Interview with Nate Silver about 538

by on March 14, 2014 at 3:17 am in Data Source, Science, Web/Tech | Permalink

Here is an excellent interview with Nate Silver about his new project, interesting throughout.  Here is one bit:

People also think it’s going to be a sports site with a little politics thrown in, or it’s going to be a politics site with sports thrown in. I understand why people say that — what we’ve been known for, plus ESPN, plus ABC News. But we take our science and economics and lifestyle coverage very seriously.

Some of the interview made me a little nervous.  He inveighs against New York Times Op-Ed columnists (juicy passages, click on the link if you wish), but their knowledge is more synthetic and also more novel than I think Silver recognizes.  I am not sure why “predictable” points of view are necessarily less likely to be true, or less likely to be important, even though they are (to me as well) less interesting to read.

Here are some more words from Silver:

We’re not sociopaths, which means that we look at the world and have opinions. But we’re not trying to do advocacy here. We’re trying to just do analysis. We’re not trying to sway public opinion on anything except trying to make them more numerate. I would say we’re not going to do a ton of public-policy coverage. We think that space is pretty rich now with competition. I also think with something like the health-care bill, it’s going to take years to get a good sense of how that’s working and how it’s affecting the market.

That too makes me a little nervous.  For instance there is the risk of assuming that the most important issues always or usually involve measurement.   Technocrats who rail against the ideologies of others are often the most ideological people around, even if their biases do not line up with the political spectrum in the usual manner.  Is there really such a thing as “just do analysis”?  Is it not better to make the underlying value presuppositions more explicit?  And why the knock at people who don’t have opinions about public affairs?  They’re not sociopaths, and frankly I’m not even fully comfortable with a blanket condemnation of sociopaths.

Earlier today I was reading John Hauer’s excellent The Natural Superiority of Mules.  It is a deliberately species-ist book, without a shred of objectivity, and the title reveals the blatant biases of the author.  The book has data, but is not data-driven.  It is “advocacy of mules driven.”  Get the subtitle: “A Celebration of One of the Most Intelligent, Sure-Footed, and Misunderstood Animals in the World” (eyes roll).  Yet I learned a great deal from it, and I will read any web site that can do as well.

Ray Lopez March 14, 2014 at 3:30 am

For the same reason Ben Franklin advocated the wild turkey rather than the bald eagle as the national bird. Just the facts, no hype.

john personna March 14, 2014 at 11:07 am

As I mentioned in the other thread, I think the Fairness Doctrine was a good aspirational rule. Not because it was always met, but because it positioned the target.

I’m frankly shocked that Tyler would be “made nervous” by a fact-gathering round, before policies are concocted … because what we have too often is policy concocted purely from personal philosophy (or bias) and few contacts with the ground.

As witnessed by endeavors as high as the NYT and as low as the MR comments, we have rafts of people who will jump to a stock political answer (mood affiliation or not).

It is good (and probably better) to have someone working it more as a public service than a soap box.

bon_supp March 14, 2014 at 11:31 am

I think Tyler is nervous more about Silver’s potential hubris and overreach judging by his lack of modesty in this interview. TC makes some good critical points, but I would imagine he still will read 538 and he respects Silver.

My question is: What conclusion are we to draw from TC thoughtfully critiquing one new “analyze the news” endeavor while giving an uncritical pass to (and even a pre-emptive defense of) another? For my money, I’ll be watching the one that makes TC respond with more complexity.

john personna March 14, 2014 at 11:36 am

Well, to my knowledge I think I am the only person in America who still thinks that the Fairness Doctrine was a good idea(*), that even if it “failed” it was better than what came after. If Silver wan’t to self-impose such a framework, good on him. More people should.

* – for its time and simple media landscape

Yancey Ward March 14, 2014 at 12:30 pm

Who gets to decide what is fair, John?

john personna March 14, 2014 at 12:43 pm

I’ve been talking about goals and aspirations, Yancey. On the other side, we must do what we can as viewers/readers to sort it all out. And of course we live in the age of linked media. Ideas can be judged by the nature of their support, and the nature of attacks on them. The side with the fewest fallacies should win, in a fair world.

john personna March 14, 2014 at 12:49 pm

(The old Fairness Doctrine did have formal rules.)

Yancey Ward March 14, 2014 at 1:05 pm

Yes, I followed your threads with Donohue below, but he was right- you are conflating proclamations with true aspirations. In the thread below, you were arguing that skepticism is the same as denying that objectivity is a worthy goal- a position that literally makes no sense. Pardon me if I think your position here would be completely different were the subject of the blog post were someone else, like Thomas Sowell.

