Nate Silver’s 538 is up and running

by on March 17, 2014 at 3:27 pm in Data Source, Economics, Education, Sports, Uncategorized, Web/Tech | Permalink

You will find it here.

Here is a piece on economic data.  What it says is fine, but it won’t interest me.  I wished this piece on hockey goalies had been longer and more analytic.  The same is true for this piece on corporations hoarding cash, which also could use more context.  Maybe it is I rather than they who is misjudging the market, but to me these are “tweener” pieces, too superficial for smart and informed readers, yet on topics which are too abstruse for the more casual readers.  I want something more like the very good Bill Simmons analytic pieces on Grantland, with jokes too, and densely packed narrative, yet applied to a much broader range of topics.  Barring that, I am happy to read one very good sentence or two on a topic.

Here is a piece on whether guessing makes sense on the new SAT.  It is fine but presents material already covered in places such as NYT.

Here is Silver’s introductory essay as to what they are about.  It is too sprawling and evinces a greater affiliation to rigor with data analysis than to rigor with philosophy of science or for that matter rigor with rhetoric.

I have long been a fan of Nate Silver, but so far I don’t think this is working.

Sean Brown March 17, 2014 at 3:35 pm

Yeah the Bill Simmons and Zach Lowe pieces on Grantland are just superb.

Also, when Grantland launched it had a period of awkward youth, before some of their really good guys were hired (Lowe) or up and running at full productivity (Brian Phillips). Maybe 538 is just in that stage right now?

Chappy March 17, 2014 at 3:48 pm

What Bill Simmons pieces are you specifically thinking of? I agree on the other writers, and find Simmons very entertaining, but I don’t think he has a clue about analysis. If you read his football columns, it is obvious he has no idea what he is talking about. He is writing about football through the lens of a degenerate gambler.

Sean Brown March 17, 2014 at 3:49 pm

NBA. I don’t read his NFL stuff to be honest.

Allen Taylor March 17, 2014 at 3:53 pm

Simmons is fun to read but he really doesn’t know anything about football and I wouldn’t call him “analytical.” I like Bill Barnwell and Chris Brown/Smart Football is a great read whenever he writes (which is somewhat infrequently).

eccdogg March 18, 2014 at 8:43 am

Chris Brown is the best football writer out there. To bad he has a day job

Steve Sailer March 17, 2014 at 8:23 pm

Simmons’ big book of basketball or whatever it’s called is terrific. He’s the first sportswriter to fully exploit the new abundance of information (not just quantitative, but verbal — e.g., you can read all the in-depth Sports Illustrated coverage of the old-time NBA online) — and video.

Simmons is perhaps the best sportswriter of the Internet era precisely because he’s a terrific pattern recognizer. He doesn’t go into locker rooms to ask what pitch the slugger hit. Instead he inhales information from numerous sources and checks the implications against the other sources. But that independence of mind also means that Simmons is always in some danger of being ratted out as a closet crimethinker.

jerrydeanhalleck March 20, 2014 at 12:02 am

You’re absolutely right Steve. His book on NBA Basketball is great. I find the needless profanity, and wordiness a little annoying but he makes up for it with some superb in-depth analysis.

Hebron James March 18, 2014 at 10:46 am

Simmons’ analysis of the NBA is almost as poor as it is of the NFL. He loves to play body language doctor and armchair psychiatrist. He’s entertaining and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the game, but don’t confuse that for good analysis.

I hope Tyler was referring to all of the basketball writers Simmons hired (not just Zach Lowe, but Goldsberry, Dubin, Netw3rk, and others)

Zach March 18, 2014 at 12:55 pm


bon_supp March 17, 2014 at 3:36 pm

Again I have to ask: Which is the stronger recommendation, the one in which TC offers a detailed critique of nuances or the one in which he gives a free pass, only noting that the site is up and calling it “a project in history, or on-line education”?

v March 17, 2014 at 7:03 pm

Vox isn’t actually up so there isn’t anything to critique yet, it’s not a valid comparison.

bon_supp March 17, 2014 at 7:56 pm

My apologies – you are correct. I overstated.

