On Wednesday I spoke with self-described ‘pollster geek’ Professor Simon Jackman. A visiting professor at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre, Simon has pioneered a more scientific approach to studying politics and will be speaking about the 'data revolution' and his work as a political scientist at this year's TEDxSydney.
Professor Simon Jackman had a very musical childhood. Taught piano by his parents at their Queensland home, his dream “was to play the piano at the Sydney Opera House”. He’ll live out half of that dream next Saturday at TEDxSydney in front of a packed Opera House, replacing piano melodies with a talk on the scientific study of politics and its importance for modern democracies.
Currently serving as a principal investigator for American National Election Studies – the world’s longest-running and most authoritative survey-based study of political behaviour and attitudes – Simon's pioneering use of poll averaging methods saw him perfectly predict the 2012 United States election outcome in each state. This, he says, is evidence that “politics isn't a black box beyond the realm of scientific understanding. It does have empirical regularities that can be discovered”.
He thinks that this field of political science has advanced dramatically in recent years because of a 'data revolution', where new technologies have been utilised to gather greater quantities, and a broader range, of information, and social attitudes have changed in a way which has “turned the analytical spotlight back on politics, the economy and social policy”.
Simon recalls that becoming a political scientist has its roots in his childhood. “I remember being so enthralled by the state and federal parliaments as a kid – that people go to these institutions and decide the future of the country,” he says.
“I was always a bit of a stats nerd which came out in many weird ways when I was a kid, like running surveys of my classmates or collecting a huge bunch of cricket statistics and graphing them,” he laughs. “But it wasn't until I got to university that I discovered that those two worlds did intersect – that there was this field called political science which used statistical and mathematical methods to analyse politics.”
Why does Simon feel this is this so important? In short, because it is healthy for modern democracies. “Do we want these insights to be solely something that the market research community or the national security apparatus has,” he says, “or is it something that we, as social scientists and students of politics invested in the cause of a better democracy, want to make available for ourselves?”
Simon's time spent as a visiting professor at the US Studies Centre has allowed him to “to sit back in my home country and better understand what's happening in the US from an external perspective,” where he can “zoom out and think about what's relevant and why ordinary people should take seriously what motivates us scholars every day.”
“That's important for every researcher – to have that moment of realisation.”
Catch Professor Simon Jackman speaking about his statistical methods and the future of political science – perhaps with a grand piano encore – on 4 May at this year’s TEDxSydney.