The Krugman-Silver Sparring Match

Since I admire both New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and FiveThirtyEight proprietor Nate Silver (with whom I worked at the pre-Times version of the site), I’m not real jazzed about the sniping that’s going on between them. TPM has been following the back-and-forth closely, and Tom Kludt reports the latest exchange as follows:

The latest round began with Krugman linking to what he described as the “definitive piece on what’s wrong, so far, with the new FiveThirtyEight.”

“For all the big talk about data-driven analysis,what it actually delivers is sloppy and casual opining with a bit of data used, as the old saying goes, the way a drunkard uses a lamppost — for support, not illumination,” Krugman wrote in what was his fourth post on Silver since the new site launched earlier this month.

But as he has in his other negative reviews of FiveThirtyEight, Krugman expressed hope that Silver and company will turn things around. Similarly, Krugman told TPM in an email on Sunday that he’s been a “Nate fan,” but that he “expected more thoughtfulness” at the new FiveThirtyEight.

Silver responded on Wednesday evening with a snark-laden post. He mocked the New York Times’ headline construction (“For Columnist, a Change of Tone”) and used a table to show that Krugman’s negative view of FiveThirtyEight coincided with Silver’s move to ESPN.

The table included all 33 references (neutral, favorable or unfavorable) to Silver and FiveThirtyEight in Krugman’s blog dating back to 2008.

Silver wrote that Krugman “has mentioned FiveThirtyEight four times in just nine days, all in negative contexts” and noted that he’s “frequently criticized what he calls ‘pundits’ and ‘opinion journalists,’ including those who write for The Times.”

Nate’s implication is that Krugman is firing away at FiveThirtyEight because it’s no longer a Times property but is instead a competitor. I don’t think that’s quite fair; it’s entirely possible Krugman had misgivings about “data journalism” and its claims all along, but withheld them out of collegial respect. That’s certainly not an unusual practice.

In any event, I hope the “feud” chills. Ultimately, there’s plenty of room for Krugman’s empirically-based form of “opinion journalism” and Silver’s form of opinion-influenced (if only in terms of the issues he chooses to examine) “data journalism.” I don’t know if the extensive criticism FiveThirtyEight has received since its relaunch has been good or bad for its traffic, but it’s going to be around for the foreseeable future, as will be the writers annoyed by its claims of superior objectivity.

UPDATE: Jonathan Chait has a different take on Krugman’s low opinion of the new 538:

The real cause of Krugman’s disdain is the sheer ambition of Silver’s new venture. Silver’s great added value was to bring basic statistical literacy to the fields of political forecasting and sports commentary, which are dominated by old-line hacks who rely on horse sense and either disdain data in any form or use data very badly.

The new FiveThirtyEight tries to expand this revelatory contribution to other fields. The trouble is that many of those fields, like economics and climate science, already have real experts. Silver’s role, at least in its crudest form, represents the kind of autodidactism that Krugman rose to fame decrying. His war against Silver is nothing terribly new, but merely the return of an old love, or, more accurately, an old hate.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.