For Silver, I think his work to date suggests I should take what he is doing seriously, unlike, for example, Ezra Klein. I will give him (Silver) the benefit of the doubt, but not because I believe his proclamations are true aspirations, but a lot of his work has been validated by outcomes.

john personna March 14, 2014 at 1:14 pm

It sounds like you agree with me, then. You too admire the goal, and you are not “made nervous” by the attempt.

(You might be stretching, adversarial even, to be find some wedge of disagreement with my “conflation.”)

john personna March 14, 2014 at 11:20 am

Shorter:

How can I read you, Tyler, or any of you commenters, if you do not accept objectivity as a goal?

I might want to have a rational conversation, but if you’ve just said it is is all BS to you, what’s the point?

Yancey Ward March 14, 2014 at 1:10 pm

This right here is your fundamental misunderstanding, John- you are impugning healthy skepticism by claiming the commenters think objectivity is an unworthy goal. I have read all the comments, and not a single one yet has stated objectivity is wrong- only that they doubt true intent.

john personna March 14, 2014 at 1:18 pm

Didn’t Tyler ask some pretty extreme questions above?

Is there really such a thing as “just do analysis”? Is it not better to make the underlying value presuppositions more explicit?

He asks whether analysis can exist without value propositions. To a guy with a chemistry degree that sound pretty odd. What, I need to know what I feel about CO2 before shooting it with some IR and measuring temperatures?

john personna March 14, 2014 at 1:20 pm

In terms of “one yet has stated objectivity is wrong- only that they doubt true intent” – I do think “objectivity is impossible” is the root of much evil, yes.

prior_approval March 14, 2014 at 4:03 am

‘but their knowledge is more synthetic and also more novel than I think Silver recognizes’

No wonder you are nervous – Silver has quite the reputation for data backed recognition.

Maybe he didn’t hang out at the same lunch table?

‘Another former Times writer, someone who has gone on to great success elsewhere, expressed similar contempt (and even used the word “embarrass”) and says it’s longstanding.

“I think the editorials are viewed by most reporters as largely irrelevant, and there’s not a lot of respect for the editorial page. The editorials are dull, and that’s a cardinal sin. They aren’t getting any less dull. As for the columnists, Friedman is the worst. He hasn’t had an original thought in 20 years; he’s an embarrassment. He’s perceived as an idiot who has been wrong about every major issue for 20 years, from favoring the invasion of Iraq to the notion that green energy is the most important topic in the world even as the financial markets were imploding. Then there’s Maureen Dowd, who has been writing the same column since George H. W. Bush was president.”

————————————————-

There is suddenly evidence that the festering dissatisfaction with the edit page has broken into what one reporter dubbed “semi-open revolt.” One reporter says that he literally will not allow Mr. Rosenthal to join their lunch table in the cafeteria.’ http://observer.com/2014/02/the-tyranny-and-lethargy-of-the-times-editorial-page/?show=all

Tummler March 14, 2014 at 10:15 am

There are signs that society has just about had enough from shitboomers.

derek March 14, 2014 at 10:37 am

Or of the New York Times. I live on the opposite corner of the continent, so it isn’t seen much here except for a trendy coffee shop that makes great baked goods. A while ago I picked up a few days old Times and tried to read it. It was plonkingly boring and bad writing; obvious evidence of a few editors quickly and sloppily changing the articles each in a different direction. The editorials were predictable and sleep inducing. I think that Mexican guy got suckered.

Duracomm March 14, 2014 at 11:39 am

Good article on the ny times referencing the one above.

Fast Times at Eighth Avenue High Our adolescent media

This is no laughing matter. Anger with Rosenthal has reached such a pitch, Kurson says, that the “very fabric of the institution” is threatened. Imagine:

The prospect lies before us of a civil war between the Times’s 1,250 newsroom staff, with Front Page crashing Weddings / Celebrations, International barrel-bombing New York, Dining feasting on the remains of the Book Review, Sports Wednesday sacking Business Day, Science Times dissecting Corrections, and Automobiles hijacked by a fabulously attired Sunday Styles.

The horror! The horror!

Steve Sailer March 14, 2014 at 4:09 am

“I would say we’re not going to do a ton of public-policy coverage. We think that space is pretty rich now with competition. I also think with something like the health-care bill, it’s going to take years to get a good sense of how that’s working and how it’s affecting the market.”

