’s internalized misogyny? I mean, I remember consciously rejecting programming as a career choice because I discovered that I liked it in small doses and couldn’t see doing it as a career. But I find it interesting that, even as a girl who got As in math and science all through high school, I considered myself “not a math and science person.”

  23. “I guess there’s some small mercy that Nate Silver didn’t also decide to look at photos of the governors’ wives while he was at it, and tell us what he thought of their figures.”

    And when I said that above, I should have made room for the reality that some governors have husbands, and some governors aren’t married to anyone. Sorry to leave the blanket assumption that “governor=guy-married-to-a-woman” on the table. (It’s been bugging me.)

  24. hmm, A Sarah I don’t know if your 8th grade math teacher is better or worse than my 9th grade one who definitely encouraged the girls in his class… so that he could try to look down their shirts :(

  25. When your talents and inclinations fall along stereotypical lines, how the frack do you ever sort out what’s inherent and what’s internalized misogyny? I mean, I remember consciously rejecting programming as a career choice because I discovered that I liked it in small doses and couldn’t see doing it as a career. But I find it interesting that, even as a girl who got As in math and science all through high school, I considered myself “not a math and science person.”

    I’m in roughly the same boat. I like math and science and did quite well at it, though I tend to drown at higher levels. My parents are both scientists, my grandmother was a computer programmer, and I had thoroughly awesome math and science teachers all through school. And I am now in grad school to become a children’s librarian. Hello, pink collar profession! There are no men in most of my children’s services classes.

    We had a long discussion in class last week about the need to not discuss the “cute” parts of your job with coworkers, because people think that doing storytimes and making felt boards is fun and easy. Well, yes, I hope it’s fun; it’s certainly not like we’re in it for the pay. But it’s also work, requiring graduate-level knowledge of child development, early literacy skills, encyclopedic knowledge of your collection, and ability to deal with enraged parents and two-year-olds. Grr.

  26. @Eucritta I agree that there are problems with all the words we use to denote people who are ignorant (which might have been a better choice) or considered less intelligent…

  27. When your talents and inclinations fall along stereotypical lines, how the frack do you ever sort out what’s inherent and what’s internalized misogyny?

    Ha Kelly K, I actually have the opposite problem. I know that I consciously decided to do certain things when I was younger because I was told over and over again that those things weren’t for girls. It was my young’n fuck you to the patriarchy, but for the past few years now I’ve had to reprogram myself from that mindset because hey! I do like some feminine things, and feminine does not equal bad, who knew!

  28. Governors and other elected officials typically have more money. Having more money makes it much easier to afford gym memberships and fresh, nutritious food. Not that weight is all about “eating healthy and exercising, OMG!” but I am sure being able to afford the things usually recommended for weight loss helps.

  29. I think your Math teacher went to the same school of arsehattery as my 11th grade Physics teacher. (“I don’t really know why I’m teaching you girls this stuff anyway, you’re just going to get married and have babies.”)

  30. Reading the comments on this thread, I’m once again very grateful that I had only women teaching me math from fifth grade all the way through the end of high school.

    Before all that, there was the male fourth grade teacher who failed to teach me long division. And after that, there was the male calculus teacher my first year of college, who thoroughly killed my interest in taking any more math classes. I got enough math under my belt for my science degree, though. And for that I can thank my teachers Ms. Jaramillo, Ms. Delman, Ms. Williams, Ms. Tom, Ms. Tello, and Ms. Benton.

  31. A Random Claire – wow, I had the exact same teacher for grade 12 chemistry. I’m pretty sure he used those same words even. Oh, and I graduated in 2007. How’s that for progress. :(

  32. I like Nate for numbers but he’s kind of a light-weight when it comes to people.

    As regards your eighth-grade math non-teacher, I’m going to be less cliche and tell my kids that Episcopalians can’t learn the state capitals or something.

    And math is hard.

