Nate Silver’s Actual Problem…He’s No Longer an Adult Fighting Children.
Tod notes in his column that he believes Paul Krugman’s “turning” on Nate Silver shows that there’s a growing tendency on the Left to disavow reality that disagrees with their views. I’m not unsympathetic to the notion that there is some polarization going on, but I think that Tod is missing the actual story regarding the new 538. Specifically by shifting from being hedgehogs of electioneering and sports statistics, their attempts to be foxes have landed them as roadkill in much more demanding areas.
First, I will preface that political science itself is a numerate field. There’s plenty of vigorous work that uses numbers to back up predictions on phenomenon within the field. But that field is separated by a chasm the size of the Marianas Trench from political journalism. Similar things can be said about sports journalism. While there has been an increase in statistically literate sports journalists, the typical blowviating hack writing or speaking on ESPN is more Skip Bayless or Colin Cowherd than Keith Law or, for that matter, Nate Silver.
The two areas where Nate Silver made his biggest impact were Sports Journalism and Political Journalism. In general this meant he was the equivalent of an adult fighting an army of little children. Granted there were a LOT of those little children, and they could scream as loudly as Silver could fight them, but on the whole he so thoroughly outmatched them that he was able to sell his narrative (and brand of contrarian knowitallism) in a way that was convincing. Simply put: It was really easy to look good when you have a baseball bat and are fighting a bunch of 5 year olds.
By contrast the new 538 covers a much wider array of subjects. Two in particular have drawn a fair amount of criticism: Economics and climate science. Now unlike political journalism or sports journalism, these are not fields where being an innumerate hack leads to much success as a journalist or op-ed writer. In fact, a number of prominent economic commentators are, surprisingly, economists and have a basic grasp of numbers. So, too, in fields where scientific discoveries play a large part. In both cases, these are fields with not only an active and engaging use of numbers, but an active and vicious tendency to pick apart the data being used itself. As a consequence, simply presenting large amounts of data as a supplement to your argument is not regarded as a sufficient condition for winning an argument.
Although intended in jest, Kieran Healy of Crooked Timber had a devastatingly effective response to Nate Silver’s response to Paul Krugman. In essence, it shows the folly of relying on half-assed quant work when you have people better able to suss out trends and information out of data. Simply put: Silver’s biggest problem is that he’s no longer an adult with a baseball bat fighting children. He’s an adult with a baseball bat trying to fight an army armed with guns. Moreover, he’s that adult and is currently not really willing to admit that he might need backup. This can’t really end well.