Small sample sizes, global poverty, basketball and the Golden State Warriors, legalizing drugs, herd behavior in the media, and media as cheerleaders.

Recently, Tyler Cowen interviewed Nate Silver of five in front on audience at the Mercatus Center. Here are some highlights I found particularly interesting, along with my comments.

On the problem with small sample sizes:

It [the Trump phenomenon] just made me consider that a lot of assumptions a lot of people made about how American politics work are really based on a relatively narrow slice of history, post-World War II through 2000 or so, maybe even briefer, 1980 through 2000. It’s not really a lot of history.


With that said, for one thing, we’re dealing with a fairly small sample of relevant elections. People look at, in the primaries, going back to 1972. One very basic lesson is that when you have a sample size, let’s say it’s roughly 15, there’s nothing you can do to make it not a sample size of 15.

No matter how compelling you can make your rationalization to say, “Well but, you know, we have theory as well as empirics here,” still, 15 cases is 15 cases. I think maybe making people more cautious about saying “Unlikely” versus “Never.” Now, the record will show we said “Unlikely” and not “Never,” but still it’s a lot of things to think about.

The world is getting better:

There is a lot of wonderful news in the world in terms of poverty rates going down globally, income inequality going down, diseases being eradicated, but I wondered, to some extent, how much the media culture tends to focus a lens on negative aspects of society, lower people’s happiness level, and all this type of stuff.

On basketball and the Golden State Warriors:

The Golden State Warriors might be one of the best examples, where —

Unfortunately, Tyler cuts him off. But read the linked article by Kirk Goldsberry.

My comment: I find it quite striking how hostile so many in the sports media are to Steph Curry and the Warriors: from Galen Rose’s dismissiveness and even rooting for other teams to beat them to Charles Barkley’s claim that all Steph is good at is shooting (which led to Kevin Durant’s classic reply “I don’t think Charley Barkley watches basketball.”)

I would have loved to hear what Nate had to say about the Warriors. Would it have been simply rehashing Goldsberry’s excellent article or would he have pointed out that one undermentioned fact about the Warriors is that they play team basketball?

Asked whether legalizing drugs is overrated or underrated:

By this crowd, probably rated properly.

I mean, I don’t know. I’m enough of a lowercase L libertarian where I think that the government ought to have a stronger reason to intervene in choices that people are making instead of a lesser reason, necessarily.

To me, it clearly makes no sense to treat marijuana as being a more serious substance than alcohol, for example. I don’t think, in my heart of hearts, if I were running for office or in the Senate or something, that I would vote for a bill to legalize heroin or cocaine, but decriminalizing it, perhaps.

But I don’t know. I think the consequentialist case, for a long time, probably underrated and may have gone a little bit too far in the other direction. But again, I would say if it’s close, then you give people the choice.


But look, it’s the case where, unlike drug legalization – where there are not a lot of countries where drugs apart from marijuana are even there fairly rarely – worldwide, people are much more relaxed about gambling, and it’s normalized.

Notice that he’s a little nervous about legalizing drugs beyond marijuana because so few countries have had experiences with legalizing drugs beyond marijuana. But this argues for going beyond his small sample size–countries at this point in time–and looking at countries a little over 100 years ago. Prime candidate: the United States where marijuana, heroin, opium, and cocaine were legal. He needs to remember his earlier point about sample sizes.

On herd behavior in the media:

the political press corps literally is kind of a herd. It’s the perfect example of it. You have a few hundred journalists who travel around together, who are all reading one another on Twitter, who are all talking to one another.

It’s not 500 really smart people. It’s one or two really smart people, and 489 followers instead.

On the media as a participant rather than an umpire:

But I think having that skepticism and seeing the media as a political actor instead of a benevolent umpire is to a first approximation the right way to do things

I saw this up close when I was sitting at an American Economics Association annual meeting in Boston (circa 1994) with my then-friend Sylvia Nasar, who was covering a confrontation between Robert Solow and Robert Barro. We saw the same thing but what she wrote the next day in the New York Times, though correct, left out so many important details that it was as if we hadn’t been watching the same thing.