I look forward to reading TC’s thoughts on the things they have released thus far and the full site once it is out of beta.

Greg Dodge March 17, 2014 at 3:48 pm

I tend to agree. I had (and still have) high hopes, but have been disappointed. The piece on Romeo & Juliet which states that the play should not have been called Romeo & Juliet because they don’t appear in enough scenes together seems very strange, considering the piece is about young love/infatuation being forced apart. And the piece on corporate cash has a lot of navel gazing about reading data correctly but doesn’t say anything about studies about corporate balance sheets in their public filings (which is where most of the studies came from) and ignores the role of cash held offshore which is subject to taxes upon repatriation.

I expected there to be some very good features on this site, but I worry that the need to fill up space will result in some bilge data pieces that get published and drown the rest out.

Lupus March 17, 2014 at 4:02 pm

If you want smart quantitative literary stuff, this is worth three quid:

derek March 18, 2014 at 4:27 pm

Yes, the Romeo & Juliet piece is very much the sort of “smart take” the site supposedly aspires to avoid! Besides, this is a play about two young lovers who are kept apart by their families and ultimately die because of a lack of communication on the specifics of their master plan. How is their lack of dialogue surprising?

razib March 17, 2014 at 3:48 pm

“but so far I don’t think this is working.”

well, we’ll definitely have to collect more data before we converge upon a final probability estimate ;-) silver admitted the site was 70-75%, and the next few months r going 2 b iterative….

john personna March 17, 2014 at 5:45 pm

Sure, and how many chances do they have to get it right? 2 or 3?

errorr March 18, 2014 at 1:15 pm

They have a lot more than that. Don’t forget this is a loss leading passion project of John Skipper who runs the single most valuable media entity on earth. I think he wants something considered ad an elite media property, as far as the rhetoric goes they have no pressure to EVER be profitable.

Jay March 18, 2014 at 2:21 pm

Don’t you have to be somewhat profitable to be considered elite media property?

TW Andrews March 19, 2014 at 12:54 pm

ESPN is plenty profitable. 538 doesn’t have to be.

Mo March 17, 2014 at 3:50 pm

My 30 minute look at the new 538 tends to agree with TC’s “tweeter” assessment. (Though I am ready to give them a few months to find their groove.)

What I do wonder is whether it is possible to scale-up 538? Nate is in the tail of the distribution. There is almost no chance he could recruit more than a few contributors who can produce 538 quality day-in day-out the way he has in the past. The problem is that that is what we all expect from 538. Will 538 eventually shed all its historical reader base for something more mainstream? (I tend to think this is what happened to Freakonomics when it went from being just the two Steves to the NYT. I stopped bothering to even peek at the site years ago.)

Mo March 17, 2014 at 3:51 pm


Prior Probability March 18, 2014 at 3:10 pm

What is that?

Tyler Cowen March 17, 2014 at 3:53 pm

I should add that I will keep on reading and that the people associated with the site have a very high level of talent…

john personna March 17, 2014 at 5:49 pm

Are you considering that these new sites all try to play the Facebook angle? Their prelaunch essays were sometimes on FB rather than their own domain. Unthinkable a year ago.

They are shooting for a sweet spot that they perhaps only suspect exists … viral explainers, or something.

john personna March 17, 2014 at 7:06 pm

(I notice now that 538 simply uses FB as it’s login for comments. Did that cost FB anything? Or is the tight coupling good for 538 regardless? Or does 539 fantasize about a FB buyout?)

Chris S March 17, 2014 at 7:57 pm

Facebook gets your data and also has the opportunity to provide you a tracking cookie. Whatever processing cycles / minor amount of storage is more than made up for by that data.

FB would love to do everyone’s comments and would do so for “free.”

Bob March 18, 2014 at 11:03 am

This is done in thousands of sites out there: The blogger stops having to care about accounts and has some tools to minimize spamming with relatively little effort, Facebook gets all the tracking data they could possibly want.

The real price is that those blogs often lose very high percentage of their commenters for a wide variety of reasons. For instance, I have no interest on a Facebook account.

john personna March 18, 2014 at 2:31 pm

Perhaps I don’t explore or comment that much, but I thought the trend was “sign in, choose one” (google+, Facebook and a couple other common options, including comment networks).