Silver is a very bright guy, and he understands that the public likes short-term horse race predictions. Winner-take-all toss-ups, such as elections, are what catch the public’s interest.

By the way, if my sense of the 2012 election is correct, if Silver succeeds in raising numeracy about political forecasting, then Republicans will be the net beneficiaries. My impression of the 2012 election (which may be fallacious) is that Romney got ripped off royally by the senior political consultants he hired at retail rates to provide him with their analytic mystery mojo, while Obama put a lot of younger quants on salary, giving the incumbent much better value for money. If Silver succeeds in demystifying the predictive process, even Republicans will know how to do it.

– See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2014/03/interview-with-nate-silver-about-538.html#comments

Z March 14, 2014 at 9:00 am

He also knows his core audience likes their politics littered with science-y sounding jargon. 99% of his readers scan his site looking for the conveniently easy to remember conclusion. That way they can run around the Interwebs talking about how the “maths are on their side.”

Just because Silver’s act lacks jugglers and midgets does not mean it is not a circus.

dan1111 March 14, 2014 at 10:20 am

As a conservative, I found Silver’s analysis of the last election cycle serious, valuable, and not driven by partisan bias. I’m not really sure what you’re talking about.

greg March 14, 2014 at 11:58 am

Notice that Z said “his readers.” Silver’s actual posts were good, but the comments … scores of liberals (probably humanities majors) who had no clue what he was doing and were just there for reassurance.

y March 14, 2014 at 12:53 pm

>He also knows his core audience likes their politics littered with science-y sounding jargon.

Kind of the wave of neo-social-darwinists, that last took biology in high school but fancy themselves experts in evolutionary psychology, right?

Alistair March 15, 2014 at 4:01 am

If Silver knew as much about public choice as he does about intermediate-level statatistics, his followers would be a lot less sanguine about “Maths being on their side”…

dan1111 March 14, 2014 at 10:18 am

Attributing Romney’s loss to the numbers people on the teams is dubious. Romney just had a losing hand.

greg March 14, 2014 at 11:34 am

The point isn’t that he would have won with a good data team, merely that he would have had a realistic view of his chances. Romney appeared legitimately shocked by the loss and that just should not have happened. The last week, he was campaigning in Pennsylvania. Guy had no clue.

Steve Sailer March 14, 2014 at 6:30 pm

Obama won 12 out of the 13 battleground states. Luck or skill? I wouldn’t rule out skill. And even if it was just luck, Romney sure paid a lot of money out to consultants for his bad luck.

mofo. March 14, 2014 at 2:08 pm

This. Everyone likes a good ‘moneyball’ type story, but in this case Romney’s problem was Romney.

Lonely Realist March 14, 2014 at 10:27 am

“Quanti-ing” the Republican party will have two possible outcomes:

1) Doubling down on their current agenda and just doing a better job of finding the base that subscribes to the party platform.

or

2) Changing their policies to appeal to a broader base.

We all know which outcome will already happen, so I think it’s a moot point. Do you really think that the GOP base because Obama-lover Silver (as he is known in conservative circles) has done a certain analysis? To them Silver might as well be the United Nations, imposing standards on them from the outside.

Steve Sailer March 14, 2014 at 4:23 am

“The Natural Superiority of Mules”

The less popular sequel will be “The Natural Inferiority of Hinnies.”

http://www.ruralheritage.com/mule_paddock/hinny_whynot.htm

Roy March 14, 2014 at 4:27 am

Hauer’s book is fantastic, but then I’m a mule guy myself, did you know that many of the conquistadors rode mules, in any wilderness area they are superior.

The Times editorial page is just awful, it is even bad by the very low standard of the modern US newspaper editorial. I am not referring to the op-ed here, but the editorial. I am not even saying this because I disagree with its ideology, which I do. But even by reflexive left wing Upper West side standards it is painful, if Gail Collins wrote it it would be an improvement.

anne March 14, 2014 at 4:45 am

Agree that many editorial writers are fossilized and reflexively partisan in their views. (I would guess they drive traffic of that proportion of readers who just want to see someone say what they are thinking- shouting loudly and cleverly for their team.)

