Infernal Machine   /   March 20, 2014

Who's Afraid of Nate Silver?

Brianne Alcala

On Monday Nate Silver unveiled his revamped 538 blog. Flush with ESPN cash, Silver has collected a team of writers, editors, and "quantitative editors" to carry out an experiment in what he calls "data journalism."

After Silver left The New York Times, Margaret Sullivan, the Times' public editor, said that he had "disrupted" the Grey Lady's culture of journalism, especially its political journalism. Silver's

entire probability-based way of looking at politics ran against the kind of political journalism that The Times specializes in: polling, the horse race, campaign coverage, analysis based on campaign-trail observation, and opinion writing, or “punditry,” as he put it, famously describing it as “fundamentally useless.” Of course, The Times is equally known for its in-depth and investigative reporting on politics. His approach was to work against the narrative of politics – the “story” – and that made him always interesting to read.

Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 9.19.57 PM

In the ramp-up to the launch of the new 538, Silver took a few shots at "traditional" journalism and its proclivity toward punditry. He singled out the opinion pages of the Times, The Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal in particular. Op-ed columnists at these bastions of cultural authority thrive on simplicity and a reliance on one idea regardless of the subject:

They 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.

It’s people who have very strong ideological priors, is the fancy way to put it, that are governing their thinking. They’re not really evaluating the data as it comes in, not doing a lot of [original] thinking. They’re just spitting out the same column every week and using a different subject matter to do the same thing over and over.

It’s ridiculous to me that they undermine every value that these organizations have in their newsrooms. It’s strange. I know it’s cheaper to fund an op-ed columnist than a team of reporters, but I think it confuses the mission of what these great journalistic brands are about.

Silver's answer to this is data journalism, and 538 is an experiment in how it might be done.

Some find Silver's talk about journalism, data, and evidence rather empty. Offended by Silver's attack on opinion, the cantankerous Leon Wieseltier defends "bullshit," Silver's shorthand for op-ed journalism, and asks more simply: what's wrong with conviction? Not every judgment or opinion is a matter of facts that can be culled from the data.

Many of the issues that we debate are not issues of fact but issues of value. There is no numerical answer to the question of whether men should be allowed to marry men, and the question of whether the government should help the weak, and the question of whether we should intervene against genocide. And so the intimidation by quantification practiced by Silver and the other data mullahs must be resisted. Up with the facts! Down with the cult of facts!

In his excitement to tar Silver as a hard-headed positivist oblivious to the varieties of evidence and argumentation and protect us all from the "intimidation by quantification practiced by Silver and the other data mullahs," Wieseltier makes a hard and fast distinction between fact and value.

And this is where Wieseltier's embrace of commentary through conviction sounds more like commentary through charisma. Silver's point is not that data are facts that speak from an unmediated truth to those who only have the will to listen. Data is not easily collected, organized, explained, and generalized. Data is more like a process. There's no such thing as raw data. Data is hard won, theoretically complicated, and wrapped up with questions of value, questions that Wieseltier claims Silver and all his "intimidating" fellow data journalists fear. But that's just not true. For Silver, the point is that data journalism

isn’t just about using numbers as opposed to words. To be clear, our approach at FiveThirtyEight will be quantitative — there will be plenty of numbers at this site. But using numbers is neither necessary nor sufficient to produce good works of journalism.[..] Indeed, as more human behaviors are being measured, the line between the quantitative and the qualitative has blurred.

Silver is trying to figure out what counts as evidence, argument, fact, and value in a digital world awash with easily accessible information. Data, as he puts it, does not have a "virgin birth."

It comes to us from somewhere. Someone set up a procedure to collect and record it. Sometimes this person is a scientist, but she also could be a journalist.

Wieseltier's appeals to "conviction" are meant to avoid such complications and force us into the sure, steely arms of the charismatic critic, someone who believes in something and has no patience with "diffidence."