What does the fox say

Not every area of punditry has quite as many hanging curveballs as politics. For whatever reason you can break the ‘serious’ threshold in politics with a pulse and the right friends or contacts. Even now it is mostly a blasted wasteland of knowledge protected by an aggressively anti-intellectual ruling clique, where a little empiricism can put someone well ahead of the crowd. A guy really focused on good data analysis can start an empire with his unique brand. The entertainment biz also qualifies, though you have to separate brain-dead public reportage from the Olympic-level bean counting that moves show business behind the scenes.

Other fields like sports tend to be more meritocratic. Imagine that Billy Kristol’s family name bought him a seat in some MLB announcer’s booth. How long do you think he’d last? About as long as Rush Limbaugh. Most people in sports know at least something and an OCD-level commitment to data hardly by itself sets you apart from the pack. To stand out you need to really know your shit, plus some other hook. A memorable personality will do the trick, or you could build a niche specialty so deep that everyone just accepts you as the local guru. Nate Silver will bring quality analysis to sports but his unique brand is a Slate-slash-upworthy mix of provocative contrarianism and smart headlines. None of that should be taken as a criticism; done well and not half-assed (cough GREGG EASTERBROOK) it sounds like a winning plan.

In other cases the fox approach can lead you wrong. A particularly talented generalist who spends long enough in a sea of folks with data skills that range from good (baseball nerds) to brain dead to the Washington Post opinion page can start to think every field of knowledge has low hanging fruit waiting for a fox to reach out and grab.

Now look, I have done smart-ish things in my life. A few years back I dunked on a Nobel winner in a tough field with a series of papers in PNAS and a Nature journal. I don’t ususally brag about this crap. Honestly for the most part it means I know a lot about a few things about which most people should never care. But I hope that it does establish some credentials when I say my few graduate credits in climate (towards an oceanography degree) were really f*cking hard. By ‘hard’ I mean orders of magnitude worse than those courses like orgo chem with intentionally ramped up difficulty that my undergraduate school used to to weed out less than 100% committed bio majors. You could point out that I came from a not-so-quantitative background. True, but I had no geology background either and I can call up the basics of a paper that I wrote on finding where ancient deep water currents used to meet by looking for a telltale change in palladium-protactinium isotope ratios in the sediment. Now take a fairly vanilla climate question like how does El Nino work? We spent days on how seesawing mid-water boundary layers create that particular climate oscillation. I tried, man. I really tried. I know that we know how it works, I have seen the models and the data, but the physical/quantitative basis of how that bastard operates was permanently over my head.

Alright, I’m done reminiscing. You should take home that sometimes you need a hedgehog. Another good example is theoretical physics, where most professors can tell you about the intelligent amateurs who bombard them with TIME CUBE-quality answers to life, the universe and everything. Good Will Hunting was a movie. Some things you just leave to the level-capped mages with extra grey matter and the insanity commitment to put in 10,000 hours or whatever it takes to contribute to a field like that without stepping on a rake.

Roger A. Pielke, Jr. is not a climate mage. He spent his 10,000 hours studying weather, which he does well but no doubt knows is not the same thing. Pielke gets a lot of attention for knee-jerk contrarian climate theories that are not TIME CUBE bad, but still not good.

I get why you would hire a guy like Pielke – breezy contrarianism fits the house brand and will certainly generate a lot more site traffic than same-oldy bad news written at a higher reading level by people who do know what they are talking about. It is a good business decision. I just wish it did not, you know, matter.

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83 replies
  1. 1
    maximiliano furtive, formerly known as dr. bloor says:

    Other fields of commentary tend to be more meritocratic. How long do you think Bill Kristol would last if his family name bought him a seat in some MLB announcer’s booth?

    I gather the names Joe Morgan and Rick Sutcliffe do not ring a bell for you.

  2. 2
    raven says:

    All I can say is that there were as many Illini fans AT Boston University tonight to witness a sterling Illini comeback!

  3. 3
    Baud says:

    This fox v. hedgehog thing is going to become a thing, isn’t it?

