Nate’s Gonna Nate, Haters Gonna Hate

Well, Nate Silver’s new 538 reboot is getting quite a bit of pushback lately. And maybe some of this is unexpected, such as several critical blog posts from Paul Krugman. But really, you should probably anticipate some pushback from columnists when you say, as Silver did, stuff like this:

Plenty of pundits have really high IQs, but they don’t have any discipline in how they look at the world, and so it leads to a lot of bullshit, basically…. The op-ed columnists at the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal… don’t permit a lot of complexity in their thinking. They pull threads together from very weak evidence and draw grand conclusions based on them. They’re ironically very predictable from week to week. If you know the subject that Thomas Friedman or whatever is writing about, you don’t have to read the column. You can kind of auto-script it, basically.

So, yeah, that will understandably make some pundits and columnists mad.

But a lot of the pushback against him is of the same old style we heard back during the 2012 election season. That is, he’s all data and misses the story behind the data. As Leon Wieseltier said:

The intellectual predispositions that Silver ridicules as “priors” are nothing more than beliefs. What is so sinister about beliefs? He should be a little more wary of scorning them, even in degraded form: without beliefs we are nothing but data.

And in an atypically weak episode of Slate’s Political Gabfest, Jacob Weisberg complained that 538 was trapped in a “cult of data,” and Gail Collins said that we need to tell stories: “You can’t just tell them that something will yield a better something-or-another — there’s got to be a story involved.” Then Weisberg said that the question of who is going to win an election is one of the least interesting questions in politics. Forecasting, says Weisberg, is simply…

…speculation about something, the outcome of which will be known. And isn’t it more interesting to really think about people’s ideas and their characters and their personalities and their relationship to history and everything else that we write about as opposed to predicting the future?

A few responses here. First of all, yes, there are political analysts who just throw a scatterplot up on a blog and click “publish.” But Nate Silver isn’t one of them, as anyone who’s read any of his work will know. His posts contain a great deal of interpretation, context, and rather good writing. What distinguishes one of his posts from those of the typical pundit is that his are heavily informed by and even guided by data analysis. But he’s using the data precisely to tell stories and answer questions.

Second, with regards to Weisberg’s complaint that predicting who will win an election isn’t that interesting, yes! That’s true, but Silver isn’t the one who made election forecasts headline news. News editors do that every day when they run poll results on page one above the fold but relegate articles about candidates’ ideas and issues to page 14. Silver didn’t invent horserace coverage. His approach is simply to say, if it’s going to be about the horserace, let’s at least use meaningful numbers.

So, fine, Silver’s got a new project, and since it’s now a much more collaborative one, there will be a lot of things to work out, and a coherent single voice will not emerge on that site overnight. But basically his approach is what it’s always been. Nate hasn’t changed. Neither have his critics.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

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Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.