News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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November 19, 2012

STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: Maybe Nate Silver can explain Ritz’s victory

INDIANAPOLIS — Political forecaster Nate Silver is a rock star in the world of statistical analysis, having earned well-deserved celebrity for his nearly spot-on predictions of how voters in each state would cast their ballots in the 2008 and 2012 presidential and Senate races.

In his new book, “The Signal and the Noise,” he dives into the world of prediction to explain how to distinguish true signals in an atmosphere filled with noisy data. He writes about the poor understanding most of us have about probability and uncertainty, and most strikingly, about how easy it is to mistake more confident predictions for more accurate ones.

That leads Silver to write about the “prediction paradox”: A counter-intuitive notion that says the more humility we have about our ability to make predictions, the better job we’ll do in forecasting the future.

Silver’s prescription for humility struck a deep chord with me this past week as I worked my way through scores of emails prompted by last column. In that column, I recapped the startlingly dismissive response from Republican leaders in the Statehouse to the surprise victory of Democrat Glenda Ritz in the race for state schools superintendent.

Her upset win over incumbent Tony Bennett caught them — and many of us in the media off-guard. So I asked for column readers who voted for Ritz — especially Republican voters — to help me understand why they cast their vote the way they did.

I’m still making my way through the responses — including from a Parke County school board member — and more are coming in each day, but I wanted to share a glimpse of them here (and will share more in columns to come.) Many were detailed in response, for which I’m grateful: It will help me in coming weeks and months as I report on the education overhaul occurring in Indiana.

There were common themes: Concerns about how private-school vouchers were siphoning money from public schools, widespread scorn for the hard-to-understand A-to-F grades handed out to schools, fears about the fast-and-furious pace of high-stakes testing, and real anger about how teachers and administrators had been treated with what was seen as contempt.

I received a significant number of emails from people who described themselves as stalwart Republicans — people who’d rather eat dirt than vote for a Democrat, but were more than happy to vote for Ritz, a longtime Republican schoolteacher who switched parties to take on Bennett.

Here’s an excerpt from an email from Wilma Wooten, a self-described registered Republican from Parke County, with words that I heard echoed again and again that were directed to GOP Gov.-elect Mike Pence and the Republicans who control the legislature.

“I am a retired public school teacher, current school board member, and now work part-time as a local coordinator in adult education. I voted for Ritz as a way to retire Bennett and slow down the intensity and pace of educational reform in Indiana and to ensure that the reforms are working to the benefit of students and public education,” she wrote. “I voted for Pence to maintain fiscal sanity in Indiana — NOT as an affirmation of all the educational reforms.”

More to come in future columns.

Maureen Hayden is the Indiana Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI, the parent company of the Tribune-Star. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

 

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