  4. 4
    NotMax says:

    There will always be the equivalent of Art Bells attached to any field of study.

    A little learning is a dangerous thing;
    drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
    there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
    and drinking largely sobers us again.

       – Alexander Pope (An Essay On Criticism)

  5. 5
    JDM says:

    The reason you hire Pielke is because you want to make sure you’re not producing accurate info on climate.

  6. 6
    Tim F. says:

    @JDM: [edit] right. Sorry, I briefly misread you. I do not think Silver wants to misinform, I just think he recognizes that rigorous climate science and advocacy would be deadly for page views. If I had to guess why he does poorly in that one area, I think he just picked it to make a largely rhetorical point that he can show up the ‘experts’ in any field of study he wants.

  7. 7
    Ecks says:

    @maximiliano furtive, formerly known as dr. bloor: or most of the hockey commentators the CBC hires. Glen Healey is pretty much a direct sports analogue of Kristol.

    @Baud: it has been since 1953.

  8. 8
    Baud says:

    Another good example is theoretical physics, where most professors can tell you about the intelligent amateurs who bobmard them with TIME CUBE-quality answers to life, the universe and everything.

    Hawking still won’t return my emails. Bastard!

  9. 9
    Culture of Truth says:

    A few years back I dunked on a Nobel winner

    Was it Stephen Hawking?

  10. 10
    Baud says:

    @Ecks:

    What happened in 1953?

  11. 11
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @Baud:

    That was when Isaiah Berlin published his essay on the subject.

  12. 12
    RSA says:

    I think Krugman’s concern is spot on:

    What would be really bad is if this turns into a Freakonomics-type exercise, all contrarianism without any appreciation for the importance of actual expertise.

  13. 13
    Baud says:

    @SiubhanDuinne:

    Hmmm. Why did I think it came from some ancient Greek story?

    ETA: Wikipedia knows all.

  14. 14
    efgoldman says:

    @maximiliano furtive, formerly known as dr. bloor:

    I gather the names Joe Morgan and Rick Sutcliffe do not ring a bell for you.

    In the suites where the broadcast suits are in their natural habitat, jocksniffing is a way of life. Plus ex-players (or managers) are assumed up front to be credible.
    But you listen to someone like Dennis Eckersley or Lou Merloni (who’s become a terrific all-around broadcaster) and you can really tell the difference.

  15. 15
    RSA says:

    @Culture of Truth:

    A few years back I dunked on a Nobel winner

    I honestly thought Tim F. was going to tell a story about playing basketball against some old scientist. (I was looking forward to the trash talk.)

  16. 16
    Tim F. says:

    @Ecks: Get real. To be Bill Kristol bad a hockey commentator would have to call the puck a ball, deny the draft exists and believe with every ounce of his being that anyone who says Edmonton Oilers will not take the Cup every season for the next ten years must automatically hate Canada.

  17. 17
    dmsilev says:

    Another good example is theoretical physics, where most professors can tell you about the intelligent amateurs who bobmard them with TIME CUBE-quality answers to life, the universe and everything.

    I know someone who wrote a textbook on general relativity. Because of this, he gets a truly terrifying amount of crank mail. Mostly email these days, but still some letters. He keeps a coffee table in his office covered with the latest submissions, purely for amusement value.

  18. 18
    Bruce Partington says:

    Who is this Bob Mard? Or is spellcheck just for amateurs?

    Another example of Worth’s Law in action.

  19. 19
    Suffern ACE says:

    In sports announcing or news broadcasting? Kristol would probably do well in sports talk since that’s the model news punditry is going by these days.

  20. 20
    Tim F. says:

    @Bruce Partington: Something automatically works the minute the repairman arrives?

    Also fixed, thanks for pointing it out. We fired the copy editor to keep blog subscription prices cheap.

  21. 21
    smintheus says:

    Contrarianism isn’t a brand, it’s a business model. It has become as traditional a business model as racketeering.

  22. 22
    srv says:

    Paul Krugman + Tim F proves Nate Silver must be classified as an enemy until proven otherwise.

    He is the Putin of numeracy now.

