The weather’s on steroids. Perhaps historians will look back at the storm that ravaged the Caribbean and north-east America and mark it as the event that ended the complacency in the United States about global warming. Certainly there are signs of a change in attitudes with the business publication Bloomberg Businessweek being an example.

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Yes, yes, it’s unsophisticated to blame any given storm on climate change. Men and women in white lab coats tell us — and they’re right — that many factors contribute to each severe weather episode. Climate deniers exploit scientific complexity to avoid any discussion at all.

Clarity, however, is not beyond reach. Hurricane Sandy demands it: At least 40 U.S. deaths. Economic losses expected to climb as high as $50 billion. Eight million homes without power. Hundreds of thousands of people evacuated. More than 15,000 flights grounded. Factories, stores, and hospitals shut. Lower Manhattan dark, silent, and underwater.

An unscientific survey of the social networking literature on Sandy reveals an illuminating tweet (you read that correctly) from Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. On Oct. 29, Foley thumbed thusly: “Would this kind of storm happen without climate change? Yes. Fueled by many factors. Is storm stronger because of climate change? Yes.” Eric Pooley, senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund (and former deputy editor of Bloomberg Businessweek), offers a baseball analogy: “We can’t say that steroids caused any one home run by Barry Bonds, but steroids sure helped him hit more and hit them farther. Now we have weather on steroids.”

One for the polling buffs. The Washington Post‘s Wonkbook refers us this morning to a paper by Microsoft’s David Rothschild and University of Michigan’s Justin Wolfers suggesting that poll watchers should pay more attention to who people think will win an election than who they intend to vote for. Their Forecasting Elections:Voter Intentions versus Expectations explores the value of what they call “an underutilized” political polling question: who do you think will win the upcoming election?

We demonstrate that this expectation question points to the winning candidate more often than the standard political polling question of voter intention: if the election were held today, who would you vote for? Further, the results of the expectation question translate into more accurate forecasts of the vote share and probability of victory than the ubiquitous intent question.

This result holds, even if we generate forecasts with the expectations of only Democratic voters or only Republican voters and compare those forecasts to forecasts created with the full sample of intentions. Our structural interpretation of the expectation question shows that every response is equivalent to a multi-person poll of intention; the power of the response is that it provides information about the respondent’s intent, as well as the intent of her friends and family.

A Gallup test. Next week’s election will provide an interesting test for those academic findings. The Gallup poll has Mitt Romney leading Barack Obama on the traditional voting intention question among likely voters by 51% to 46%. Yet a majority of Americans continue to believe that Obama will win re-election over Romney, by 54% to 34%.

The pollster comments that Americans have a good track record regarding their collective prediction of the outcome of presidential elections, correctly predicting the winner of the popular vote in final Gallup surveys taken in 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008.

Although Americans are not as optimistic on Obama’s odds as various “prediction markets,” such as, where the president has often been projected as having a probability of winning of more than 60%, the prediction markets and the American public in general find Obama the favorite against Romney. The 2012 presidential election outcome will help determine how accurate Americans are in their personal predictions.

News and views  noted along the way.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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