Isn’t 1:1 Facebook a new thing?

derek March 18, 2014 at 4:30 pm

A big advantage for the sites is that FB comments make it so they don’t have to spend time moderating. People are going to be much nicer if their comment is linked to something they actually use.

Claudia March 17, 2014 at 4:00 pm

“Here is a piece on economic data. What it says is fine, but it won’t interest me.” Haha (maybe it should).

But honestly why should one site offer it all: rigor with data, rigor with philosophy of science (hello media website) and rigor of rhetoric (not everyone writes like MR)? Why can’t they go to town with the data evaluation and be a known source for that kind of analysis? (I really liked the Shakespeare piece: Seems an nice crossover for people who love sports stats and much better than turgid academic prose. I agree that the econ pieces were a bit brief but still informative — and with more time on data there is less time to launch into over-reaching conclusions. Sometimes being a bit less is more … no where do they say they trying to build a grand narrative rather they are trying to push some useful analytical tools. Sounds good to me but it is new and it may not sell.

yenwoda March 17, 2014 at 5:41 pm

I think we are running into a known phenomenon, here. Tyler really does not like what used not too long ago to be called “shrillness”, particularly if the reputation is earned by dinging right-of-center establishment types. Once Silver started knocking the Politico crew, David Brooks, etc. his work was pretty much guaranteed a passive-aggressive reception in these parts.

Claudia March 17, 2014 at 8:54 pm

Oh I don’t know about all that, but I do think the tone at 538 will be much improved after they make a few colossally bad calls with their data. It takes a lot of hubris to start something new. And it takes a lot of humility to keep it going. (That’s why I liked the Shakespeare piece – by the end they were poking fun at their data-driven approach.)

Dave March 17, 2014 at 4:02 pm

What I find baffling is that at nearly 4 p.m. EDT on the day of its launch, there’s not a B.S. Report up on iTunes featuring guest Nate Silver. I’d have assumed that they’d want this up for rush hour on launch day. If Silver doesn’t appear on the B.S. Report at all this week, that really be a surprise.

tt March 18, 2014 at 1:16 pm

whats a ‘B.S. Report’ ? i dont think it has the importance you think it does.

Jay March 18, 2014 at 2:23 pm

Bill Simmon’s podcast.

Dave March 17, 2014 at 4:12 pm

I predict you’ll see a lot of stats bloggers nitpick with Nate’s language.

I was sort of surprised at this one, for instance:

He first writes, regarding the inclusion of preseason rankings into his model:

“Preseason rankings provide some estimate of each team’s underlying player and coaching talent. It’s a subjective estimate, but it nevertheless adds some value, based on our research.”

then later writes:

“I grew up in East Lansing, Mich., and am expecting to be accused of being a homer for having Sparty as the nominal favorite in this region. However, there is no subjective component to the FiveThirtyEight model.”

That would appear to be a contradiction. Now, I understand what he means, which is that they don’t make “manual adjustments” to their rankings, or include their own opinions. But that doesn’t mean that there is an absence of subjectivity in the model, even if you look past explicitly including subjective preseason rankings. Just about every decision he made in constructing the model was subjective, regarding its assumptions and construction. This ain’t Newtonian physics with a well known data generation mechanism where he’s trying to estimate a gravity constant. Data generation in college basketball is the result of complex interactions that are not so objectively modeled. He’s playing loose with his language, as he did in his book, and that may draw criticism from other experts.

ant1900 March 17, 2014 at 6:20 pm

I think you’ve missed the point. Silver includes preseason rankings in the model because they make the model more predictive. We can argue about why that is (pollsters don’t get caught up in win loss records and rank in preseason based on talent). As it turns out preseason basketball polls are a better predictor of tournament success than the final poll of the regular season.

But it isn’t subjective. He’s pulling in the poll data as one piece of the model.

Dave March 17, 2014 at 8:23 pm

Yeah, I get everything you said, but I don’t think you understood my point.

