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September 14, 2007


I've been biting my tongue on Mark Penn's new book Microtrends, as In These Times had asked me to review it for them. Today, the review went live, which is a relief. In short: The book is utterly fascinating. Not for how good it is, but for how bad. And not bad in that I disagree with it . Bad in that it is, methodologically, almost astonishingly sloppy. If this is how Mark Penn normally evaluates data, his clients are in real trouble.

I first flipped through Microtrends while at the YearlyKos convention, and Penn, astonishingly, seemed to comprehend the importance of the loosely connected, grassroots-driven, progressive movement’s flowering. “I suspect the lefty boom will bring a surge in the promotion of sheer creative energy,” Penn writes, “driven by an idea that is at the heart of this book—that small groups of people, sharing common experiences, can increasingly be drawn together to rally for their interests.” I was shocked—Penn was speaking admirably of “lefties,” not trying to recast them as moderates, not trying to write them out of the party? He was endorsing open-source politics, rather than a top-down structure? I had misjudged the man!

I read on. Penn was talking about actual lefties—people who are born left-handed. Increasingly grim, I absorbed the first hard blows of Penn’s interpretative technique: “More lefties,” he enthuses, “could mean more military innovation: Famous military leaders from Charlemagne to Alexander the Great to Julius Caesar to Napoleon—as well as Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf—were left-handed.” He uses the same thunderingly awful logic to argue that we’ll see more art and music greats, more famous criminals, more great comedians, more “executive greatness,” and better tennis and basketball players.

This is what statisticians—or anyone who has taken a statistics class—call a “correlation/causation error.” It is not enough to cherrypick a couple famed military leaders, notice that they’re lefties and assume that something intrinsic to their handedness caused their tactical genius. It is not enough to say that past cultures discouraged left-handedness and use that as a stand-in for discouraging creativity of all sorts. To say that Bill Gates is right-handed does not suggest that a greater proportion of right-handed people would mean more Bill Gateses. For a professional pollster to imply that correlation equals causation is like a firefighter trying to put out flames by tossing a toaster into the blaze—it bespeaks a complete unfamiliarity with the relevant techniques.

Read on...

September 14, 2007 | Permalink


It seems to me that Penn's problem in the lefty thing isn't confusing correlation and causation. He never even gets to correlation; rather, his problem is taking a short series of anecdotes as a data set.

Posted by: Julian Elson | Sep 14, 2007 12:44:04 PM

He's got a bright future as a columnist at the New York Times, then. Perhaps a luxurious mustache is in order?

Posted by: Demosthenes | Sep 14, 2007 12:45:04 PM

ezra, can you take a look at this:


We need to refute every single one of these hack pieces by the anti-health care types.

Posted by: thanks | Sep 14, 2007 12:46:10 PM

Wow. That's a seriously brilliant takedown, approaching Taibbi-like heights in its best moments.


Posted by: DivGuy | Sep 14, 2007 12:53:28 PM

A quibble:

Pollsters occupy a uniquely powerful space in American political discourse: They bring science to elections. Armed with heaps of raw data...

Shouldn't "science" be in quotes there?

Posted by: Midwest Product | Sep 14, 2007 12:57:36 PM

It's sad when right-handed people display their envy so obviously.

Sigh. It's one of the many burdens we bear.

Posted by: Stephen | Sep 14, 2007 1:01:29 PM

Ouch. Thanks for the review.

Posted by: JewishAtheist | Sep 14, 2007 1:27:32 PM

Loved it! A delightful defenestration! I laughed out loud!

This is the best evidence yet that it is imperative to stop Hillary, now. At this point, her nomination seems so nearly inevitable that I've been trying to look at the bright side, desperately attempting to focus on the things I like at about the woman (as a person, I think she is remarkable, and I admire her in many ways. But that's as a person, *not* as a political leader).

Ezra, I have a question for you -- do you think Hillary has actually fallen for Penn's bullshit? I mean, there are quite a lot of negative things I could say about Hillary, but one thing I'd never call her is stupid. And I'd think that to get as far as she has, she'd have to have a pretty good bullshit detector (one of the essential qualities for any politician).

