Nate Silver’s new venture, FiveThirtyEight, has opened to some of the harshest reviews since Moose Murders. Okay, that’s clearly a huge exaggeration, but thus far, the critics have been less than kind. Paul Krugman is the latest to weigh in, referring to the site as “something between a disappointment and a disaster.” Krugman’s diagnosis as to what’s gone wrong is spot-on:
Unfortunately, Silver seems to have taken the wrong lesson from his election-forecasting success. In that case, he pitted his statistical approach against campaign-narrative pundits, who turned out to know approximately nothing. What he seems to have concluded is that there are no experts anywhere, that a smart data analyst can and should ignore all that.
In the current issue of The Washington Monthly, Paul Glastris casts a skeptical eye on the wonkosphere, noting its weaknesses when it comes to traditional beat reporting as well as over-the-horizon type journalism, stories that “the news media should be focused on but aren’t.”
Glastris points out that what the wonkosphere does seem to be best at is “illuminating and adjudicating policy disputes at the center of the day’s political news.” This gives us insight into why the FiveThirtyEight roll-out has misfired so badly. Precisely because we’re supposed to trust the wonks to responsibly adjudicate technical policy disputes, Silver has managed to do a lot of damage to the FiveThirtyEight brand by hiring a climate change skeptic.
But it’s still early, there’s plenty of time to recover, and I hope Silver’s project does so. Today, Silver got back to doing what he does better than anyone else in the business: making election forecasts. He reports that the Republicans are now the slight favorites to gain at least six seats and win back the Senate. In his last projections, made last year, he’d concluded that Senate control was basically a toss-up. I’m not happy about the new forecast results, but I trust them. Let’s hope he brings on more people who are are as trustworthy in their various areas of expertise as he is in his.
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