I don’t know what the New York Times thought Nate Silver was going to be doing for them for the next couple of years.
Endlessly rehashing his analyses of the few reliable polls from the relative handful of Congressional races at play in 2014? And then?
Silver is now legendary for being a numbers guy. But there aren’t going to be any useful numbers for analyzing the next Presidential election until the middle of 2015 at the earliest. The circumstances under which the election will take place---the state of the economy, whether we’re at war or peace, the President’s popularity and if and how that will transfer to the Democratic nominee, what issues are galvanizing which voters, etc.---won’t make themselves known and so won’t show up as numbers in polls at least until then. And until then, everything said about the election is idle speculation, and we know how Silver feels about idly speculating.
But we also know that the most incorrigible idle speculators believe idle speculation is the point.
The pundits and editorialists and talk show bobbleheads believe we follow election coverage to hear them speculate and in fact to see the speculators themselves, as if the reason we have elections is to advance their celebrity.
“He uses numbers to prove stuff…” This is their most damning criticism of Silver. Proving “stuff” is irrelevant to them, which of course means being right is irrelevant. Sounding right, sounding smart, sounding like you know things nobody else knows while you idly speculate is what it’s all about.
It’s no wonder they hate him. What Silver does shows that what they’re doing is mostly just showing off while playing intellectual games. It also shows that after a certain point, there isn’t anything to add, and so all the blowhards should just shut up and go home at let the election take its course.
I have no idea what the Times’ Public Editor Margaret Sullivan means by the culture of the Times or how Silver didn’t fit in. It does seem that the Times regarded FiveThirtyEight as a part of its political reporting machine, an important part, but still a part, which comes close to meaning they saw Silver himself as a part too, an it not a him. Most normal human beings would find the all politics all the time---all Beltway politics all the time---workings of that machine stultifying.
Silver’s the only one who knows for sure why he decided to make the move and he’ll either tell us or he won’t. My bet would be that if he does, he’ll simply say something along the lines of the obvious. ESPN offered him more money, more independence, and more room to stretch out intellectually and spiritually.
For most normal people there are things in life far more interesting than national politics, even things far more important to them.
We political junkies hanging out on the internet, obsessing over our Twitter feeds, often can’t believe the trivial stories that excite the masses. What we don’t consider is that we are seeing people looking for news that makes their own lives bearable. For instance, for a great many people the news that a seemingly nice young couple are celebrating the healthy birth of their first child is the best news they’ve had in days, even if they’ll never meet Harry William (Editor's note: corrected by the blonde. See comments.) and Kate or the royal baby. Being happy for others is an underestimated way to make ourselves happy.
Silver will be covering “sports…economics, culture, science, and technology”, as well as politics for ESPN. Just the thought of being able to branch out like that must have made his soul expand like a sponge in bathwater. How many days between the middle of last August and November 6 did he have to go to work thinking, How am I going to say differently what I’ve been saying, that there’s been no significant movement in the polls that show the election isn’t going where it’s going? How many times did he have to explain to his colleagues that there was no such thing as Mittmentum? How many times did he have to look at them looking at him like he was crazy or stupid or deliberately being a prick?
If there are enough idle speculators at the Times, I can see how things might have been a little uncomfortable around the newsroom for Silver. But I don’t know that’s the case.
I do know there are enough reporters of all kinds at the Times that Silver might have inadvertently alienated to the point that a walk to the cafeteria would have meant running a gantlet of glares and hostile whispers, because what Silver does seems to negate the need for journalism.
All journalism. Political journalism especially, but still all journalism.
It’s like this:
People go into journalism because they want to find and tell stories. A great many journalists are would-be novelists and screenwriters. They like stories, they like to think about human beings and what makes them tick, they see the value of telling stories. They might not put it n the same words, but fundamentally they agree with Joan Didion: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live…” But what’s the point of going out to report a story if you can just sit at your desk and open a spreadsheet? What Silver does seems to show that stories don’t tell us what we need to know.
I think that’s the wrong way of looking at it. I think it just shows that good journalists have to take more into consideration than they’re used to when they tell their stories.
Good journalists---responsible journalists---have always known there are numbers available that back up what they’re saying or show it up for a load of horseshit and you need to look at those numbers carefully
Unfortunately, many journalists, if they aren’t innumerate, are mathophobic. Corner a pack of your average newspaper reporters on the subject and they’ll tell you, honestly, flat out, One of the reasons we went into this field was they promised us we wouldn’t have to do any math! Try to get them to break down a bar graph and watch them smile weakly and let their eyes goggle.