  33. aleks, I hid out, mostly, from the monster threads of last week (partly to preserve sanity and partly because my whole family was sick) so I missed the part where you’re a teacher. Just wanted to say I’m so happy to hear it. Almost as happy as I am disappointed that so many others have stories of sexist teachers.

    daphne, yup, it’s a Simpson’s reference. :)

  34. Thank you Sarah, one of the reasons I’m denizening around Feminist websites is that I think it’ll be helpful in the classroom. I’m trying to learn some empathy or maybe collect data that I can use to counterfeit empathy. I certainly don’t want to be one of those teachers, as I’ve sometimes been one of those dudes.

  35. Ok, I feel like I need to add in a good math teacher story! Throughout elementary school I had male teachers who were really encouraging and put me in advanced classes – same in middle school. I dropped back into non-advanced classes in high school (when I always had female teachers…) because my brain had a lot of trouble with all the word problems we were supposed to learn in 8th grade and I just never recovered. I took the GRE a few years back and realized that, even 10 years later, I still couldn’t wrap my mind around word problems.

    But I had some pretty awesome math teachers, both male and female.

  36. I have nothing substantial to add, but ““Children! Children! Future! Future!” [/jazz hands]” had me snorting ginger ale.


  37. To add to the “good math teacher” stories: I once got up in class and corrected my 10th grade math teacher.

    There was this really hard proof in the homework where if you made this one really easy to make mistake it messed everything else up. I remember it took me a while to figure it out, but I did get it. I went to class the next day and everyone was asking “Mrs. L. can we talk about the homework?” because they had the same problem.

    You can see where this is going, right? Mrs. L. does the proof out on the board and makes the same mistake. And she turns right to me, because she knew I had close to a 100 in the class and had basically been cruising all year, and says “Did you get this one?” I said yes and I tried to explain where the mistake was but it was hard from my seat, so I got up and went to the board to point to it. Mrs. L. didn’t blink at any of this. When I turned around, the entire room had their jaws in their laps.


    This kid in my year I had a crush on heard the story later and referred to me in awestruck tones as a “major brain.”


  38. I had a good math teacher too! My high school physics and geometry teacher was AMAZING — not just a fantastic teacher but really personally encouraging to every single one of his students. He even gave me extra help at lunch on physics (I was better at geometry, though I loved both and a lot of the credit for that goes to him). We’re still in touch! We went to a play this summer with my husband and his granddaughter. In fact, I have to email him and see if he wants to borrow my husband for his physics class.

    Pre-college math teachers can make SUCH. A. DIFFERENCE. in how women relate to STEM subjects and fields. I hope they’re all being grabbed by the collar and spoken to gravely about this when they get their first teaching assignment (I’m sure they’re not).

  39. FJ,
    I’m just a humble social studies teacher-in-training. But I’m here reporting for that good shaking.

  40. You have a hard task too, though a less gendered one… in my experience everybody felt turned off and discouraged by social studies, except in 8th grade where we did a simulated colonial economy. Man, high school teachers have a rough road. Much props. (Are you a big dude, like big enough to shake some science and math teachers? You should shake all the ones you can reach.)

  41. I’m 5’6 on a good day, and Jewish with glasses.

    And until my hair starts going gray I’ll look like a high school sophomore.

    I may have made a bad decision here.

  42. I think you’ll be all right. You make me laugh out loud every time you open your… proboscis… tube thingy, and I’m a MUCH tougher audience than high school kids.

    I do probably recommend against the shaking though. You’ll need a shaking surrogate.

  43. on the math front… i had a teacher in 5th grade that literally tried to make his students cry by insulting them. as far as i can remember, though, he was an equal opportunity abuser. nobody was safe. and my freshman (and then again junior) year math teacher was a jerk as well. i can’t remember if it was just the girls or if he was also an equal opportunity jerk. but i’ve basically avoided and feared math since 5th grade. none of my math teachers were particularly encouraging to me. and now, i’m finally having to face math and science head-on b/c i want to get into cardiac sonography. i’m terrified. memories of being ridiculed until i cried for not having the right answer still haunt me at the age of (almost, in 2 weeks) 37. your math teacher and my math teachers can suck it. math classes ought to be for learning math, not terrorizing kids.