    Whens Nate’s TED gig start?

  23. 23
    Baud says:

    @smintheus:

    Contrarianism isn’t a brand, it’s a business model.

    True. It’s about selling power to people who feel they have lost control over their lives. You too can stand up to the “experts.”

  24. 24
    smintheus says:

    @Tim F.: I think he’s trying to position himself as the perfect TV pundit/guest. He will be far more marginalized at a typical lefty unless he’s known for goring at least some left-wing oxes or gets a reputation for fluffing some right wingers (hence his shout out to the ridiculous Douthat).

  25. 25
    Tim F. says:

    @srv: Knock it off. I hate manicheans. I think @smintheus has a more reasonable take.

  26. 26
    Baud says:

    @smintheus:

    Even the liberal Nate Silver says that the polls are skewed…

  27. 27
    kindness says:

    I have yet to see 538. I’ll go over when I hear buzz about a piece or one day wandering. We’ll see. Nate building what he has doesn’t bother me though. It’s his to prize or piss in the wind. Whatever he wants.

  28. 28
    Gex says:

    I don’t know you guys. I was totally convinced by the evidenced based, data driven response he had to concerns about gender balance at the new site. I believe his response was essentially that they can’t have a gender problem there because they are nerds, not jocks. QED. I’m convinced!

    ETA: I have no position on whether or not there is a problem in this area at the new joint. It’s just that he utterly failed to convince me there isn’t one with his response to the concerns expressed by others.

  29. 29
    Baud says:

    @Gex:

    Science!

  30. 30
    Paul W. says:

    @RSA:

    Having read half a dozen different posts on various topics…. this seems to be the exact route they are going and I can’t say I’m pleased so far. There is actually TOO MUCH content, now maybe the focus becomes clearer once I get a feel for the different writer’s beats but right now I’m not really learning anything other than a bunch of “looked at this way, everything you thought you knew is wrong not quite right”.

  31. 31
    smintheus says:

    @Baud: The only thing that has made TNR relevant for the last, oh, 40 years.

  32. 32
    catclub says:

    I still think he could loudly and publicly fire the climate change contrarian when he misuses the numbers.

    That would be fox-like sneaky.

  33. 33
    catclub says:

    I also never got El Nino theory. I never got what changed to turn it on and off. All the mechanisms that come into play once it gets started make sense, but what external change flipped the switch?

  34. 34
    currants says:

    This last add-on (P whatsisname) makes me reluctant to look at 538 again, though I clung to it for dear life in the 2008 election when I was living abroad.

    This one, however, seems really inside-baseball, no-girls-allowed, nyah-nyah-na-boo-boo clubby.

    Maybe I’m wrong. Hope so.

  35. 35
    RSA says:

    @Paul W.: That’s a shame. There’s real value, of course, in good data analysis.

    I’m reminded of the contrast with the statisticians (even grad students) I’ve talked with in my university’s statistical consulting center. They aren’t satisfied with “Here’s my data, and here’s the question I want to answer.” They always start digging into assumptions, existing models, and so forth, to try to get at least a preliminary feel for the domain. As Krugman says, data alone doesn’t tell you enough; it’s the interpretation you put on it.

  36. 36
    thatguy says:

    Wikipedia link is to the wrong Pielke. It’s his son, whose background is political science, not meteorology.

  37. 37
    J.Ty says:

    @Baud: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N.....ical_views

    “So if I were to vote it would be kind of a Gary Johnson versus Mitt Romney decision, I suppose.”

    — Nate Silver, 2012

  38. 38
    efgoldman says:

    @catclub:

    All the mechanisms that come into play once it gets started make sense, but what external change flipped the switch?

    Well, there’s this really, really old hermit that lives in a cave on an inaccessible mountain side in the most remote part of the Mojave Desert. Every few years he gets a secret signal from Alpha Centauri, walks over to the wall like Tim Conway playing Duane Toddleberry (the slow old man) and yanks a switch. He doesn’t know what the switch does, only that he has to yank it….