I wish Mr. Silver would take a peek into his own ideological bent and realize that he shouldn’t be “worried” that he hasn’t hired enough women; also the fact that at least one person on staff is gay doesn’t preclude “clubhouse chemistry.” Identity politics is apparently so thick in the ratified air of media elites, even folks as bright as Silver don’t realize they are breathing it.

anne March 14, 2014 at 4:47 am

^rarefied not ratified

affenkopf March 14, 2014 at 5:15 am

Earlier today I was reading John Hauer’s excellent The Natural Superiority of Mules. It is a deliberately species-ist book, without a shred of objectivity, and the title reveals the blatant biases of the author. The book has data, but is not data-driven. It is “advocacy of mules driven.”

Reminds me of Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World.

Grendel March 14, 2014 at 5:18 am

After reading the interview, it seems like Silver doesn’t really *get* the hedgehog-fox distinction.

Ian Leslie March 14, 2014 at 5:25 am

Is it just me or (and I speak as a fan of Silver’s work) does he sound like he’s just snorted a line of himself in this interview? The sniping and self-aggrandising is unattractive. Not to mention unwise.

Lonely Realist March 14, 2014 at 10:28 am

It’s almost as if his job depends on self-promotion, and casting a contrast between himself and pundits…

Millian March 14, 2014 at 6:46 am

I would object to Silver’s line of argument if most commentators, or even half of them, adopted his methods. But he’s right: they’re mostly ideologues whose columns are predictable from their views, which are already known, and so are totally uninformative. Thomas Friedman, Maureen Dowd, and the others mentioned above are essentially familiar comfort blankets for their fans, like a comic strip page.

TMC March 14, 2014 at 11:56 am

…like a comic strip page.” +1

Tracy W March 14, 2014 at 6:56 am

I’m getting the impression that sociopath and psychopath are being used more and more just to mean “bad”.

john personna March 14, 2014 at 11:12 am

It is possible that only a subset of sociopath and psychopath personality types are “bad.” The rest function well enough,

Roy March 14, 2014 at 4:56 pm

That is what happens when you don’t have a shared morality that is defined anymore. You need non morality based ways of expressing moral judgements.

Thomas March 14, 2014 at 11:55 pm

+1

Claudia March 14, 2014 at 7:15 am

“we’re not trying to do advocacy here”

I hear this often from people who do empirical analysis and I think it is willfully naive. It is important to “own” your results (stand by their quality, present them clearly) AND to understand how others might use them (correctly or incorrectly). 538 may not try to do advocacy but I am certain some of their analysis will be used by advocates (who else cares more deeply about this stuff?). But if they elevate the quality of empirical journalism and teach the world something about statistics it will be worth every silly Silver soundbite.

Rahul March 14, 2014 at 8:51 am

I’m not sure what you are trying to say here: So, if a factual, neutral analysis may be potentially hijacked or mis-represented by partisan advocates, it behooves us not to produce such analysis?

Claudia March 14, 2014 at 9:03 am

Rahul, all I am saying is that we should not hide behind what we are “trying to do” and instead accept the reality of what we “do.” This analysis should still happen but likely interpretation and use by advocates should be given some thought by 538 too.

buzzcut March 14, 2014 at 9:17 am

Almost no data is pure. It needs to be cleaned up, and that act of cleaning it up involves making decisions about what data stays and what data goes, which certainly can effect the results, and is often a reflection of ideology and where we WANT the data to go.

Rahul March 14, 2014 at 9:28 am

Yes, but that’s a second order side effect. No one’s saying Silver’s analysis is absolutely pristine and unbiased.

As an advocate my very goal is to use all data to make a certain pre-decided point. The bias is intentional not incidental. I don’t see why Claudia objects to that distinction.

john personna March 14, 2014 at 11:14 am

This “branch” is deeply wrong. It illustrates where America turned wrong. It gave up. It retired the target. It said “it’s all BS anyway, so I”ll spin my own.”

Z March 14, 2014 at 8:54 am

I was about to post something similar. I’ll take it further and point out that it is a well documented rhetorical gag used by the Left, going back a century. It is the traveling partner of “pragmatism,” the claim that policy choices are about what works and not ideological fervor. If Silver contented himself with analyzing polling, he would be fine. He’s not. Instead he is trying to layer a veneer of science onto his political philosophy. He’s Ezra Klein if Ezra could read without moving his lips.

My own hunch on Silver is he got a bit lucky on the polling. These polling outfits are not about empirical accuracy. They are about making money. They reflect their business model and he was able to pick up on that through statistical analysis. I suspect they will begin to modify their methods and models as a result. Their profit motive will demand it. Otherwise, even lunkheads on TV will begin adding Silver inspired caveats to the polling results. Silver may follow the same path as Zogby and Rasmussen. One bad cycle and they become aging child stars.

