Most readers probably have at least a passing familiarity with one of the two previous incarnations (the first self-published, the second under the aegis of the New York Times) of FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver’s data-driven and often provocative contribution to political journalism. You may also know that Nate has more recently partnered with ESPN, and after a hiatus, is about to resume publication in a new format in which politics is just one topic, along with economics, science, “life,” and his original focus, sports.
As part of his relaunch, Nate has now posted an explanation of the “new 538” that covers a lot of familiar ground to those of us who followed the many controversies his approach to politics spawned, particularly among “game change” opinion journalists who were threatened by his data-grounded analysis and predictions. He also makes an argument about his critics that will be quite familiar to anyone who remembers the resistance of “baseball people” to “sabermetrics,” the statistical analysis of that sport pioneered by Bill James (and as explained in the book and movie Moneyball, for those more interested in Brad Pitt and the late Philip Seymour Hoffmann than in sports): those who decry the value of new data often rely on stereotypes derived from old—and often very limited and inaccurate—data. It’s as true in politics as in baseball:
Peggy Noonan, the Wall Street Journal columnist, wrote a blog post on the eve of the 2012 election that critiqued those of us who were “too busy looking at data on paper instead of what’s in front of us.” Instead, “all the vibrations” were right for a Romney victory, she wrote.
Among other things, Noonan cited the number of Romney yard signs, and the number of people at his rallies, as evidence that he was bound to win. But these “vibrations” are, in fact, quantifiable. You could hire a team of stringers to drive around randomly selected neighborhoods in swing states and count the yard signs. And news accounts routinely estimate the number of attendees at political rallies. Noonan could have formulated a testable hypothesis: Do yard signs predict election outcomes better than polls do?
The problem is not the failure to cite quantitative evidence. It’s doing so in a way that can be anecdotal and ad-hoc, rather than rigorous and empirical, and failing to ask the right questions of the data.
This parallels my own maxim that there’s no such thing as too much information in politics. There’s bad data, and poorly analyzed data, but nobody interested in, well, reality should feel threatened by data itself.
As it happens, I was honored to be a contributor for a while to the first iteration of 538 (the Times dumped me just before the second iteration began on grounds that I had too many “partisan associations”). Not being terribly adept at advanced statistics or their presentation, I mostly handled newsier chores, like primary previews, live blogs and immediate post-morterms. And I was pleased to see that Nate continues to acknowledge that the most significant shortcoming of his own approach is speed. So even though he has a low opinion of “opinion journalism,” there should always be room for us speedy bloggers, particularly if we have respect for what we do and don’t know.
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