The XX Factor

Sarah Palin, Victim of Statistics

In recent months, the political world’s discussion of Sarah Palin’s power as an endorser-with wins by Palin-backed candidates considered proof of her power , and losses as evidence of her diminishing mystique -has brought to my mind Leonard Mlodinow. Mlodinow is not some primary candidate who somehow escaped your notice; he’s the physicist and author whose 2008 book The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives puts the notion of Palin Power in perspective.

The Drunkard’s Walk chronicles how human beings repeatedly fail to trace the power of randomness in their lives. They look for patterns; they look for cause and effect. They look backward and they see “the illusion of inevitability,” as opposed to considering the totality of events, which always include chance. Mlodinow writes about how we become convinced that, for example, certain movie execs have the golden touch or have lost their predictive powers, when in fact, all other things being equal, a string of box office successes or flops are possible based on statistical probability alone. That’s not to say that there’s no such thing as being good at one’s job; just that the success of a studio’s output in any given year is in considerable part out of the control of even the most micromanaging of bosses. In politics, I would argue, this is akin to attributing the results of an election to one key figure or one decisive moment, like the Howard Dean scream.

Mlodinow writes: “In the political world, the economic world, the business world-even when careers and millions of dollars are at stake-chance events are often conspicuously misinterpreted as accomplishments or failures.” But it’s quite difficult for even the experts to “know in advance whether a film will hit or miss,” because-and here Mlodinow paraphrases novelist and screenwriter William Goldman-the reasons for box office performance are so complex “and the path from green light to opening weekend so vulnerable to unforeseeable and uncontrollable influences that educated guesses about an unmade film’s potential aren’t much better than flips of a coin.”

The instant mythologizing that takes place in the aftermath of elections proves true the old adage about history being written by the winners. In truth we don’t know how much power Palin’s endorsement counts for in any given race, but we do know that if an election is determined by just a few votes-as Alaska’s Republican Senate primary between Sen. Lisa Murkoswki and Palin-backed Joe Miller* likely will be-the ultimate victory by either candidate is likely to be so thin (not to mention that Palin’s involvement in the race was so minor) that it shouldn’t be taken as a verdict on whether Palin’s influence is waxing or waning.

*Correction, Aug. 26, 2010: This blog post originally and incorrectly stated that the Palin-backed Senate candidate’s name is Bill Miller. His name is Joe Miller.

Photograph of Sarah Palin by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.