It’s still a subjective choice to include the preseason poll, or the kenpom ratings, or anything else that he included or did not include. That’s not to say he did a poor job. But all of those modeling choices are subjective choices in the sense that he’s not actually modeling the phenomenon directly. He’s looking for things that are predictive of performance, and how he collected those things and mixed them together in a model involves lots of subjective decisions. Saying a model is objective just because you feed it inputs and it spits out outputs hides the subjective nature of the modeling decisions he made along the way.

derek March 18, 2014 at 4:36 pm

I think you’re still missing the point. Silver is including the preseason poll because it improved his regression results (presumably), which he can measure objectively. Sure, maybe there some amount of arbitrariness in how he chooses what variables to consider for inclusion, but at this point we are treading dangerously close to claiming that he should have considered the ostrich population of each coach’s state of origin.

ummm March 17, 2014 at 4:15 pm

the name doesn’t make sense because it’s no longer a political forecasting site

should have just called it or whatever

Chris S March 17, 2014 at 7:59 pm

What, and waste all that hard-earned brand equity?

Should they have changed it to Sugar Cola when they took the Cocaine out?

Phill March 17, 2014 at 4:19 pm

The piece on cash hoarding was way too self congratulatory to make me want to read more. Yes, but why was the Fed wrong? So what is actually happening?

I find that kind of hubris to be a great indicator that the writer isn’t going to be as insightful as they think they are.

The piece of hockey goalies was fine – great, even, by the standards set by sports journalism.

I don’t care for sports, and so this site is probably not for me but so far it seems to be OK.

Claudia March 17, 2014 at 4:44 pm

“Yes, but why was the Fed wrong? So what is actually happening?”

That’s what happens with data — they revise. There is so much ink spilled at the first release of economic data and so little said about how the numbers change over time. Usually it is simply getting a bigger sample or going from a sample to a census. The lags can be substantial. I would have noted in the article that in periods of economic changes (like the recession / crisis) data revisions can be an even bigger deal. This was not the only large revision. Look back at GDP reports in 2008 versus now — you see a much different recession in terms of severity now.

Now I do think the article pivots a bit too fast. Yes, the revision was large but the cash holdings remained high … or why MR was still hosting debates on this early last year after the revision: I might highlight not just the revisions but the interpretation of the data (clearly some still think there are signs of excess cash) … data will never tell you if there is a problem, you have to have some benchmark, some concept of normal.

Joe Smith March 17, 2014 at 6:48 pm

I thought that they should have linked to the underlying data to let people make up their own minds without hunting around. One big question I have about the whole discussion is: “what definition of ‘cash’ is everyone using.”

One fact that I thought was absolutely undisputed was that companies have been building up passive off shore holdings hoping for a tax holiday.

Vivian Darkbloom March 17, 2014 at 9:11 pm

Cowen is right that the piece on cash hoarding does not contain enough “context”, but more to the point it is not in-depth enough to be of much use to someone interested in the subject. And, Joe Smith is right–at a minimum they should have linked to the data source. Some relevant questions and clarifications (“context”) would be useful, such as:

–How is “cash” defined by this study? Articles on the subject often confuse “cash” with “retained earnings”.

–How much of that cash is held outside the US and how much inside the US? If it is impossible to differentiate, then say so. Tax filings should indicate how much is owned by foreign subsidiaries of US parent companies (IRS Forms 5471).

–Briefly, what was the methodology used to arrive at the Fed number and why was the earlier estimate off by such a wide margin?

–As a percentage of overall assets, does this represent a proportionate increase in total assets at all? Inflation adjustment?

A quote from that Casselman article:

“FiveThirtyEight on Monday introduced three simple rules for evaluating economic claims: Question the data; know what you’re measuring; and look for evidence beyond the numbers. Economic reports are full of traps: data revisions, meaningless volatility, spurious correlations. Following these rules might not always reveal the truth, but it will get you closer to it.”

Funny (not) that FiveThirtyEight failed to adhere to its own “simple rules”.

Joe Smith March 18, 2014 at 11:08 am

“How much of that cash is held outside the US and how much inside the US?”

