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Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight and the dangers of being ideologically neutral
By claiming the mantle of pure analysis, Silver is falling into a familiar journalistic trap
 
Take what the fox says with a grain of salt.
Take what the fox says with a grain of salt. (Illustration by Lauren Hansen | Images courtesy FiveThirtyEight)

Nate Silver's new venture, FiveThirtyEight, is now live, and the reviews are starting to come in. To summarize: it's terrible. Reviewers from Paul Krugman to Tyler Cowen — who seldom agree on much — have panned the launch. If you need to be personally convinced, just check out this example. Yikes.

What went wrong? One major problem has to do with ideology. In an attempt to focus solely on objective analysis, Silver is ignoring one of the hardest-won journalistic lessons of the last decade — there is no such thing as ideology-free journalism.

Let's start with New York's launch interview with Silver, who spoke at length about how much he loathes opinion columnists:

They don't permit a lot of complexity in their thinking. They pull threads together from very weak evidence and draw grand conclusions based on them...

It's people who have very strong ideological priors, is the fancy way to put it, that are governing their thinking. They're not really evaluating the data as it comes in, not doing a lot of [original] thinking...

We're not sociopaths, which means that we look at the world and have opinions. But we're not trying to do advocacy here. We're trying to just do analysis. [New York]

Now, I'll be first to admit that much opinion writing is pretty awful, and writers have been known to let ideology override the evidence. But at the risk of sounding self-defensive, Silver is not fully grappling with the truth about ideology. Everyone, without exception, has some kind of ideological-theoretical perspective that informs the way they interpret the evidence they see.

And people who spend large fractions of their lives reading the news are more likely, not less, to have strong views on a range of issues. Trying to "just do analysis" can very easily open the door to unconscious bias.

This was a major theme during the early days of the liberal blogosphere. Back then, a major criticism of mainstream journalism was that its "objectivity" belied a latent jingoist ideology, and that he-said-she-said evenhandedness wasn't just wrong, but actively duplicitous. Just look at Judith Miller and The New York Times acting as George W. Bush's stenographer back in 2002, uncritically repeating administration lies in the service of an illegal war of aggression that wrecked an entire nation and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians.

The way to get past this, it was thought, is to wear your ideology on your sleeve. If writers are straightforward about their ideological commitments, then readers can judge their biases more easily and avoid sublimated thinking. As Tyler Cowen puts it:

Technocrats who rail against the ideologies of others are often the most ideological people around, even if their biases do not line up with the political spectrum in the usual manner. Is there really such a thing as "just do analysis"? Is it not better to make the underlying value presuppositions more explicit? [Marginal Revolution]

At this point, I'm not sure what more Silver could do to demonstrate the Judith Miller hazard. Because FiveThirtyEight's science coverage stinks of sublimated ideology. The opening science pieces were pretty bad, but far more telling was Silver's hiring of climate troll Roger Pielke Jr.

For those who don't know, Pielke is a highly skilled and intelligent policy professor, ostensibly committed to climate action, who spends the vast bulk of his time criticizing the climate movement and allied scientists. They're wrong about drought. They're wrong about extreme weather. They're wrong about economic growth. Etc.

He does accept the reality of climate change, and keeps his criticism just inside the boundaries of accepted science (e.g., with strategic footnotes). So when he gets an irritated response from, say, President Obama's science adviser John Holdren, who accused him of selective quotation and obfuscation, Pielke can twist the criticism around and write a stern, head-shaking article about how those darned Greens are just getting way over their skis on The Science. This is the Breakthrough Institute program for hippie-punching your way to fame and fortune, and its success on the career track is almost as striking as its wretched failure as a political tactic to actually achieve anything on climate change.

That kind of squid-ink careerist nonsense is what led Foreign Policy to put Pielke on its list of climate skeptics. It's what led the late, famed climatologist Stephen Schneider to dismiss him as a "self-aggrandizer who sets up straw men, knocks them down, and takes credit for being the honest broker to explain the mess." Pretty much.

In any case, this isn't about Pielke, who like the rest of the Breakthrough Boys isn't worth worrying about very much. The point here is about Silver, and his supposedly unbiased project. Presumably Pielke is going to write about climate change — the topic has been his whole career. If Silver truly had an overriding interest in "just analysis" on the issue of climate change, I'd think a bare minimum for a hire would be an actual climatologist. (Pielke's Ph.D. is in political science.)

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).

Sigh.

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.

 
Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at TheWeek.com. His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the Washington Post.

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