Steve Sailer March 14, 2014 at 8:33 pm

Silver was lucky in the sense that the polling industry as a whole had a fine 2012, unlike, say, 1996 when only Zogby’s forecast came close to the actual result. Silver’s methods take most of the random luck out of the process of synthesizing a consensus forecast, so as long as the industry as a whole doesn’t get blindsided by some new development, he should do well.

Brian Donohue March 14, 2014 at 9:08 am

Yeah, I think it’s a good idea to take these claims with a grain of salt. Objectivity is an illusion.

If you believe, as I do, in the Popperian view that the objectivity of science does not depend on the objectivity of scientists, it’s all good.

Advocates gonna advocate.

Z March 14, 2014 at 9:12 am

Indeed. In fact, the honest advocate is at least trustworthy. You know where he is coming from and he is not pretending otherwise. If you will lie to me about one thing you will about other things. The guys claiming to be moist robots start out with a lie. There’s no need to trust them.

Brian Donohue March 14, 2014 at 9:38 am

“The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”

john personna March 14, 2014 at 11:16 am

When objectivity is retired from the field, removed as a goal, all hell breaks loose.

Brian Donohue March 14, 2014 at 11:24 am

Careful- your willful naivete is showing.

Understanding that people are not objective does not retire objectivity from the field. Read Popper.

john personna March 14, 2014 at 11:28 am

I have read some Popper, but I think I’m responding to a societal ailment which is different and bigger. It is repeated several times in these comments.

It basically says “don’t trust or believe anyone who tries to be objective.”

That is obviously abandoning the goal. Or barely short of that it says that the only way to resolve issues is not with study but with confrontation. It move the adversarial system from the courtroom to every part of society.

I don’t believe an adversarial system works. It just produces (like macroeconomics!) endless chains of competing papers and world-views.

john personna March 14, 2014 at 11:31 am

(This is basically why Scandinavia works, and we’re so f’d up. We can’t begin to work on problems because we don’t do solutions. We do arguments.)

Brian Donohue March 14, 2014 at 11:34 am

I’d put it this way: “Don’t trust someone because he says he’s trying to be objective.”

Silver’s election analysis stands on it own merits. I don’t care if he’s trying to be objective or if he wants Republicans to burn in a fiery conflagration.

But I have enough experience of humans to get my guard up against anyone who tells me they are trying to be objective, they are motivated by altruism, etc.

The proof is in the pudding.

john personna March 14, 2014 at 11:41 am

I think you might have some internal contradiction there, Brian.

I don’t care if he’s trying to be objective or if he wants Republicans to burn in a fiery conflagration.

If you are reading a cost benefit analysis of the minimum wage, you really, really, want to know if the guy was trying to be objective, or was just stringing supporting facts in an adversarial system.

This is an “expertise” thing, and we don’t have the knowledge to judge “proof in the pudding” on every issue.

We either trust someone to be objective, or we say to heck with it and treat it all as a scrum without any points of reference.

Brian Donohue March 14, 2014 at 11:42 am

Now if we’re talking about how we each go about our own lives, well, I still think objectivity is a mirage, but the idea that we try our best to understand our biases and not allow them to drive our conclusions, yes, this is an excellent idea and improves our chances of reaching truth.

But someone who tells me he’s being objective? Not worth a plug nickel.

Brian Donohue March 14, 2014 at 11:46 am

jp, I’m trying to be objective here, so just take my word for it, mmkay?

john personna March 14, 2014 at 11:51 am

Well, you’ve ended in a contradiction. You’ve said you admire objectivity as a goal, but not when anyone declares it.

You might want to think about that.

Brian Donohue March 14, 2014 at 11:55 am

As far as ‘expertise’, yeah, I have no idea what these theoretical physicists are on about. Do I worry that they are not objective? I do not.

If their results don’t hang together, there are lots of incentives for someone to figure that out to the satisfaction of other experts.

In general, though, I don’t like the idea of taking ‘expert opinion’ on faith, but I recognize that quantum physics is beyond my ken, so I don’t have much choice in this case, and I trust that the scientific method, which I do understand, works in this instance.

In social ‘sciences’, all hell breaking loose is SOP. The mere fact that there are reputable Keynesians and Monetarists tells me that the problem isn’t lack of objectivity, it is the nature of the field of inquiry and the limits of what the scientific method can accomplish here.

john personna March 14, 2014 at 12:00 pm

Maybe that there are conflicting schools of macro, in long term conflict, says that there isn’t enough objectivity.