Of course there may not be a clear line on that: an American company, like Apple, might have large holdings which are offshore for tax purposes but are invested in US Treasuries or deposited in a foreign branch of an American bank as US dollar deposits and show up as excess reserves at the American Fed.

errorr March 18, 2014 at 1:18 pm

A lot of the cash is now treasuries, agencies, and even corporate paper that is easily convertible to cash while not being reported as cash. FRED has a lot of the data.

walt March 19, 2014 at 2:47 am

“Cash” in corporate accounting generally means cash or short-term debt instruments. Since the site doesn’t link to the data, it’s hard to know if that’s what they mean here.

Andy March 17, 2014 at 4:41 pm

The byline photographs and their bizarre color and B&W contrasts are so, so terrible. How can you launch a new digital media enterprise and screw up something so basic? Not a good sign.

Hadur March 17, 2014 at 4:57 pm

Translation: Tyler Cowen has decided that the New York Times is the wagon he will hitch his star to in the hopes of becoming more than just an economics blogger. Nate Silver left the NYT, so he must be criticized/punished. NYT mediocrities like Friedman must be linked to and praised.

anon March 17, 2014 at 5:21 pm


guest March 17, 2014 at 6:25 pm

whoa whoa whoa, lets not use such harsh language, you are hurting all true mediocrities feelings when you compare them to Freidman.

Benny Lava March 18, 2014 at 8:36 am

Or just compare this to the friendly handjob he gives McArdle regularly.

Darren March 17, 2014 at 5:01 pm

I feel that part of it is that 538 is now venturing into areas where the competition is a lot stiffer. Politics really was the low-hanging fruit in terms of data-driven analysis (hence the abundance of political pundits). As for sports, Nate was already a long-standing expert in the field so the stuff he produced was always going to be a cut above the rest. But most people who follow economics understandably expect a bit more from “data-driven analysis” than what was presented in that article. Give them time to get rolling I say.

I’m particularly looking forward to their health and science sections because I think it’s an area where there’s a huge difference in which experts and laypeople talk about new findings and therefore long overdue for the kind of data-driven-but-mainstream stuff they seem to be going for.

niko March 17, 2014 at 5:04 pm

I agree with the sentiment put forth by Cowen, which is sad because i’ve been looking forward to this for a while.

Prior Probability March 17, 2014 at 5:24 pm

I like Nate Silver’s approach but I don’t like the new website … Reason #1: There’s just too damn much going on … Whatever happened to quality, not quantity ?

Jan March 17, 2014 at 5:27 pm

So far, I like it. The piece on the weather this winter was good for a wide audience with a level of analysis that was interesting but not so in depth it lost me or took more than ten minutes to read. Good for hardcore weather people or those who wish to spend an hour learning about the snow? No. But I can read three of these a day and feel like I understand something better.

leftistconservative March 17, 2014 at 5:41 pm

I am giddy with excitment. When can I buy his next book?

rimbaud March 17, 2014 at 6:02 pm

Agree that the hockey article is pretty thin and seems to written by a hockey neophyte. One stat the author could have easily looked at is the dramatic change in the average goalies’ height. In 85-6 Gretzky’s most productive year, the majority of starting goalies were under six feet-John Vanbiesbrouck who won the Vezina (best goaltender) is 5’8″. Ben Bishop (TB) has this year’s best goals against average and he is 6’7″ and athletic. Attributing everything to the butterfly style and neglecting factors like the growth of specialized training for goalies at any early age-Finland excels at this- and defensive strategies like the neutral zone trap developed in the mid 90s is just plain uninformed.

Jan March 17, 2014 at 6:26 pm

Hmm. Maybe evidence doesn’t totally back that up, so it was omitted?

Brian Donohue March 17, 2014 at 11:01 pm

1. Goals against average is a poor metric for evaluating goalies.

2. If you want to argue that size doesn’t matter, you need to look at the size of goalies in previous eras as well.

3. As Rimbaud notes, the most astonishing datum in the past five yeas is the number of top-flight Finnish goalies. Prolly training/technique, but I don’t see how you can write that article without considering that angle.