What Silver has done, though, is not just show that looking at the numbers is important but that there are more numbers out there, more data, than anyone knew or bothered to know and that instead of looking at the data being something to use to back up a story, looking at the data can be the story.
So I can see how some journalists would see what Silver does as a threat.
What he does, though, is a threat to political journalists or, rather, it is a direct challenge to the way they do their jobs.
The best political journalists aren’t idle speculators. They’re out there to find out what’s actually going on. They believe that that’s knowable. But their way of knowing it is to find and tell stories. They believe that if they find enough of the right stories and tell them well those stories will add up. They will have meaning in that they will predict the way an election’s going or an issue’s building. And being good reporters, and good storytellers, they often come back with excellent stories, stories so good they just have to mean something.
You know what they say about golf being a good walk spoiled? A lot of political reporting from “the ground” is good feature writing spoiled. The spoiling comes when the reporters or their editors try to make a story mean something. This usually results in stories bent to fit the conventional wisdom coming out of Washington. Reporters go out into the heartland in order to tell us what people in the know are thinking back in D.C.
This is “the narrative.” It’s the collective work of the idle speculators and it’s what Silver’s work last fall demolished. In demolishing the narrative, though, many journalists may have felt that he’d demolished their stories along with it and, for good measure, a need for those stories.
But the upshot of Silver’s work is that what’s actually going on is knowable. There are just more tools available to know it. Journalists can learn to use those tools.
Actually, sports journalism has been through this already. A generation ago baseball writers had to deal with their time and field’s version of Nate Silver.
His name was Bill James and he changed the way reporters covered the game. James is credited with having invented sabermetrics and baseball writes didn't like him for it. What James did was show that it wasn't enough to lazily look up numbers to back up a story, writers should study the numbers to find the story. To put it another way, the numbers were the story.
And how did Nate Silver make his early reputation?
As a sabermetrician writing for Baseball Prospectus.
You can look it up.
Up top I said that there won't be any useful numbers to look at to tell us anything about the next Presidential election until the middle of 2015 at the earliest. But Ezra Klein points out that last time out Silver began building his models "many, many months before the election, and long before the polls [became] particularly predictive or frequent." Silver was finding and collecting and analyzing other data that would become useful (or be discarded) over the course of the campaign season. I don't know if Ezra means by "many, many months" three years. But it suggests that there could have been something for Silver to be doing at the Times now besides idly speculating.
At that point, Silver’s model doesn’t mainly run on polls (it becomes poll heavy as the election nears and the polls become more predictive). It uses ideology and incumbency and economic growth. I think of that model as a journalistic innovation more than a statistical one. It gave Silver a way to cover the election at a time when everyone knows the polls aren’t worth much but people want to read about the election anyway.
Ezra also thinks that one of Silver's important contributions to political journalism is "narrativizing the data."
The core challenge of covering elections is that pretty much nothing important happens on any given day. That’s particularly true 12 months before the election, which is when Silver wrote his magazine story, but it’s even true in the days just before an election.
The way a lot of horserace coverage deals with this problem is by blowing up unimportant news — gaffes and ads and the like — into stories that makes the readers feel like they’re learning urgent new facts about the campaign even as nothing changed that day and whatever gaffe or ad or speech got made stands almost no chance of influencing the campaign...
What Silver figured out how to make data-driven election journalism into a daily product that could satisfy political obsessives.
On any given day, you could head to FiveThirtyEight and get a new forecast and an engaging and clear explanation from Silver on what had changed in the forecast. Rather than covering the slow days of the election through the incremental news of the campaign trail, he covered it through the incremental changes on his spreadsheet.
Now, as you can also see from what I wrote up top, I think that having to tell the story of what he saw on his spreadsheets everyday would have been a drawback to the job---How many different ways can you write "Obama's still ahead and it looks like he's going to stay that way"?---but Ezra seems to think Silver was doing something exciting, telling a new rattling good yarn every day with numbers in place of armies and pirates and zombies.
A long time ago, when the earth was new and blogs were still dewy and fresh, I saw the liberal blog world breaking down into a rivalry between the writers and the wonks. Ezra Klein was one of the wonks, a fact about himself he is still unashamed.
Hat tip to Brad DeLong for the links to Sullivan's column, the Verge story, and Klein's post.
If you like what goes on around here and you can swing it, please consider making a donation. It would be a real help and much appreciated.