It is a big sign that the “sides” in such things should be less sure of themselves. They suffered premature crystallization of belief.

Brian Donohue March 14, 2014 at 12:05 pm

I don’t think so. Locke vs. Rousseau was 300 years ago, and it will still be going on 300 years from now.

Meanwhile, the very same non-objective humans that you suggest are getting in the way of resolving this argument in favor of one side or the other have made astonishing strides in real sciences.

Brian Donohue March 14, 2014 at 12:07 pm

“It is a big sign that the “sides” in such things should be less sure of themselves.” Yes x1000!

“They suffered premature crystallization of belief.” Again, this suggests the issue will ultimately be resolved. I don’t think so.

Brandon March 14, 2014 at 9:15 am

Right, ignoring the real-world policy and political implications of your “objective analysis” means you’re missing most of the point.

Lonely Realist March 14, 2014 at 10:29 am

I think Lenin made the same argument…

Claudia March 14, 2014 at 5:57 pm

My point is less that we are all biased (which we are) but more that anyone doing empirical analysis needs to be aware of how his or her results might be understood and used by others. Inference is very difficult (the data never tell us the answer) and I am afraid if that crucial step is left up to the reader it can be problematic. I guess I am skeptical that there are “facts” to present I wish there were.

buzzcut March 14, 2014 at 8:36 am

The vast majority of people have no opinion on public affairs. They’re just living their lives, oblivious to politics or policy.

So if someone says that these opinionless people are sociopaths… well, that’s a lot of sociopaths. But, hey, I guess that explains a lot of the socioeconomic trends these days. Nation of sociopaths.

FE March 14, 2014 at 8:37 am

I feel better knowing that there won’t be health care coverage initially. Before Ezra Klein and his people left, how many full-time staff did WaPo have dedicated to finding numbers that make Obamacare look good? I assumed this project was ESPN’s way of getting in on that action.

Robert hurley March 14, 2014 at 10:02 am

Silver looks at data, you, on the other hand, look at ideology. Which should I trust

Thomas March 15, 2014 at 12:08 am

One man says he is an altruist and another admits his bias. I know which one I would trust.

Benny Lava March 14, 2014 at 8:38 am

Well Tyler I can see why you are nervous. After all, empirically driven guys like Nate are going to drive emotionally driven dinosaurs like you out of business. Enjoy your lunches with unattractive women, you’ll be having a lot of them in your early retirement.

yenwoda March 14, 2014 at 8:42 am

“Technocrats who rail against the ideologies of others are often the most ideological people around, even if their biases do not line up with the political spectrum in the usual manner.”

This is either an extremely self-aware passage or the exact opposite of that.

Benjamin Cole March 14, 2014 at 8:47 am

Forgotten today is how many cowboys rode around on mules…they needed less water and could work harder…

Ra Lopez, forget turkeys. George Washington was instrumental in the introduction and development of the mule for use in the United States….

Mule cannot reproduce, however….

J March 14, 2014 at 9:25 am

“LaBoeuf: You are getting ready to show your ignorance now, Cogburn. I don’t mind a little personal chaffing but I won’t hear anything against the Ranger troop from a man like you.

Rooster Cogburn: How long have you boys been mounted on sheep down there?

LaBoeuf: My Appaloosa will be galloping when that big American stud of yours is winded and collapsed. Now make another joke about it. You are only trying to put on a show for this girl Mattie with what you must think is a keen tongue.”

I’m actually a little embarrassed right now. True Grit (the new one) is one of my favorite movies. I’ve watched it a bunch of times, and yet I seriously never made the connection between that argument and (semi-spoiler alert) what happens later in the movie with Cogburn’s horse.

Rahul March 14, 2014 at 8:56 am

That NYT Op-Ed critique struck a raw nerve, eh? He does have a point though.

Tyler: It’s not about predictability, but about having priors so strong that no amount of data changes your conclusions. Quite a few pundits feel like that, even on the NYT op-ed.

WoW March 14, 2014 at 9:27 am

I’m not sure if Tyler actually read the entire interview.

“I am not sure why “predictable” points of view are necessarily less likely to be true, or less likely to be important”
Predictable isn’t necessarily bad. Overly simplistic and misleading (weak evidence, or misrepresenting stuff) are bad. Hackiness and predictability are heavily correlated with bad analysis.

“For instance there is the risk of assuming that the most important issues always or usually involve measurement.”
You’re assuming that they will tackle only or a lot of “the most important issues” when he actually kind of suggested otherwise in the bit you quoted.

