Divining The Meaning Of Elections Is A Mug’s Game

What does the Griffith by-election mean? What is its deeper, broader significance for the trajectory of the Abbott Government, and, through it, Australian politics?

In Fairfax papers, Peter Hartcher said Labor’s win suggests “the people are reserving their judgment on Tony Abbott’s government”. The victor, Terri Butler, thinks, “We’ve said to Tony Abbott: hands off Medicare.” Tony Abbott believes it’s “a poor result for Bill Shorten”. A Labor pollster reckons, “The by-election showed Labor too has some way to go to build trust with many in the electorate.”

Of course none of them have any idea what the Griffith result means. Politics is all about converting ignorance into popularity.

There are two theories about what drives a by-election result. The first, and most appealing, is the referendum theory. This says that a by-election reflects the electorate’s satisfaction or dissatisfaction with a government. Polls are necessarily hypothetical – they can only ask people how they might vote. By-elections are definitive.

The second theory is that a by-election is all about local candidates. In the off-election season (and assuming the by-election won’t topple the government), voters are free to think more about the personality of individual politicians. Without the national significance, voters are more interested in local issues.

But in an important way, it doesn’t matter which theory is most true. What matters is which theory the political class believes.

Pundits like the referendum theory because it makes by-elections more significant; more worthy of their scrutiny. Losers like the local candidate theory because it’s all about creating exceptions to national trends – “that by-election was unique because the candidate had a strong local profile, well-known in their community…” etc, etc, etc.

Of course, much of the nonsense of Australian politics is self-interested nonsense. But the desire to impose narrative on disparate and complex events isn’t just driven by the political necessity to spin in their favour.

We have an innate human desire to create order where there is disorder – to create meaning from the muddle of history.

The question at the front of this column – what does the Griffith result mean? – is an example of exactly that. Commentators who try to answer it aren’t just filling word counts and news pages, but are trying to make the world intelligible.

Too bad that meaning-seeking is utterly futile. At best it lulls us into a false sense of security that we understand more than we do. At worst it’s a confidence trick.

Philip Tetlock influentially argued in his 2005 book Expert Political Judgment that political experts – pundits, pollsters, analysts, consultants – are no better at making predictions than the general public.

Tetlock found that while a little knowledge about a subject can help us improve our predictions about political events, having a great deal of knowledge is actually counterproductive.

When the book was published, most people focused on why it was so hard to get experts to make bets – that is, put money on the line – to back their predictions up.

But what was more important, and more interesting, was why experts are incredibly bad at predictions. It’s that our social system is far too complex to even read, let alone understand well enough to forecast its future. The most learned expert can grasp only a few small elements of a political order.

When it comes to understanding infinitely complex systems, learning doesn’t create authority, it creates overconfidence.

Far from being harmless, our demand for narrative and meaning in politics creates heroes where there are none.

The political class builds up elaborate mythologies about great election campaigns and great election strategists to explain the twists and turns of political fortune. There are giants of Australian politics who can read the “mood” of the electorate, who have a unique vision into what the battlers or working families want.

But these giants are more like soothsayers than scientists. Statistical chance is just as plausible an explanation for short term political change.

There’s a parallel here with financial markets. Eugene Fama won the economics Nobel last year for his bubble-bursting empirical work on the efficient market hypothesis, which suggests most success in the share market is determined by random chance.

Every fund manager claims to consistently beat the market. Yet statistically speaking, somebody has to be Warren Buffett, and somebody has to be Gil Gunderson. It’s the same in politics.

Hopefully Terri Butler doesn’t actually believe Griffith was a referendum on Medicare. Hopefully Peter Hartcher doesn’t believe the by-election can reveal anything deep about the aggregated opinions of the Australian electorate with any degree of certainty.

Hopefully they realise the game that they are playing: trying to impart meaning on events no person can possibly understand.