  39. 39
    low-tech cyclist says:

    What follows doesn’t undo the larger point being made, but this used to be my intellectual backyard, so I want to put in my two cents:

    Good Will Hunting was a movie. Some things you just leave to the level-capped mages with extra grey matter and the insanity commitment to put in 10,000 hours or whatever it takes to contribute to a field like that without stepping on a rake.

    In the movie, Will Hunting was a wunderkund in graph theory. Now that I’m twenty years away from the field, things might’ve changed, but it took me a lot less than 10,000 hours of work in graph theory and combinatorics to get my doctorate, and I was just-barely-able-to-get-my-doctorate smart.

    The deal is, in the well-established fields of math like real and complex analysis, abstract algebra, and topology, the boundaries of knowledge are a looooong ways out there. So you’ve got to put in your time, even if you’re a real-life Will Hunting.

    But in a relatively young field like graph theory (yes, Euler, Konigsberg, etc., but when was the second paper in graph theory written?), you can get to the tough unsolved problems pretty damn fast, or at least you could 20 years ago. And you get mathematical wunderkunds with the right combination of quickness and deep insight that would enable them to see the solutions.

    As a graph theorist, I found Will Hunting to be quite plausible, because he was doing graph theory and not real analysis.

  40. 40
    Cervantes says:

    @RSA:

    As Krugman says, data alone doesn’t tell you enough; it’s the interpretation you put on it.

    Data do not speak for themselves. I’ve been in rooms full of data and never heard a sound.

    — Russ Bernard (1988)

  41. 41
    Funkula says:

    Nate Silver has forgotten one important truth: The Hedgehog Can Never Be Buggered.

  42. 42
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Tim F.: In other words, Don Cherry makes Bill Kristol look like Bill Kristol.

  43. 43
    Violet says:

    I ended up on 538 through some link about how statisticians could help find Malaysian Air Flight 370. I thought it was by Nate Silver but it wasn’t. Turns out the headline, while not exactly wrong, was kind of misleading. It rehashed a bunch of other examples of how staisticians calculated things and talked about someone who used Bayesian calculations to help find the Air France flight–which I’d heard about on NPR at least a week ago. It all seemed kind of rehashed and old news. I wasn’t too impressed.

  44. 44
    Isua says:

    Palladium? Not thorium? Protactinium/thorium ratios are fun for past deep ocean circulation, but I’ve never heard of palladium in that context. Now I need to go check Web of Science. (/lurker paleoclimate nerd/)

  45. 45
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @smintheus: I do believe you are onto something with that comment.

    You must appease the consensus of the Village, or you get marginalized.

  46. 46
    Scott S. says:

    @thatguy: What thatguy said, Tim — you’re linking to and talking about the wrong guy. Silver hired this fella, who isn’t a weather researcher — he’s a political scientist.

  47. 47
    David Koch says:

    You just knew when Nate took the big money from ABC they would “persuade” him to do “is the earth really flat” link bait posts.

  48. 48
    pseudonymous in nc says:

    Imagine that Billy Kristol’s family name bought him a seat in some MLB announcer’s booth. How long do you think he’d last? About as long as Rush Limbaugh.

    Er, Joe Buck?

  49. 49
    Higgs Boson's Mate says:

    @Villago Delenda Est:

    You must appease the consensus of the Village, or you get marginalized.

    I prefer a less sinister view. Going to Silver’s place every day and reading that we are irreversibly and irretrievably fucked as far as climate change would, for me, get old fast. That may, indeed, be the reality of it. If so, then why waste time fretting about the inevitable?

  50. 50
    Violet says:

    @David Koch: Don’t know about that, but he’s doing things like going on Good Morning America to discuss brackets.

  51. 51
  52. 52
    RSA says:

    @Cervantes: Cool, thanks. I’ve never heard that before.

  53. 53
    smintheus says:

    @Villago Delenda Est: It’s long been a depressingly common trajectory among a certain kind of leftyish striver. Fairly consistent and clear liberal positions as long as one’s constituency is solely on the left (that was Silver back in 2008). Later, a lot of grandstanding, and pot-shots at former allies, and strange rightward lurches to position oneself as a “sensible liberal” (or centrist) when there’s a reasonable chance to make a grab at the big time. Nowadays, the big time means getting invited regularly onto the regular teevee circuit.

