Saturday, September 6, 2008

On (In)experience

I have trouble watching political conventions of any stripe: all that liquid rhetoric, undiluted by facts or moderation or healthy pessimism, makes me feel like I would after a night spent pounding Stoli straight. That is to say: nauseous, headachy, convinced the world is en endless, friendless desert of despair.

Still, politics isn't all bad. As with alcohol, the difference between buzzed and wretched lies in quantity of intake. I partake judiciously, reading the papers, listening to the news, absorbing the speechifying at one remove. My goal is to be part of the party without waking up covered in gubernatorial puke.

So to speak.

(My God, can anyone think of anything worse than waking up with your panties around your ankles and Sarah Palin in your arms? Maybe nuclear apocalypse. Or celery.)

(Wow, I can tell this is going to be one of those posts that illuminates why I don't really publicize this blog.)

(I hereby issue an apology to the sensible, moderate, couth portion of my readership. All 1.5 of you.)

What I really want to talk about, though, is something about which I've been hearing a great deal from my once-removed listening post. In fact, if I hear the word one more time, that particular portion of my cochlea which responds to its frequencies may die from overuse. The word is experience. (ARG MY EARS.) Experience: who has it, who doesn't, and what that means in terms of fitness for elected office.

Over and over again, I hear that Barack Obama has too little experience, that Sarah Palin has too little experience. Experience as a variable -something quantifiable, something with differing values- is underpinning quite a bit of the political discourse this year, which is why I'm especially irritated that no one seems to be obeying that classic commandment of experimental science, Know Thy Variable.

Is experience a dichotomous variable (i.e., you either have it or you don't)? Or is it a continuous variable (i.e., it can have a variety of different values)? If it is continuous, is it an ordinal scale (i.e., some values are greater than others, but the distances between levels of experience may not be equal)? An interval scale (equal distance between points)? A ratio scale (interval with absolute zero)?

Say we're talking ratio measurement, and you plot experience is equal intervals of years starting from absolute zero. Now the question becomes, what is the relationship of our nice little ratio variable here to the putative dependent variable (also distressingly ill-defined) of fitness for presidential office? Political commentators seem to be assuming the relationship is a kind of perfect 1-to-1: if we graphed it, we'd get a nice straight line moving at a 45-degree angle from the horizontal out into infinity.

Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe you start out 1-to-1, then start going down to 1-to-.5, or 1-to-.3, until your gains fizzle into asymptotic ignominy. Maybe the truth is parabolic: more experience is good, until you hit some number of years and plunge earthward. Maybe your graph has stair-steps, or multiple maximums, or resembles a mathematical function as designed by Jackson Pollock. Who knows? There is a small body of research on the relationship between experience and expertise, and much of that research suggests something other than a 1-to-1 correspondence. But you wouldn't know it from listening to the talking heads.

Sometimes I wish someone would pay me to sit around and blow the whistle on sloppy science in popular culture. I could wear a little red suit, and have a big shiny whistle, and carry a big sign that said Don't Play with Data: You'll Get Burned. Ooo! Please? Currently accepting donations.

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