“Is there really such a thing as “just do analysis”? Is it not better to make the underlying value presuppositions more explicit?”
Similar to how you isolated and pounced on his use of the word “predictable”, you’re picking out a clunky phrase and ignoring others that clarify what he means. You’re misrepresenting his views. His answers were of course given pretty much off-the-cuff because this was a verbal interview, not a prepared speech.
Silver’s main focus is to do produce numerate journalism and analysis. We can think of answering questions as typically depending on facts and/or values (putting aside argument/analysis/logic etc.). His primary focus is on doing the facts part better.

“And why the knock at people who don’t have opinions about public affairs?”
That comment is a “knock”? Seriously?

“Earlier today I was reading John Hauer’s excellent The Natural Superiority of Mules. It is a deliberately species-ist book, without a shred of objectivity, and the title reveals the blatant biases of the author.”
But of course there are important differences between THAT EXAMPLE and the bad op-eds Silver complains about.

Is Tyler doing some annoying meta thing by arguing like a bad columnist?

CPV March 14, 2014 at 9:46 am

The opinion pieces have reached their limit of usefulness in public discourse. If you philosophically disagree before reading the piece, so you will after reading the piece. Because they are advocacy journalism, to the extent they include data, it is cherry picked to make the case. Now, it may well be that many of the points of contention cannot be decided with data, since it may be of poor quality, over-interpreted, run through dubious models, etc. But it will be interesting to see an approach that is not completely useless from the get-go like current op-ed pieces.. Lots of journalism involves taking wispy threads of information and trying to overreach and make a grand case. Lots of econometrics involves taking wispy data and trying to overreach and make a grand case. They are both bad,. If you don’t have enough information or data to make a case, you have to rely on priors which I think is Tyler’s point. However, that debate over priors has led to the great political stagnation. Tot he extent opinion formation can be fact driven it’s obviously better.

The Lone Hunter March 14, 2014 at 10:03 am

Define “priors.”

CPV March 14, 2014 at 10:12 am

Prior pairs in this context are things like: “government social programs help people”, “government social programs enfeeble people:, “companies basically rip off their workers”, “companies enable workers to live their lives not in poverty” , “the US is basically a racist country”, “the US has a black president”, “rich people deserve their income”, “rich people don’t deserve their income”, “Obamacare is good and basically works”, “Obamacare is bad and basically a failure”, “Global warming is a bogus issue made up by liberals”, “Global warming is an existential threat to humanity”, etc.

Andrew' March 14, 2014 at 9:55 am

Psychopathy is a physical defect. Since people haven’t quite decided what “sociopath” means yet, we can define it as the people who deserve blanked condemnation.

john personna March 14, 2014 at 11:23 am

This may be a repeat for you, but I think this has shaped the way words are used:

Neuroscientist: ‘I discovered I was a psychopath’

(warning, video/sound just starts on that BBC page.)

A B March 14, 2014 at 11:54 am

“It is well known that particularly the scientist and engineers, who had so loudly claimed to be the leaders in the march to a new and better world, submitted more readily than almost any other class to the new tyranny.” -Hayek, ‘The Road to Serfdom’

john personna March 14, 2014 at 12:03 pm

Whereas in real life, the killing fields of Cambodia (and other places) were driven by anti-intellectualism.

Bill Kilgore March 14, 2014 at 3:10 pm

Interesting you chose to focus on those killing fields instead of the much larger “fields” that were planted in the west.

I wonder why that would be.

john personna March 14, 2014 at 3:42 pm

I have no idea what you are talking about. Geography problem? The commies were all east to me, and not exactly open intellectual societies. Peasant revolts.

A B March 14, 2014 at 4:02 pm

In real life, you got it completely backwards: The Khmer Rouge were Sartre acolytes.

“The events in Cambodia in the 1970s, in which between one-fifth and one-third of the nation was starved to death or murdered, were entirely the work of a group of intellectuals, who were for the most part pupils and admirers of Jean-Paul Sartre – ‘Sartre’s Children’ as I call them.” – Paul Johnson

john personna March 14, 2014 at 4:34 pm

And yet, looking for examples of anti-intellectualism in the world, where does wikipedia go?

