Nate Silver's war on opinion

  • 20 March 2014
  • comments
Nate Silver
FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver opts for data over opinion

Nate Silver, who made a name for himself with his FiveThirtyEight politics website and highly accurate forecast of the 2012 presidential election results, has been an outspoken critic of opinion journalism.

"Plenty of pundits have really high IQs, but they don't have any discipline in how they look at the world," he said to New York magazine's Joe Coscarelli.

He calls them "hedgehogs" with one big idea and little rigour:

They don't permit a lot of complexity in their thinking. They pull threads together from very weak evidence and draw grand conclusions based on them. They're ironically very predictable from week to week.

He has particularly strong words for the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

"I know it's cheaper to fund an op-ed columnist than a team of reporters, but I think it confuses the mission of what these great journalistic brands are about," he writes.

Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of a magazine known for its opinion journalism, the New Republic, is rankled by that view.

First, however, he concedes that there are grounds for criticism:

The quality of opinion journalism in America is a matter of concern for opinion journalists, too. Opinion, after all, is easy. In a democratic society, moreover, opinion is holy. "It's just my opinion": with those magical words, which are designed to change the subject, Americans regularly seek sanctuary from intellectual pressure on their utterances. Their opinions do not deserve such immunity, of course, and neither do the opinions of columnists. The state of American punditry is not strong. A lot of it is lazy, tendentious and lost to style.

He says Silver's words are "slander", however. There are plenty of opinion journalists who ground their views in "analytical and empirical seriousness".

Silver questions the very legitimacy of opinion journalism, he continues, and that is a dangerous path to tread.

"Since an open society stands or falls on the quality of its citizens' opinions, the refinement of their opinions, and more generally of the process of opinion-formation, is a primary activity of its intellectuals and its journalists," he writes.

Can you quantify whether gay marriage should be legal? Or the necessity of a social safety net? Or whether intervention abroad to prevent genocide is a moral obligation? These are the types of questions, Wieseltier writes, that the "cult of numbers" can't answer.

He concludes:

Neutrality is an evasion of responsibility, unless everything is like sports... Nate Silver had made a success out of an escape into diffidence. What is it about conviction that frightens these people?

Politico's media blogger Dylan Byers notes the irony of Silver basing his view of opinion journalism in general by relying on a handful of examples - singling out the Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan in his website's "manifesto", for example. It's exactly the type of qualitative, anecdotal analyses Silver professes to condemn.

Byers also says Silver invited these latest attacks by his relentless data-driven evangelism.

"It would have been all well and good for Silver to quietly launch his site while stressing the benefits of data-driven journalism," he writes. "Instead, he chose to spend months preaching about the superiority of his model while attacking traditional journalism - and more specifically, punditry - as if it were worthless and inferior."

Now opinion journalists and commentators are firing back. And they're carefully watching Silver's new 538 website relaunch, sharp knives at the ready.