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November 13, 2012

Filed under: journalism»new_media»data_driven

Nate Silver: Not a Witch

In retrospect, Joe Scarborough must be pretty thrilled he never took Nate Silver's $1,000 bet on the outcome of the election. Silver's statistical model went 50 for 50 states, and came close to the precise number of electoral votes, even as Scarborough insisted that the presidential campaign was a tossup. In doing so, Silver became an inadvertent hero to people who (unlike Joe Scarborough) are not bad at math, inspiring a New Yorker humor article and a Twitter joke tag ("#drunknatesilver", who only attends the 50% of weddings that don't end in divorce).

There are two things that are interesting about this. The first is the somewhat amusing fact that Silver's statistical model, strictly speaking, isn't actually that sophisticated. That's not to take anything away from the hard work and mathematical skills it took to create that model, or (probably more importantly) Silver's ability to write clearly and intelligently about it. I couldn't do it, myself. But when it all comes down to it, FiveThirtyEight's methodology is just to track state polls, compare them to past results, and organize the results (you can find a detailed--and quite readable--explanation of the entire methodology here). If nobody has done this before, it's not because the idea was an unthinkable revolution or the result of novel information technology. It's because they couldn't be bothered to figure out how.

The second interesting thing about Silver's predictions is how incredibly hard the pundits railed against them. Scarborough was most visible, but Politico's Dylan Byers took a few potshots himself, calling Silver a possible "one-term celebrity." You can almost smell sour grapes rising from Byers' piece, which presents on the one side Silver's math, and on the other side David Brooks. It says a lot about Byers that he quoted Brooks, the rodent-like New York Times columnist best known for a series of empty-headed books about "the American character," instead of contacting a single statistician for comment.

Why was Politico so keen on pulling down Silver's model? Andrew Beaujon at Poynter wrote that the difference was in journalism's distaste for the unknown--that reporters hate writing about things they can't know. There's an element of truth to that sentiment, but in this case I suspect it's exactly wrong: Politico attacked because its business model is based entirely on the cultivation of uncertainty. A world where authority derives from more than the loudest megaphone is a bad world for their business model.

Let's review, just for a second, how Politico (and a whole host of online, right-leaning opinion journals that followed in its wake) actually work. The oft-repeated motto, coming from Gabriel Sherman's 2009 profile, is "win the morning"--meaning, Politico wants to break controversial stories early in order to work its brand into the cable and blog chatter for the rest of the day. Everything else--accuracy, depth, other journalistic virtues--comes second to speed and infectiousness.

To that end, a lot of people cite Mike Allen's Playbook, a gossipy e-mail compendium of aggregated fluff and nonsense, as the exemplar of the Politico model. Every morning and throughout the day, the paper unleashes a steady stream of short, insider-ey stories. It's a rumor mill, in other words, one that's interested in politics over policy--but most of all, it's interested in Politico. Because if these stories get people talking, Politico will be mentioned, and that increases the brand's value to advertisers and sources.

(There is, by the way, no small amount of irony in the news industry's complaints about "aggregators" online, given the long presence of newsletters like Playbook around DC. Everyone has one of these mobile-friendly link factories, and has for years. CQ's is Behind the Lines, and when I first started there it was sent to editors as a monstrous Word document, filled with blue-underlined hyperlink text, early every morning for rebroadcast. Remember this the next time some publisher starts complaining about Gawker "stealing" their stories.)

Politico's motivations are blatant, but they're not substantially different from any number of talking heads on cable news, which has a 24-hour news hole to fill. Just as the paper wants people talking about Politico to keep revenue flowing, pundits want to be branded as commentators on every topic under the sun so they can stay in the public eye as much as possible. In a sane universe, David Brooks wouldn't be trusted to run a frozen yoghurt stand, because he knows nothing about anything. Expertise--the idea that speaking knowledgably requires study, sometimes in non-trivial amounts--is a threat to this entire industry (probably not a serious threat, but then they're not known for underreaction).

Election journalism has been a godsend to punditry precisely because it is so chaotic: who can say what will happen, unless you are a Very Important Person with a Trusted Name and a whole host of connections? Accountability has not traditionally been a concern, and because elections hinge on any number of complicated policy questions, this means that nothing is out of bounds for the political pundit. No matter how many times William Kristol or Megan McArdle are wrong on a wide range of important issues, they will never be fired (let's not even start on poor Tom Friedman, a man whose career consists of endlessly sorting the wheat from the chaff and then throwing away the wheat). But FiveThirtyEight undermines that thought process, by saying that there is a level of rigor to politics, that you can be wrong, and that accountability is important.

The optimistic take on this disruption is, as Nieman Journalism Lab's Jonathan Stray argues, that specialist experts will become more common in journalism, including in horse race election coverage. I'm not optimistic, personally, because I think the current state of political commentary owes as much to industry nepotism as it does to public opinion, and because I think political data is prone to intentional obfuscation. But it's a nice thought.

The real positive takeaway, I think, is that Brooks, Byers, Scarborough, and other people of little substance took such a strong public stance against Silver. By all means, let's have an open conversation about who was wrong in predicting this election--and whose track record is better. Let's talk about how often Silver is right, and how often that compares to everyone calling him (as Brooks did) "a wizard" whose predictions were "not possible." Let's talk about accountability, and expertise, and whether we should expect better. I suspect Silver's happy to have that talk. Are his accusers?

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