Anti-intellectualism is a common facet of totalitarian dictatorships to oppress political dissent. The Nazi party’s populist rhetoric featured anti-intellectualism as a common motif, including Adolf Hitler’s political polemic, Mein Kampf. Perhaps its most extreme political form was during the 1970s in Cambodia under the rule of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, when people were killed for being academics or even for merely wearing eyeglasses (as it suggested literacy) in the Killing Fields.[2]

A B March 14, 2014 at 11:30 pm

Well, some intellectuals are more equal than others. It’s not as if Lenin “we must kill more professors” didn’t think of himself as intellectual, after all. The point (along with the Nazis) was that intellectuals had to serve the ideological ends of the group and other intellectuals were murdered.

john personna March 14, 2014 at 4:35 pm

(Sounds like Johnson has a Sartre to grind.)

Bill Kilgore March 14, 2014 at 4:42 pm

In a thread where you bemoan anti-intellectualism you bolster your argument with a cite to…Wikipedia.

I wish I could hang with you with all weekend. Anyone that will go that far to get a laugh is worth having around- even if he spends most of his time making fun of himself.

john personna March 14, 2014 at 4:57 pm

I think educated people know that wikipedia has a better accuracy rating now than previous published encyclopedias.

It’s actually a red flag for old age and disconnection to say “oh noes, wikipedia.”

See also Harvard’s job offering for a resident “wikipedian.”

john personna March 14, 2014 at 5:01 pm

Seven years after Nature, pilot study compares Wikipedia favorably to other encyclopedias in three languages

It’s possible that they got just “this one” wrong of course, but a quick google shows many other examples, like connexions.org:

Dictators, and their dictatorship supporters, use anti-intellectualism to gain popular support, by accusing intellectuals of being a socially detached, politically-dangerous class who question the extant social norms, who dissent from established opinion, and who reject nationalism, hence they are unpatriotic, and thus subversive of the nation. Violent anti-intellectualism is common to the rise and rule of authoritarian political movements, such as Italian Fascism, Stalinism in Russia, Nazism in Germany, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and Iranian theocracy.

Thomas March 15, 2014 at 12:23 am

Objectivity would point toward all movements having an intellectual root. Amusingly, a few posts down from where you advocate objectivity, and signal your own in doing so, you come to the defense of intellectuals Hayek had claimed readily submitted to totalitarianism by suggesting that all intellectuals are opposed to the thugs you are opposed to. After all you are objective, support all the right things, and so do the intellectuals, right?

Enrique -- Prior Probability March 14, 2014 at 12:43 pm

Nate Silver has problems with “hedgehogs” (or single-minded thinkers)? But isn’t there an optimal level of “hedgehogs” vs. foxes? After all, Charles Darwin a hedgehog!

Enrique -- Prior Probability March 14, 2014 at 12:43 pm

Sorry for the typo — I mean: Darwin was a hedgehog

pg March 14, 2014 at 1:29 pm

> Technocrats who rail against the ideologies of others are often the most ideological people around, even if their biases do not line up with the political spectrum in the usual manner. – See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/#sthash.6YwPbdN1.dpuf

lol Paul Graham just had an apoplectic fit

Urso March 14, 2014 at 1:39 pm

“Is it not better to make the underlying value presuppositions more explicit?”
A curious comment, given the source.

Bob March 14, 2014 at 2:38 pm

The fox and the hedgehog has been read by many, but what they read has a lot to do with who they are. The world can use both foxes and hedgehogs.

Nate’s view seems pretty utilitarian to me: Since we can’t tell which principles are right, we are better off focusing on what works and what does not. It’s not uncommon for people that just delve in data.

But how can we get more data without Opinion makers that make sure things are tried? Data analysis cannot tell what works from what does not if the data is never generated. The herbivore is not superior to the grass just because it can eat it: Without the grass, it dies.

john personna March 14, 2014 at 3:44 pm

“Since we can’t tell which principles are right, we are better off focusing on what works and what does not. It’s not uncommon for people that just delve in data.”

I agree, and it occurs that Britain’s Behavioral Economics Lab is stronger on “experiment” than it is on theory based prescription.

Larry Rothfield March 14, 2014 at 5:39 pm

Never mind all that. What do you think, Tyler, about his taste in burritos?

Steve Sailer March 14, 2014 at 6:36 pm

By the way, although Silver was much denounced as biased against Romney’s chances in 2012, his forecasts turned out to be unrealistically biased in favor of Romney, who wound up losing not by 2 points but by nearly 4 points.

TallDave March 15, 2014 at 12:19 am

Silver may succeed where Klein fails, because Silver lives in the world of math and is only a little political, whereas Klein lives in the world of policy and is only a little mathematical.

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