Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Nate Silver Riles Up the Base. (That would be pundits who read him.)

(Updated below)

Nate Silver has a new FiveThirtyEight. Uh oh.

I like Nate Silver, and I haven't minded his quiet arrogance because so far it's been well earned. His newly rejuvenated FiveThirtyEight blog is, however, angering people on both sides of the debates, for what I consider odd reasons. I do admire, however, those posting the complaints.

Here's a fan of Nate's, Paul Krugman:
What worries me, based on what we’ve seen so far — which isn’t much, but shouldn’t the site have debuted with a bang? — is that it looks as if the Silverites have misunderstood their mission.
Nate’s manifesto proclaims his intention to be a fox, who knows many things, rather than a hedgehog, who knows just one big thing; i.e., a pundit who repeats the same assertions in every column. I’m fine with that.
But you can’t be an effective fox just by letting the data speak for itself — because it never does. You use data to inform your analysis, you let it tell you that your pet hypothesis is wrong, but data are never a substitute for hard thinking. If you think the data are speaking for themselves, what you’re really doing is implicit theorizing, which is a really bad idea (because you can’t test your assumptions if you don’t even know what you’re assuming.)
Okay. Next, we've got a literary writer at New Republic, as reported by TPM:
Silver's venture relaunched on Monday under a fox logo -- an allusion to Greek poet Archilochus' saying “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” If Silver is the fox, he considers the opinion columnists he loathes to be the hedgehogs, and FiveThirtyEight to be the antidote to the chattering class' blathering.
"Plenty of pundits have really high IQs, but they don’t have any discipline in how they look at the world, and so it leads to a lot of bullshit, basically," he told New York Magazine.
Wieseltier blasted Silver for that "slander," arguing the data guru has more of the hedgehog in him than he'd ever admit.
"The new technology, which produces numbers the way plants produce oxygen, has inspired a new positivism, and he is one of its princes. He dignifies only facts," he wrote. "He honors only investigative journalism, explanatory journalism, and data journalism. He does not take a side, except the side of no side. He does not recognize the calling of, or grasp the need for, public reason; or rather, he cannot conceive of public reason except as an exercise in statistical analysis and data visualization. He is the hedgehog who knows only one big thing. And his thing may not be as big as he thinks it is."
Okay. Finally, Ryan Cooper, whose work I've liked at Washington Monthly, wrote about FiveThirtyEight at The Week:
Here's where we find Silver's ideological commitment, I think: contrarianism. Note how he hates opinion columnists in part because they aren't original. This quite awful piece is absolutely dripping with the stuff. (Read a thorough debunking here.) And Silver has some history here when it comes to climate change. When writing about the subject in his book The Signal and the Noise, Silver devoted a lot of space to "the highly questionable claims of a University of Pennsylvania marketing professor named J. Scott Armstrong...with close ties to fossil fuel industry front groups," according to climate scientist Michael Mann (thanks to David Dayen for the pointer).
I had been under the impression that media journalist Jay Rosen had successfully pushed the pitfalls of "ideology-free" journalism into the mainstream, but apparently we've got to learn it all over again. If Nate Silver wants to patch up his stumbling enterprise, and not just make an extremely expensive Freakonomics knockoff, that's where I would start.
Universally panned. Uh oh. Atrios sums it up well:
I hope one thing people have learned from this sucky blog is always avoid people who believe that they float above it all, that unlike the rest of you blinkered ideologues they have The Facts.

Nothing against expertise and facts, just against those who think they have unique access to The Truth. 
When you lose Atrios, you, in my view, fall in to that category of "probably had it coming."

Update. Krugman offers Silver some more advice:
Now, about FiveThirtyEight: I hope that Nate Silver understands what it actually means to be a fox. The fox, according to Archilocus, knows many things. But he does know these things — he doesn’t approach each topic as a blank slate, or imagine that there are general-purpose data-analysis tools that absolve him from any need to understand the particular subject he’s tackling. Even the most basic question — where are the data I need? — often takes a fair bit of expertise; I know my way around macro data and some (but not all) trade data, but I turn to real experts for guidance on health data, labor market data, and more.
Sounds reasonable.

Update 2. Esquire's Charles Pierce points out that there are sound reasons Nate Silver takes the tone he does, and sounder reasons why the pundits he disdains deserve it:
What is left out here, of course, is that Silver was proven right, and Brooks and Scarborough -- and Byers -- were proven to be talking out of their respective asses. And if that parenthetical doesn;t sum up the essence of TBOTP, I'm Mike Allen's bagman.
Bartender, a double Prestone, and see what the pundits in the backroom will have.
It's bad when Charlie starts to hit the anti-freeze again. Anyways, there's differing opinions on Silver, don't you know.

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