JohnC March 17, 2014 at 11:31 pm

Point three is right: How about the simple fact that there’s a bigger pool of really good goalies? In ’85, all, or nearly all of the goalies were Canadian. I’m guessing it’s now half North American, half Euros. The same also may be true for skaters, but the offense and defense probably balance out. And you need only a few good imports to see some stat effect.

Also, there’s an additional equipment related reason: Much lighter, water resistant, and controllable pads. Oh, and better cups. Seriously.

Also left unsaid by NS: Will the butterfly style continue? Not just because of the equipment changes: It’s much harder on the knees and hips then playing up. Many more goalies — almost all of them of the butterfly-style — are needing hip surgery before they’re 30. It’s probably part of the reason Brodeur has been as injury free as he has.

anon March 18, 2014 at 11:52 am

+1 on him being a hockey neophyte.

I first heard the idea that butterfly was worth a goal a game (or 0.015 in save percentage times 2 goalies times 30 shots per team) around Christmas 1995. That seems to match pretty well with his graph. And it doesn’t mean dismissing everything else is a good idea.

He also makes it sound like the left wing lock is distinct from the neutral zone trap, when it’s just a 2-3 neutral zone trap. Neutral zone trap is a generic term for a bunch of specific strategies.

Bill N March 18, 2014 at 12:53 pm

The lock and neutral zone trap are more or less similar in execution but the lock trap springs inside the attacking zone blue line rather than in the neutral zone. Although many would class this generically as a trap, I tend to think of the lock as a variation of third man high forechecking systems.

Yes there are a number of specific variations on the trap. Also fully agree, the butterfly has been around with success since Glen Hall and Tony Esposito, but needed a technology boost to be fully successful. Technology in masks (Dave Dryden), closed cell foam replacing deer hair and nylon or urethane pleathers replacing cow hide (I think Pete Smith gets a lot of credit for starting this). Training is a major part of the evolution though. Technology is an enabler, but the Finns have shown that training, technique, and practice matter. A lot.

I suspect there are too many factors and not enough reliable data points to tease out a full model.

dirk March 17, 2014 at 6:45 pm

Not liking “tweeners” is the key to the Tyler Cowen aesthetic in all areas, be it music, food, books, technology or workers.

Jeff burrow March 17, 2014 at 7:00 pm

Wow the site has been live for what twelve hours and it’s already a completely unfixable disaster? Do you critique your own work with such vigour?

prior_approval March 18, 2014 at 1:05 am

Well, I’m sure the Mercatus Center will soon be revising all of its output that was based on the incorrect debt/growth model propagated by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff – ‘A paper published by the International Monetary Fund has refuted a 2010 study by Harvard University scholars Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff that found a high level of public debt causes an economy to stagnate.

The paper, “Growth in a Time of Debt,” found that ratios of public debt to gross domestic product of more than 90% leads a country’s economy to contract. The study set off a firestorm of debate in the U.S. and Europe, where it was viewed as lending ballast to proponents of lower government debt.

The work was critiqued by University of Massachusetts Amherst economists, who ran the numbers again and found economies with debt-to-GDP ratios of 90% grew at 2.2%.

Now, the IMF has weighed in on the debate with a new paper entitled, “Debt and Growth: Is There a Magic Threshold?”

“Our results do not identify any clear debt threshold above which medium-term growth prospects are dramatically compromised,” the paper says.’

Or we just won’t talk about it, which is the seemingly preferred response from those who were previously so enthusiastic to use this incorrect research to buttress their own policy goals.

Walt French March 17, 2014 at 7:39 pm

Seems that the people who “really knew” politics were upset at this upstart kid with a slide rule, telling them that their old wives’ tales were just that.

This new format doesn’t gore any oxen. Oh, unemployment data is quirky? Thanks for the blinding insight, FiveThirtyEight! I didn’t exactly see any really tough calls in the pieces I read. (I only skimmed the econ section with about the same interest/result as T.C.’s; I’m not qualified to judge sports analyses.)

I presume there’s enough material in ESPN’s normal space that Nate & Co will be kept busy. The politics stuff, how are they going to keep people on the payroll 3 years out of 4? The econ stuff, there’s a huge group of people doing actually good work, plus the political hacks trying to promote their preconceptions with it; it’ll be hard to have That Moment where everybody realized that the politicians were just talking their book.