So can she actually be that big of a nitwit that she believes in this crap? Or is there something more cynical, and more sinister, in the Penn/Hillary alliance -- does he have an overwhelming Svengali-like personal charisma? Or is he so politically powerful among the movers and shakers, and the various asses Hillary must kiss in order to be president, that Hillary thinks she has no choice but to pair up with him?

If you have any insights on this, please enlighten us -- I really am curious.

Posted by: Kathy G. | Sep 14, 2007 1:38:48 PM

I think I can quibble with something which is even more minute than Midwest Product's quibble about "science" in quotes. Here it goes:

Shouldn't "grasshopper" be capitalized in "Chew on that, grasshopper"? After all, it's a reference to Kung Fu, where the Master uses "Grasshopper" as a proper-noun-like name.

There. Now that is a friggin' quibble!

Posted by: collin | Sep 14, 2007 1:58:12 PM

That's harsh ... I'm sure Penn would unplug the toaster before tossing it in, since everyone knowns you can't burn something with an unplugged toaster.

Posted by: BruceMcF | Sep 14, 2007 2:18:14 PM

In Penn's defense, left-handed people really are better.

Posted by: SDM | Sep 14, 2007 2:30:46 PM

Collin, "grasshopper" would be capitalized if it were a nickname, but as a form of address there's no more reason to capitalize it than to capitalize "sir", "son", "man", or "idiot" in a similar context.

Posted by: KCinDC | Sep 14, 2007 2:34:14 PM

Brilliant stuff (the takedown, not Penn's book.). Although Penn's book does sound like it attains a brilliant level of godawful stupid.

I especially like this bit you quoted:

“ten people with bazookas can overcome 1,000 people with picket signs, but they can’t overcome 10,000 people with picket signs.”

1000 people with picket signs could EASILY overcome 10 people with bazookas. Hell, maybe even just a hundred could do it. Is Penn familiar with what a bazooka is? If you're being swarmed and viciously beaten with picket signs, and your weapon of choice is a bazooka, the only way you're going to hurt your enemies is by shooting at the ground right in front of you, which will... blow you up.

Hell, even if these ten extremely belligerent anti-demonstration people had actual short range weapons, like pistols or shotguns, I'd still bet on the hippies.

Posted by: LittleMac | Sep 14, 2007 3:54:37 PM

Can this book really be this bad? I simply can't believe that this is the type of work Penn would do for Hillary Clinton.

Posted by: Korha | Sep 14, 2007 5:38:26 PM

Ezra: Bravo.

Posted by: hilzoy | Sep 14, 2007 6:21:36 PM

Can someone check in on Mark Penn? I'm worried about him. What if he forgets to breathe? What if he observes that he spends 10% of the time not breathing, and concludes that this trend means he doesn't have to breathe at all?

Posted by: George Tenet Fangirl | Sep 14, 2007 7:29:29 PM

Kathy G.:
I don't know about Hillary and her BS detector. She obviously believed the Decider re: Iraq.

Posted by: Joe Klein's conscience | Sep 14, 2007 11:53:04 PM

"Hell, even if these ten extremely belligerent anti-demonstration people had actual short range weapons, like pistols or shotguns, I'd still bet on the hippies."

Naw. Ten guys with guns and a lot of ammo could probably overcome an infinite amount of picket sign carrying hippies. Who's going to stop them? This isn't some sort of suicide army, no doubt at the first couple gunshots everyone would be running away.

Both you and Penn are wrong. Ten guys with bazookas could overcome 10,000 hippie protesters, so as long as they had the ammo.

Posted by: Korha | Sep 15, 2007 12:40:39 AM

She obviously believed the Decider re: Iraq.

Did she? Or was her vote simply a cynical attempt to demonstrate that she was "strong on national security"?

Posted by: Johnny Pez | Sep 16, 2007 4:10:53 AM

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