Monday, December 3, 2012

Nate Silver vs. Politico

I'm a bit late getting to this, but the itty bitty brouhaha between Nate Silver, famously of 538 fame, and Politico deserves a few words.

A good starting point is the October column by Dylan Byers asking whether Silver is a one-term wonder, arguing "more than a few political pundits and reporters, including some of his own colleagues, believe Silver is highly overrated."

Of course, this was written before Silver called the 2012 election -- all 50 states -- correctly.  Nerds 1, Pundits 0.

This past week, Silver let fly at Politico.  There are plenty of versions of the story, but to save space I'll point to this one.  The key point by Silver is this:
Politico is a ‘who won the day’ kind of thing, right? They’re trying to cover [politics] like sports, but not in an intelligent way at all. They want to create noise, basically.”
I'm a huge Silver fan.  I'm a numbers guy myself.  But I want to discuss, if every so briefly, whether it's fair to criticize Politico on this basis.  After all, the site is not named Governo (the .com version, by the way, is held by a law firm).  The site is about politics, not governing.  It's about campaigns, not policy -- except when policy finds its way into politics, and even then you don't get a hell of a lot of nuts-and-bolts depth from the guys and gals of Politico. 

It's very purpose, to me at least, is to cover politics like sports. 

And isn't that kind what Silver does, just with statistics?

In the campaign season, Silver is aggregating state and national public opinion polls about the greatest of horse race questions -- who's gonna win.  He just does it very well, better than the pundits to get overpaid to see things that aren't really there, like magical invisible momentum.  What pundits really hate is how Silver points out, through careful analysis, how their overpaid advice really makes little difference. 

Of course this isn't all Silver does.  He made his name crunching baseball statistics, and he often turns his mathematical models at other topics as well.  He's a good writer, a good thinker, and a helluva number cruncher.

But 538, in campaign season, is turning mostly to politics as sport, as in who's gonna win the ballgame.  It's just that 538 does it better, without all the window dressing and "expert" opinion, than the pundit sites.  I love him for it.  In this fight, like the earlier ones, he wins.  I just think his criticism of covering politics like sports is a bit of a whiff.  That's kinda Politico's approach, it's underlying assumption.  If I want policy, I go to the NYTimes and a host of other elite sites and pubs.

Also, I've finally started Silver's book.  More on that later.

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