Political Seismology

Eric Cantor’s Loss Was Like an Earthquake

Everybody is talking how it was big and far-reaching surprise, but here Nate Silver has something more subtle in mind: The statistics of Republican primary results look a lot like those of earthquakes, and he presents the graphs to show it. Major primary upsets, like serious earthquakes, are rare but they do happen. Furthermore, they are fundamentally random and unpredictable.

I’d expect few people to react in this way. The tea party versus establishment storyline is a great storyline for the news media. It’s a great storyline for Democrats. It’s a great story line for the tea party. It’s a terrible story line for the Republican establishment — but they may be scared. Unlike earthquakes, which don’t give a rip about how we react to them, politicians do. So there may be a number of aftershocks, even if they’re man-made.

This need to find a “storyline” to “explain” a sequence of events which may be partially or completely random is what Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in The Black Swan, calls the “narrative fallacy:”

The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.

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