  44. I’m about the same height as aleks.

    I recommend poking them with an umbrella. The long kind with the spike on the top. It will unnerve them more than shaking, and it gives you a three foot head-start in the event of it failing.

  45. Y’all, I tried to turn the conversation over there to gender, and all I got was crickets, and a lot of fat jokes. I’ve never read comments over there, and plan to never do so again. It’s like being in a roomful of 12-year-old boys. Criminy.

  46. Why is Dawkins obliged to be “nice” to people he thinks are wrong any more than feminists are obliged to be nice to the 14 millioneth man who drops in to say “Yes, but have you thought about X? Maybe if you weren’t so hostile etc.” Dawkins thinks that people who believe in supernatural deities are misguided at best, because supernatural deities do not exist. He has no obligation to pussyfoot around that because people don’t like being called stupid when he thinks that _are_ stupid. There’s plenty of religious people to stand up against their extremist brethren from that perspective if they want to, without requiring Dawkins to mind his mouth when he talks about the ultra-nutters in case someone who is “nice” gets caught in the crossfire.

  47. I have a sad math teacher story.

    My 9th grade algebra teacher was awful – disconnected, bruque, uninterested if anyone had a problem, and as a mathematically challenged (I reverse numbers, and can’t visualize well) person, I drowned. I failed the class completely, and didn’t even know it until I arrived for year two, when he expressed surprise that I was there.

    He committed suicide later that year – it turned out that he was clinically depressed, and was unable to even give a damn. That and the alcoholic english teacher I had the same year (put vodka in a 2 litre 7up bottl and finished the entire bottle by the end of the day), put me off school entirely.

    I’m almost completely self-educated. Ironically, I love learning, and I’m a pretty good teacher (I volunteer teach).

  48. Meems and Eucritta,

    So glad I’m not the only one.


    Why is Dawkins obliged to be “nice” to people he thinks are wrong.

    I hadn’t noticed that he wasn’t nice. I just think he’s an ass.

  49. A little late here, but I was thinking I should share my happy male professor story.

    Before my first two babies were born, I had finished the coursework for a master’s in computer science, but had not done my thesis project or taken my comprehensive exams. By the time they were a year old, I told my department head that I thought perhaps I should just drop out of the program. I didn’t (and don’t) think I’ll ever go back to full-time job hunting where it will help my resume, and I was beginning to despair that I’d ever get it done in the required time.

    He told me that he’d always regretted letting a former female student in a similar position give up and quit, that he wasn’t about to see me do so, and that he’d help me work out the necessary schedule and policy exemptions to get it done. More importantly, he gave me the encouragement I needed to stick it out the rest of the way — not just for myself, but to be an example for the next new mother or female student who was ready to drop out.

    I graduated in May.

  50. My eighth grade math teacher was ferociously difficult, but amazing. She taught Regents’ (honors for NY state) algebra. This older lady with a glare that could peel varnish if you set foot out of line, a knack for explaining, and no patience with shenanigans. When we went to the Regents’ exams at the end of the year, every student finished in the minimum time (90 minutes – it’s a 3 hour test), and 22 of the 25 of us had 100%. The low score was a 95.

    Possibly the proudest moment of my school career was when she recommended that I be accelerated another half-year in math. If Mrs. Philbin thought I was good at math, I must be good at math.

  51. I’m sad to hear about the bad math teacher you had. As someone with a bad case of ‘the maths’, it’s always painful to hear about bad math teachers discouraging students. Most people I’ve talked to who don’t like math can trace it back to a single bad teacher which ruined the subject for them such that they never caught up or returned.

    Funny story though, my high school calculus teacher would always tell us stories about how her calculus professor hated women in math and continually discouraged her, but it just egged her on. She ended up at the top of her class. The sad irony is that she ended up having a permanent grudge against her male students.

    On a side note, aren’t politicians, mayors, and the like traditionally ridiculed for their stereotypical obesity (along with the corporate ‘fat cats’)? Just look at all the political cartoons from the turn of the 20th century.

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