A while back, I noted that if our sports media, who actually deal with reality, results, statistics, were to cover our election races, we would be better off. Example #97 billion:
“Anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue, they should be kept away from typewriters, computers, laptops and microphones for the next 10 days, because they’re jokes.”
The above words are those of Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program. He’s talking about Nate Silver, the statistics wizard whose FiveThirtyEight blog is licensed by The New York Times, and who writes for The Times frequently online as well as in print. Mr. Silver also has a desk in The Times’s newsroom.
As the presidential campaign veers around the clubhouse turn and zooms into the homestretch, Mr. Silver is very much in the public eye.
For months now, he has been predicting that President Obama has about a 75 percent probability, give or take a few points, of winning re-election on Tuesday. He uses an algorithm – some call it a secret sauce — that combines the numbers in public opinion polls and produces a result that he then turns into a prediction.
That has endeared him to liberals and Democrats, just as it has infuriated conservatives and Republicans. Mr. Silver himself has said that he supported Mr. Obama in 2008 but his work tends to focus on numbers, not policy and politics.***
So on Thursday, frustrated and irritated, Mr. Silver challenged Mr. Scarborough to a wager in a Twitter message — $1,000 to the Red Cross. (The offer later climbed to $2,000.)
If Mr. Obama wins, Mr. Scarborough pays up; if Mitt Romney wins, Mr. Silver does the same. So far, Mr. Scarborough isn’t biting on the offer and I could not reach him for comment Thursday.
In a phone conversation, 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.”
He added that he is feeling the strain of being under attack and vulnerable to criticism as Election Day approaches.
“It’s a high-stress time,” he said.
I can understand and sympathize with that.
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.
It’s also inappropriate for a Times journalist, which is how Mr. Silver is seen by the public even though he’s not a regular staff member.
“I wouldn’t want to see it become newsroom practice,” said the associate managing editor for standards, Philip B. Corbett. He described Mr. Silver’s status as a blogger — something like a columnist — as a mitigating factor.
Granted, Mr. Silver isn’t covering the presidential race as a political reporter would.
Maybe because he is a statistician and not a political reporter… We’ve all seen what happens when numbers guys become political pundits. Chuck Todd and your well-trimmed face mullet, I am looking at you. At any rate, that’s the NY Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, concern trolling Nate Silver. Noticeably absent, any analysis of the real numbers or statistics or any attempt to refute Silver’s predictions. Fortunately, our sports media are on the ball. Here’s DeadSpin:
In case you haven’t been hanging around the benighted corners of the political internet lately, there’s an idiotic backlash afoot against Nate Silver, the proprietor of the FiveThirtyEight blog who made his name as one of the sharpest baseball analysts around.
With the election just a few days away, analysis based on state poll aggregation—Silver’s included—suggests that Barack Obama is a heavy favorite against Mitt Romney. The president holds a slight but strong lead in key electoral states. This doesn’t sit well with many political pundits, who insist that the outcome is anyone’s guess and headed down to the wire. Many of these people have directed their anger toward Silver, whose New York Times-hosted blog has predicted a strong probability of an Obama victory since June. They insist he is biased or sloppy in his methodology, even though they seem unaware of how he makes his predictions and of statistical analysis in general. They say—and I’m not kidding—he’s too gay for this sort of work.
In retrospect, we should’ve seen it coming. It was only a matter of time before the war on expertise spilled over into the cells of Nate Silver’s spreadsheets. In fact, in some ways it had already. Turns out that nothing could have prepared Silver better for the slings and arrows of a surly and willfully obtuse pundit class than working on the fringes of sportswriting over the past decade.***
The political media hate precision: No one tunes in to a boring horse race. The volatility of day-to-day polling allows them to explain how the contest (in which, till recently, no actual votes had yet been cast) has been lost and won and lost again with each news cycle—an endless series of decisive revelations and foundational truths about the candidates or the public. If the narrative had followed Silver’s and Wang’s graphs, there would have been little to no hubbub over Bain’s outsourcing, “You didn’t build that,” the 47 percent, or the first debate. And what fun would that be? Both the Romney and Obama camps are happy to play into the toss-up narrative, as Obama needs his presumed majority to actually go to the polls on election day, and Romney wants to give his base confidence and hope. It’s the rare thing that everyone can agree on this year. (That and coal. Everybody fucking loves coal.)
The baseless criticisms also illustrate how many political pundits proudly display their quantitative ignorance. In the Scarborough article, Politico’s Dylan Byers offered this breathtaking analysis:
What matters for Silver is that the president wins and that he ends up with a total number of electoral votes somewhere in the ballpark of whatever Silver predicts on the afternoon of Nov. 6. And even then, you won’t know if he actually had a 50.1 percent chance or a 74.6 percent chance of getting there.
Maybe you won’t. Forecasts should be judged on their processes, not their results. If Mitt Romney wins the election, Silver won’t necessarily have been wrong (for one thing, he’ll look a lot better than Wang). He’ll only merit criticism if the results show that he made improper inferences, such as a skewed voter turnout model or a flawed weighting algorithm.
Read the whole Deadspin piece, read the whole NY Times piece, and tell me- which one was more informative, and which one is just more of the same fail we get from the media every single fucking day. The difference in the deference to facts and analyses as opposed to feelings and village think is both breathtaking and heartbreaking.
(ht for the Deadspin piece from Brad Delong’s twitter feed @delong)