Jul
24
2013

Nate Silver Didn't Fit In at the New York Times Because He Believed in the Real World

Nate Silver

Nate Silver (photo: JD Lasica)

In retrospect, Nate Silver's move from the New York Times to ESPN is not too surprising; there's really not too much to say about electoral polling in non-election years, whereas sports (which are what got Silver interested in number-crunching to begin with) generate statistics all year every year. And Silver's new employer is going to let him write about whatever interests him: political forecasting as well as sports, along with economics, say, or the weather  (Guardian, 7/22/13). (Hopefully not too much about the weather.) 

I did find New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan's comments (7/22/13) on Silver's departure interesting; Silver "went against the grain for some at the Times," as the headline of her post put it. Sullivan wrote:

A number of traditional and well-respected Times journalists disliked his work. The first time I wrote about him I suggested that print readers should have the same access to his writing that online readers were getting. I was surprised to quickly hear by e-mail from three high-profile Times political journalists, criticizing him and his work. They were also tough on me for seeming to endorse what he wrote, since I was suggesting that it get more visibility.

Sullivan doesn't detail what kind of complaints these journalists had about Silver's work–which is perhaps an indication that she didn't find it too persuasive–but around that time, shortly before the 2012 election, well-known media figures from a variety of outlets were making a fairly consistent critique. Here was the Washington Post's Dana Milbank (FAIR Blog, 11/5/12):

There's Nate Silver, a statistician-blogger at the New York Times, who predicts with scientific precision that President Obama will win 303 electoral votes and beat Romney by 2 percentage points in the popular vote…. The truth is anybody who claims to know what is going to happen on Election Day is making it up and counting on being lucky.

And MSNBC's Joe Scarborough (FAIR Blog, 11/2/12):

Anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue, they should be kept away from typewriters, computers, laptops and microphones for the next 10 days, because they're jokes.

And the Times' own David Brooks (FAIR Blog, 11/2/12):

If you tell me you think you can quantify an event that is about to happen that you don't expect, like the 47 percent comment or a debate performance, I think you think you are a wizard. That's not possible.

The thing is, Silver didn't think you could use polls to project the outcome of elections because he had a mystical faith in the power of polling–rather, he had looked at a large number of pre-election polls and found that they had a consistent correlation to the results on Election Day. But this kind of empiricism is weirdly frowned upon in journalism circles; the pundits denouncing Silver as a joke or would-be wizard in 2012 seemingly didn't even bother to go back and check how he had done in 2008. (He had called all but one state, Indiana, correctly.)

This is what I like to describe as the difference between objectivity and "objectivity." Objectivity is the belief that there is a real world out there that's more or less knowable; the "objectivity" that journalists practice holds that it's impossible to know what's real, so all you can do is report the claims made by various (powerful) people. The chief benefit of "objectivity" is that it means you will never have to tell any powerful person that they're wrong about anything.

If someone comes along and tells you that, no, there are ways to figure out what's actually happening with the world, and simply repeating without question what interested parties claim to be happening is not a very helpful approach, that's going to be, as Sullivan put it, "disruptive." That's what I think she's really getting at when she says, "I don’t think Nate Silver ever really fit into the Times culture and I think he was aware of that."

 

 

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.