Nate Silver’s War on Myth

FiveThirtyEight has the potential to ruin all the pundits’ fun.

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Illustration courtesy of Jkr Kromarek

This message is directed to all the pundits, “gut instinct guys,” and backyard bloviators who have built their reputation on the ability to spout pithy, glib, and assertive opinions that sound like facts.

I hope you enjoyed your day. With the launch of the new FiveThirtyEight on Monday, Nate Silver is going to ruin the fun.

Many years ago, I went to hear the President of Wayne County Community College give an after-lunch address in the town where I was working. He looked out at his audience, and asked what we believed to be a rhetorical question: “Why don’t people use facts when they make decisions?” He paused for another moment and then proceeded to answer his own question. “Because,” he said, “facts take all the fun out of decision making.”

Which brings us to Nate Silver, who was last seen introducing facts and removing the fun from the 2012 presidential election. As you will recall, the previous iteration of FiveThirtyEight was Silver’s blog on The New York Times website in which he analyzed polling data. He is not a pollster, though. Silver aggregates data produced by others and then adjusts it based on the pollster’s historic accuracy, arriving at a view of a race that is often supported by thousands of interviews.

This was not his first foray into the employment of math in predicting the future. He started on baseball (I won two fantasy leagues using his PECOTA projection system) and actually made a living playing video poker.

His signature approach is to state his predictions in terms of probabilities. He uses his database to aggregate polling data and translate it into the statement that “Candidate X has a 70% chance of winning.”

The maddening part is that we have been told for years that because a 5-percentage point lead is within the margin for error, the race is therefore “too close to call.” Silver tells us that historically speaking, a candidate with a 5-point lead a week before the election will win that race 90% of the time.

And by doing that, he took all the fun out of observing elections, just as Billy Beane took all the fun out of scouting in Moneyball. Pundits walk around trying to smell momentum; Beane’s scouts would say a player had a “good jaw.”

When Silver applied this technique to the presidential election, he paid the price for being a killjoy, becoming the subject of national debate and way more famous than I suspect he ever expected.

I don’t care that he was reviled by partisans — that’s just the game. I’m more interested in another class of people who reviled Silver: political journalists and pundits.

When I was in college, our instructors taught us that journalism was a fact-based enterprise, and so you would think the “boys on the bus” would have welcomed Silver’s analysis. This was not the case. To explain why, we need to understand the life of a political journalist on the bus. It isn’t fun. Life on the bus means early mornings, crappy food, spotty cell service, and a full dose of bus fumes. And tedium. Hours and hours of tedium.

Which is why when the bus stops in a small town, he might be tempted to sneak off to the coffee shop and seek some human contact, asking a man wearing a green John Deere cap if he minds if he sits down.

He joins the man and they talk. The farmer says he he’s heard a couple of people say that the challenger might have a shot this time. There is some concern about a price support issue and he thinks the incumbent is vulnerable and that the estate tax is a big issue out where land is a man’s wealth. The pundit excuses himself when he hears the bus cough to life.

As he rides to the next town, with nothing but time on his hands and a deadline in his future, he stares out across the fields, fragmented corn stalks poking out of frosty ground. He strokes his chin. Thoughtful.

“Yes,” he thinks, finally, nodding his head. “Something is happening here. I can feel it.” He then writes his column about the challenger exploiting voter unrest in this rural town and that a comeback — a historic comeback — could be brewing under John Deere caps.

He does this, only to find that Nate Silver is telling the world that the challenger has a 20% chance of winning on Tuesday.

The pundits did not take Silver’s assault quietly. As their mothers taught them, they “used their words.” David Brooks, bigfoot columnist from The New York Times, said:

Stuff happens. Obama turns in a bad debate performance. Romney makes offensive comments at a fundraiser. These unquantifiable events change the trajectories of tight campaigns. You can’t tell what’s about to happen. You certainly can’t tell how 100 million people are going to process what’s about to happen. You can’t calculate odds that capture unknown reactions to unknown events.