    Could’ve written the same script back in the ’60s.

  54. 54
    Violet says:

    @smintheus:
    Yeah, it does seem to be that way. Does it also coincide with age? Junior pundits start out more liberal, then get married or buy a house or otherwise settle into a more stable, adult life and look at things differently? The chance to hit the “big time” may seem more attractive if you’ve got a mortgage and a kid, for instance.

  55. 55
    Aimai says:

    @Tim F.: i read that Article this morning and it was so crashingly stupid and insultingly simplistic that i gave up on the site. It was huffpo level crap.

  56. 56
    GregB says:

    @Higgs Boson’s Mate:

    Although I am pretty solidly in the agnostic school, I am starting to think the religious nuts are going to get their wish and we’ll all go out with a flames and a bang.

  57. 57
    Roy G. says:

    Other fields like sports tend to be more meritocratic. Imagine that Billy Kristol’s family name bought him a seat in some MLB announcer’s booth. How long do you think he’d last?

    Uh huh. Why don’t you ask the legions of Joe Buck fans about that?

  58. 58
    smintheus says:

    @Violet: Possibly, though when you’ve seen it again and again with guys (mostly seems to be guys) in their late twenties, it just seems like a particular mode of careerism. Some people, like debaters, ‘believe’ things earnestly right up to the point when it’s convenient to start believing contradictory things. Wouldn’t claim this is a particular insight based on his latest moves; it was just my impression of him about 6 years ago, a striver rather than someone with deeply held convictions.

  59. 59
    Joel says:

    One of the professors in my graduate program referred to another as having a body of knowledge “a mile wide and an inch deep”.

  60. 60
    Tripod says:

    @Roy G.:

    Then there’s the whole Caray clan.

    Sports yappers are mostly pretty fucking stupid, feckless and co-opted by the sports they cover.

  61. 61
    gwangung says:

    Sports yappers are mostly pretty fucking stupid, feckless and co-opted by the sports they cover.

    Which would still make Kristol one of the more stupid ones in the field.

  62. 62
    catclub says:

    I saw the link to AUS PM Abbott saying objects had been located possibly related to the MH370.

    Anybody see a map showing the neighborhood?

  63. 63
    Violet says:

    @catclub: There’s a map of the planned search area on the Guardian liveblog, but I don’t know if it’s where the satellite imagery found whatever it found.

  64. 64
    Ruckus says:

    @RSA:
    But that’s what statistics is. Taking the raw data and moving it around.
    If you think you already know the answer or you are trying to make the data fit your preconceived answer, you move it around till it says what you want.
    If you are actually trying to find the answer then you have to build a model that asks the right questions and feed the data into it.
    Same data, bullshit or reality.

  65. 65
    🍀 Martin says:

    @Violet: Stuff floating in the ocean is a pretty thin lead. 10,000 shipping containers fall overboard each year. The refrigerated ones will usually float for some time before sinking.

    I hope they found it, but it’s hard to get too excited about something like this.

  66. 66
    Ruckus says:

    @GregB:
    We may go out with flames and a bang but it won’t be because of any sky pilot.

  67. 67
    Debbie(aussie) says:

    @🍀 Martin:

    That never, ever stopped the media. Aus news is going on & on about a major breakthrough. Hubby & I keeping yelling at TV(I know, I know) ‘not a major breakthrough until you identify it is from the airline in question’.

  68. 68
    Debbie(aussie) says:

    Media I/v happening as I type, defence & safety peoples who made the ID. Stating that they do not think it is containers due to the amount and size of debris. Four aircraft in or on way to search area.

  69. 69
    catclub says:

    @Violet: Thanks!

  70. 70
    J.Ty says:

    I’m not gonna say it’s a breakthrough or anything, but somebody has assigned it high enough odds for the US Navy to send one of their sub-hunting planes out there.

  71. 71
    J.Ty says:

    Also: We still have sub-hunting planes?

