Was Nate Silver wrong to offer Joe Scarborough a bet on the election?
The battle between New York Times political stats wizard Nate Silver and the beltway punditry — what The Atlantic's James Fallows calls a fight between Moneyball-type "quants" and gut-based "'savvy' experts" — is heating up. After MSNBC host "Morning Joe" Scarborough called Silver a partisan "joke" for giving President Obama a 73.6 percent (now 80.9 percent) chance of winning a 50-50 race, Silver bet Scarborough $1,000 (since upped to $2,000) that Obama would win, with the winner donating the cash to the American Red Cross. This earned Silver a mild scolding from New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan:
Mr. Silver is quite accurate in his argument against Mr. Scarborough. He clearly says that the closeness of the popular vote does not affect the probability that Mr. Obama will win. They are, simply, two very different things. So on Thursday, frustrated and irritated, Mr. Silver challenged Mr. Scarborough to a wager.... Mr. Silver described the wager offer as "half playful and half serious." "He's been on a rant, calling me an idiot and a partisan, so I'm asking him to put some integrity behind it," he said. "I don't stand to gain anything from it; it's for charity."... But whatever the motivation behind it, the wager offer is a bad idea — giving ammunition to the critics who want to paint Mr. Silver as a partisan who is trying to sway the outcome.
Opinions were already sharply divided on Silver — supporters of Mitt Romney dislike him for forecasting an Obama win and accuse him of purposefully stomping on Romney's "momentum" argument; and Obama backers view Silver's numbers as a refreshingly fact-based ray of hope. Meanwhile, many traditional political reporters and pundits, like Scarborough, are skeptical that statistics can beat their insider knowledge and gut. And sportswriters are marveling at the cluelessness of the political press: "Re: Nate Silver, most amusing thing about this election is watching political pundits make sports fans look like PhD mathematicians," tweeted ESPN basketball writer John Hollinger. Opinions are divided on Margaret Sullivan's rebuke, too.
"FYI [Sullivan], Nate Silver is the ONLY reason I subscribe to the NYT. You grossly overreacted. An apology to Mr. Silver is in order," tweets Joseph J. Santorsa.
"Much as I love [Silver], [Sullivan] is right. Can't put charity money in play on a bet. Not Trump level, but it's a bit crass," tweets Irish journalist Barry J. Whyte.
"(# of people who think the NYC marathon should happen on Sunday) = (# of people who think [Sullivan] is right about [Silver])," tweets Reuters financial columnist Felix Salmon. (Context: Very few people think the marathon should happen after Sandy.)
When I first saw Silver's wager, "I thought it was pitch perfect," says Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic. He was telling Scarborough that if he really believed the race was a tossup, he should "put your money where your mouth is." But "I think I follow Sullivan's reasoning," too: She's saying, essentially, that "a journalist who bets on what he covers has a new stake in the outcome, and opens himself to the charge that his subsequent output is skewed." Still, from where I'm standing, "Silver's gambling streak makes me trust him more." Why? It shows he stands by his work:
Collectively, the opinion wing of the political press (and I include conservative sites, which are every bit as much a part of the mainstream media as anyone) has trained readers to presume everything we write is calculated to bring about our desired political outcome, rather than being our best attempt at the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.... It doesn't matter that Bill Kristol has amassed a record of inaccurate predictions so long it is comical. He's still treated by television hosts and fellow conservative writers as a knowledgeable speculative commentator....
Is it any wonder that I sometimes fantasize about a media landscape where predictions weren't taken seriously unless the people making them had some personal monetary stake in getting them right? How many pundits would've more carefully hedged their Weapons of Mass Destruction predictions? In these daydreams, Rush Limbaugh must effectively choose between being accurate, going silent, or going bankrupt. To save face, Donald Trump makes a $5 million bet that he'll find Barack Obama's "real birth certificate" proving he was born abroad. When he fails, I use my winnings to become a professional gambler. Betting against hacks left, right, and center would be easy money, if only ponying up were a prerequisite to getting a hearing.