What he says is right. Nate Silver “can’t tell what’s about to happen.”

Here’s the secret that David Brooks and his buddies never wanted you to know: They can’t either. They can speculate, ruminate, ingratiate or even instigate, but they have no idea what’s going to happen.

There’s another statement in the Brooks quote that is even more interesting. He says “you certainly can’t tell how 100 million people are going to process what’s about to happen.” If that were the issue, he’d be right. Man, would politics be different if every time CNN blasted a breaking news alert or some breathless evening news announcer used the phrase “game changing,” 100 million people processed it — I mean, really processed the development.

Under those circumstances, we’d see a really turbulent political environment.

That’s not the world we live in, though. One hundred million people are immune to the drama. When most political events happen, they don’t “process” them at all, not because they are stupid and uninformed, but because they have other things to pay attention to. They know how they feel, they usually know who they are voting for, and even if something meaningful did happen, it generally isn’t enough to get them to vote for the other guy.

Our bankrupt country spent billions on this presidential election, and yet from wire to wire, the actual “game” almost never changed. Even following Obama’s first debate performance, the “dramatic” move to Romney only accounted for about 5% of the voters, which equals about six million people.

This is all about David Brooks and not about Nate Silver. Brooks liked it the way it was before. In Scooby Doo parlance, Nate Silver is a “meddling kid.”

Silver knows it. After the election, he wrote:

News organizations tend to have incentives to “root for the story”. Part of what we were saying for much of the campaign — both at different stages of the general election and perhaps even more emphatically in the end-stage of the primary when Romney pretty much had things wrapped up — is that the outcome had become fairly certain. So that creates a bit of a culture clash.

While it is accurate to say that the media has “incentives to ‘root for the story,’” it is also a touch facile. A closer examination of the incentives finds a color made from mixing three hues.

First, the media roots for the story out of cynicism. Advertisers demand viewers/readers and those people are going to want to hear a story and without them there’s no reason to be on the bus, and while that might not be the world’s greatest existence, a reporter might be thinking that she still has to make a living and it would be in everyone’s interest to keep the wheels turning.

They also root for the story out a desire to give meaning to what they do. If you’re going to suffer the discomfort and indignity of a bus ride across rural Wisconsin, it ought to be in the service of something important — in this case, making and reporting meaningful first hand observations of an unfolding true-life drama.

Finally, they root for the story because of the power it gives them. Until recently, the media was the definer. In politics, reporters were constantly being courted. After debates, giant rooms were reserved so campaigns could spin the results to hundreds of reporters at once. Let’s be honest: it is a drug anyone could get hooked on.

In the intervening months, there’s no doubt that Silver emerged the winner and took all of the fun out of political reporting. He left The New York Times to move to Disney. His new site settles the issue: Nate Silver is not going anywhere.

At the new site, they’re going to do more than politics, so the pundits will have company — laugh now, weather personalities, “health reporters,” and economic “analysts.” The spotlight could be on you next.

But take heart, too. Maybe there’s a nourishing world of understanding lying beyond the world of myth.

Maybe when the man in the John Deere cap tells the political pundit about the importance of agricultural price supports, the reporter could remind the farmer that those payments aren’t free — they come from the pockets of real people who worked hard to earn their money, too.

Or maybe the weather personality will spend less time hyping the next storm and more time educating the public about how our climate and humans interact.

Or maybe the health reporter will pull back the reins on the latest “connection” between a random substance and cancer, and spend time helping people understand the boring and real risks they accept blindly every day.

You get the idea.

Once we abandon the game of myth making, we can focus our media noise machine on the task of healing from the inside out. The first step in this pursuit is nothing more complicated than to spend less time inflaming people’s existing notions and more time helping people understand the world around them.

BJ Fischer is a writer and blogger who has published on subjects including the use of baseball by conservatives and the significance of the moon landing to someone who watched it as a five year old. He is also an award-winning creator of television and public relations commercials and campaigns. He lives in Saline, Michigan, outside Ann Arbor.