Nate Silver, celebrated statistician and renowned polling expert was at this week’s Edinburgh International Book Festival talking data analysis and the likely outcome of next year’s referendum on Scottish independence.
In his view, there is “virtually no chance” of the ‘Yes’ campaign winning. Taking the average of opinion polls to date shows that support for independence is sticking at approximately a third…with up to two thirds supporting the Union. But September 2014 remains some time away so something landscape-changing, ”a major crisis” south of the border could still alter this picture. But it would have to be something of the order of the eurozone splitting apart, with a major knock-on effect on the UK economy. This might warrant a little reconsideration of matters but Nate insisists that ”For the most part it looks like a question of how much the ‘No’ side will win by, not what the outcome will be”. He told The Scotsman that “Historically, in any Yes or No vote in a referendum, it’s actually the No side that tends to grow over time, people tend not to default to changing the status quo” and..”The No side is even more dominant with the younger voters, so there’s not going to be any generational thing going on.”.
Talking to festival attendees on the wider matter of politics and age demographics, he was critical of traditional forms of political journalism given data is so much more widely available now. The publicly available data he uses is “… often more reliable than insider information and gossip, because that’s often what information is – gossip, that’s given to you by someone who might have an incentive to spin you or is too close to the process”. He said that “people who read political news tend to be older, maybe 55 or 60″ and referring to his blog readers whose “demographic was younger, very online-centric” he said that “they want the score, the bottom line. They don’t care about the gossip as much”.
Those comments raise interesting questions about a possible generational difference in the public understanding of statistics and how important a factor statistical literacy for any of us in deciding which way to vote.
The minimum voting age for the Scottish referendum will be 16 rather than 18. Given younger people the right to vote has been questioned – will under 18s really be well-informed enough to make a choice?. Well, a team at Edinburgh University (Paterson, Macinnes, Rosie and Eichhorn), have very recently undertaken an ESRC-funded survey of 14-17 year olds’ attitudes towards Scottish independence with what some may think of as very unexpected results. In responding to ‘The Future of Scotland: attitudes of 14-17 year olds on the Scottish independence referendum‘ , just over 20% of respondents said that they supported independence, 60% disapproved and just under 20% were undecided. In brief, young people have a considerably lower level of support for independence than that voiced by adults in any recent poll.
So young people are independently-minded, keen to vote and to get to to the facts – Nate Silver’s “bottom line” - before casting their vote. The same survey told us that 68% of respondents said that they wanted more information first and it’s very clear that they won’t get far in their quest for more information without looking at relevant data. In other words, their levels of statistical literacy will be an important factor in their decision making.