    And yes, I’m sure whatever commander agreed to it has been itching to use it.

  72. 72
    trollhattan says:

    FWIW

    Australian Broadcasting Corporation editor Jon Williams
    tweets: Crew on @USNavy P-8 spotter tell (ABC correspondent on board P-8) @WrightUps: “significant radar returns” coming from site where possible #MH370 objects spotted.

  73. 73
    Amir Khalid says:

    @Debbie(aussie):
    All over KL you can see signs saying “Pray for #MH370.” If some of its wreckage has been located in the Indian Ocean, the worst may have come to pass. But for now at least, we don’t know. I don’t know whether to hope that it is indeed wreckage from the plane, which might at least give the families certainty and a starting point for getting closure; or to hope that isn’t, and that there’s still some chance for the 239.

  74. 74
    🍀 Martin says:

    @J.Ty: The navy is going to chase every lead, no matter how thin. They’ve got nothing else.

    There’s a reason the NTSB doesn’t leak. The emotional roller coaster of giving families hope only to take it away is cruel. There’s nothing to be gained by saying anything until it’s reasonably confirmed.

  75. 75
    trollhattan says:

    @J.Ty:

    These here, which are eventually to be used by Australia and India.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boeing_P-8_Poseidon

  76. 76
    J.Ty says:

    @🍀 Martin: @trollhattan: Yeah, I know, just sayin’. Highest quality lead to date, using the metric of official response, for whatever that’s worth.

  77. 77
    Amir Khalid says:

    Meanwhile over in the Newsmax headlines box, a headline says El Al’s former security chief is blaming the Iranians for MH370 going missing. Apparently, hallucinogens are legal in Israel.

  78. 78
    Debbie(aussie) says:

    @Amir Khalid:

    Yes, Amir, it is one of those situations where finding something just takes the grief to another level. But I have to say had the plane landed somewhere, hijacked, whatever, some one would have taken credit. I still believe the plane crashed, just where how &why to be answered. Tho not quickly.

    My heart goes out to the families, as it has since day one. To have reached over 52 years on this planet and not experiencing any losses in devastating circumstances makes me very fortunate, to say the least.

    If littlebrit is around-happy belated birthday (11th if memory serves) a date we share.

  79. 79
    Anoniminous says:

    @catclub:

    It doesn’t have to be an external factor. Iterated, analog, sensitive-to-initial-conditions processes, like mesoclimate, exhibit Emergent Phenomena. Partially due to strange attractors, partially due to even stranger repellors, partially from Catastrophe (see: Thom Structural Stability and Morphogenesis: An Outline of a General Theory of Models.)

    The maths get truly gnarly but if you think of it changing itself you won’t be far off.

  80. 80
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Amir Khalid: And have been since, it seems, the founding of the state.

  81. 81
    sm*t cl*de says:

    A particularly talented generalist who spends long enough in a sea of folks with data skills that range from good (baseball nerds) to brain dead to the Washington Post opinion page can start to think every field of knowledge has low hanging fruit waiting for a fox to reach out and grab.

    Dr Dunning, meet Professor Kruger. But I see that you already know each other.

  82. 82
    Sherparick says:

    Actually, its worse than that, as you made the mistake of confusing Roger Pielke, Pere, with Roger Pielke, fils. Pielke Jr. is a Political Scientist with a BA in Math who has found the “Climate Wars” of the last 15 years a remarkably good grift. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_A._Pielke,_Jr.. Although he likes to pose as an “Honest Broker,” he is no more unbiased then Bjorn Lomborg (who is also after all an economist posing as a climate expert). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_A._Pielke,_Jr.

    I will say this, he was right about the Space Shuttle program, although I doubt he was the only one, but he made sure his contrarianism there was well known. With climate, he tends to use his statistical background to raise issues about the IPCC, not unlike Steve McIntyre. I would like Andrew Gelman to do a fisking of them both one day.

  83. 83
    sw says:

    Roger A. Pielke, Jr. I wouldn’t know from a hole in ground. His father is an asshole.

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