In defense of Nate Silver
The innumerate, the jealous, and the easily offended — or perhaps I should just say the near entirety of the journalistic world — have lit a fire for Nate Silver and his recently debuted venture FiveThirtyEight. But they are burning a straw fox.
Entire roundups of lukewarm reviews have greeted the launch of FiveThirtyEight. Paul Krugman is "not impressed." Mike Allen took a quick-shot at it in his Playbook email. My colleague Ryan Cooper warns that the site may be little more than an "expensive Freakonomics knockoff."
Now, there was bound to be a little letdown among Silver's many somewhat recent bandwagon fans. The media world did not reach Peak Silver during the 2010 midterms, when his electoral models predicted, correctly, a stern electoral rebuke to President Obama. Instead, Silvermania reached its zenith precisely when his models gave authority to the story that the New York Times' elite liberal readership wanted to hear: that Obama was going to beat Mitt Romney, and you're smart for thinking it will happen. In the process of defending his model from the innumerate wishful thinking of Romney supporters, Silver also confirmed to his readership their most flattering picture of themselves, as members of the Reality Based Community. Since then, Silver has been very aware of his good fortune, and he winningly admits his accomplishments have been "overestimated."
Since FiveThirtyEight's launch, some of the most intense criticism has dwelled on the hiring of Roger Pielke Jr., whose moderating work on climate change has mostly been to say that some of the direst warnings exceed the science. This criticism has the tone of close betrayal. Pielke accepts and promotes the science on climate change, but is sometimes skeptical of the sweeping policy proposals and rhetorical flourishes of other political actors and activists in the arena. Pielke, published in many more scientific journals than I have been, can defend himself, of course.
The lightest grade of criticism aimed at FiveThirtyEight came from Benjamin Wallace-Wells, who acknowledged that any letdown came from the hype. But Wells worries that the site is already slightly undermining its own premise, noting that a persistent theme in the early pieces was "that the right data simply didn't exist to answer the questions its own journalists had raised."
There is another, more vituperative kind of FiveThirtyEight critic. Whereas Wells dings FiveThirtyEight for its modesty, and eagerness to admit the limits of its approach, The New Republic's Leon Wieseltier condemns it for insolently dismissing all knowledge and human endeavor that does not issue from a ggplot visualization.
Wieseltier, in a rhetorical feint toward fairness, admits that "an insistence upon a solid evidentiary foundation for judgments… is obviously important." Sadly, his own judgment lacks just that. First, Wieseltier unfairly transmutes the recent popular regard of Silver into an incriminating self-regard: "He knows many things. He has no priors. He thinks only originally. He never repeats himself."
Then Wieseltier makes a hash of Silver and FiveThirtyEight's approach, characterizing the site's commitment to quantitative analysis as "the assumption that [statistical investigation] is appropriate to all subjects and all judgments."
Silver's "manifesto" says exactly the opposite: "By no means do we think that everything can be broken down into a formula or equation. On the contrary, one of our roles will be to critique incautious uses of statistics when they arise elsewhere in news coverage."
Wieseltier's form of critique has been paraphrased elsewhere: Numbers can't tell us everything. They cannot tell us what kind of policies we should have. They cannot tell us what to love or hate or aim for in life. This is a truism pretending to contradict something. When Silver writes, "We're trying to just do analysis. We're not trying to sway public opinion on anything except trying to make them more numerate," he is obviously defining the limited scope of his website's mission; he is not revising downward the entirety of worthy human knowledge, judgment, and endeavor. Silver writes, "Our methods are not meant to replace 'traditional' or conventional journalism. We have the utmost admiration for journalists who gather original information and report original stories."
Somehow after reading this "aw-shucks" manifesto in which Silver rather self-deprecatingly defines a niche for his site, Wieseltier has in his mind a totalitarian threat. Shortly thereafter he commands his readers to resist the "intimidation by quantification" by Silver and other "data mullahs."
When FiveThirtyEight authors start writing articles titled "Math Wants Us to Commit Genocide," then I'll worry about them exceeding their intellectual remit. Until then, it seems long overdue that in a media world overpopulated with fluff projects, ideological anvil-pounders, outrage porn, and a million and one precious niches, one little corner would dedicate itself to numerical investigation, train some of its journalists in statistical programming languages, and run some data visualizations.
A world where businesses file public documents with the SEC means we need some business journalists experienced in reading a 10-K, not just in regurgitating industry hype. Similarly, in a world drowning in new data, collected everywhere, it's worthwhile to have journalists who are trained in making sense of it.
Silver is plainly right that a kind of innumeracy pervades journalism. Many journalists don't know how to evaluate academic studies. If, occasionally, Silver's empirical research gets in the way of your ideological priors, you have an opportunity to rethink them. He's done you a favor, not a disservice.
*Full disclosure, before Silver was hired by ESPN, that company paid me for some magazine writing. Also, I had two alcoholic beverages with one of FiveThirtyEight's senior editors before their launch.