[Q:] As a professor of economics at Yale, you are known for creating an econometric equation that has predicted presidential elections with relative accuracy.
[A:] My latest prediction shows that Bush will receive 57.5 percent of the two-party votes. . . .
[Q:] Why should we trust your equation, which seems unusually reductive?
[A:] It has done well historically. The average mistake of the equation is about 2.5 percentage points.
[Q:] In your book "Predicting Presidential Elections and Other Things," you claim that economic growth and inflation are the only variables that matter in a presidential race. Are you saying that the war in Iraq will have no influence on the election?
[A:] Historically, issues like war haven't swamped the economics. If the equation is correctly specified, then the chances that Bush loses are very small.
[Q:] But the country hasn't been this polarized since the 60's, and voters seem genuinely engaged by social issues like gay marriage and the overall question of a more just society.
[A:] We throw all those into what we call the error term. In the past, all that stuff that you think should count averages about 2.5 percent, and that is pretty small.
[Q:] It saddens me that you teach this to students at Yale, who could be thinking about society in complex and meaningful ways. . . .
It saddens a New York Times interviewer that an economics professor is teaching students about what he thinks is a sound scientific theory. Not that the professor is wrong, if he is (which would indeed be cause for sadness). Not that voters are so focused on certain matters that their behavior is so predictable (which some might approve of and some disapprove of). She's sad that the professor is teaching students about such behavior. Funny, I thought that understanding facts (if they are facts) about human behavior is a meaningful addition to one's thinking about society, even if they are facts that New York Times reporters don't much like.
Of course, this also misses the fact that each class in a university is supposed to focus on a particular subject, not deal with society in all its complexity and depth of meaning. Doubtless students learn about lots of other aspects of society in other classes, which may intentionally omit econometrics and focus on other matters. Adding an econometric analysis into the mix gives students a more complex and meaningful picture of society than would be the case if one excluded this analysis.
Oh, and here's something from later in the interview:
[Q:] Are you a Republican?
[A:] [Arch game theory humor omitted. -EV]
[Q:] I don't want to do game theory. I just want to know if you are a Kerry supporter.
[A:] Backing away from game theory, which is kind of cute, I am a Kerry supporter.
[Q:] I believe you entirely, although I'm a little surprised, because your predictions implicitly lend support to Bush.
[A:] I am not attempting to be an advocate for one party or another. I am attempting to be a social scientist trying to explain voting behavior.
[Q:] But in the process you are shaping opinion. Predictions can be self-confirming, because wishy-washy voters might go with the candidate who is perceived to be more successful. . . .
Maybe the journalist is just trying to be provocative here, and the questions don't reveal her own thinking. Still, it seems a bit odd that the questions (1) express surprise that a scholar who is trying to describe the world would reveal (not just in political editorials, but in his scholarship or in his teaching) a truth that he himself finds politically unwelcome, and (2) implicitly criticize the scholar for expressing this truth (since this truth may, heaven forbid, influence people to vote in a way that he dislikes).
UPDATE: Reader Jack Sullivan writes: "If you read Solomon's interviews at the front of the magazine on a regular basis, you'll notice that the questions tend to be fairly jokey (think Jon Stewart or David Letterman type ironic attitude). Certainly not much cause for hand wringing." If this is so — and I don't read those interviews — then I would indeed be much less troubled by the interview.