Steve Sailer March 17, 2014 at 8:29 pm

I can’t see how this can be a bad thing. Smart data analysts being given an opportunity to do interesting data analysis for a large audience has to be a net good thing. I wish the crew at 538 well.

Zach March 18, 2014 at 1:17 pm

As long as they don’t overreach on the causal inference, I agree.

Bill March 17, 2014 at 10:06 pm

Re: >>>”but to me these are “tweener” pieces, too superficial for smart and informed readers, yet on topics which are too abstruse for the more casual readers.”

Must have hurt to get this response.

Those were actually quite good articles, and point out how poor stats of earlier period got manipulated to support political arguments, and were never corrected when the facts were.

prior_approval March 18, 2014 at 1:11 am

But the Mercatus Center’s devotion to scholarship is well known – they would never continue to base their work on flawed research, would they?

For example, I’m sure that leaving this available was just an oversight –

Or this publication –

Gerard March 18, 2014 at 5:38 am

Read the essay about Venezuela. It’s a good one.

Cascadian March 18, 2014 at 3:46 pm

I agree. Unlike almost everything else about Venezuela I’ve ever read, it didn’t assume a political point of view but instead used data to explain the divide in that country, and to compare its performance to other countries. Much more useful than cheerleading or apologetics for the government or opposition.

JWatts March 18, 2014 at 10:22 pm

Agreed, it was an excellent essay on the topic.

Ted Craig March 18, 2014 at 7:38 am

As somebody who works in media, allow to offer this critique: the site is very generic. It looks dated. Somebody coming to the site without a prior opinion might be confused. There’s an article about Phil Jackson, followed by one about the Crimean, followed by some click-bait about pot and sex. I understand they all use data to explore the topics, but again, I’m looking at it from the point of view of a general reader. Overall, a somewhat amateurish effort, especially considering its funded by a huge media conglomerate.

Yancey Ward March 18, 2014 at 10:57 am

Yes, this is the right critique. It looks like it was put together by two guys in a garage.

tt March 18, 2014 at 1:31 pm

how is Crimea and Jackson dated ? do you read the news ?

Ted Craig March 18, 2014 at 2:12 pm

The site design is dated, not the content.

tt March 18, 2014 at 2:19 pm

as someone who doesn’t work in media i appreciate it was simple and quick to load.

Ted Craig March 18, 2014 at 5:13 pm

You can have simple, quick-loading sites that look better than that.

rayward March 18, 2014 at 10:24 am

These criticisms are valid but they miss the point of the site: to challenge conventional wisdom with data. Conventional wisdom often derives from data but remains long after the data have changed. From time to time I discover that some piece of wisdom I’ve been carrying around in my brain is wrong. It’s a jarring experience. Some things we just know, don’t we? TC asks a valid question about the site: is there a demand for a site that challenges the readers’ conventional wisdom?

John B. Chilton March 18, 2014 at 10:37 am

Wondering if the article on the missing plane is at least better than what economists have to contribute on the subject.

Zach March 18, 2014 at 1:26 pm

I wonder when and if they’ll stop giving folksy summaries of Bayesian statistics at the beginning of each article.

Benjamin Morris March 18, 2014 at 3:03 pm

There is a plan to cut down on that kind of redundancy. But the site will probably never assume the reader knows what Bayesian inference is.

ibaien March 18, 2014 at 11:15 am

shorter TC: new general-interest website by noted ex-NYT polymath not as good as this general-interest website by noted current NYT polymath.

jayedcoins March 18, 2014 at 11:57 am

I guess the problem I found was that the economics writers seem very green and uncomfortable in their writing. Of course, shit, this is coming from someone that is not professionally trained and writing in a blog comment section, so take it with a heaping spoonful of salt. :-)

For example, the post on Fed remittances to Treasury really left a lot of pieces out. It was definitely a “tweener” piece — it didn’t have enough explanation of concepts like IOER or QE for “novice” readers, and at the same time, it didn’t have enough analysis and insight for readers like those of us in this comments section that spend our free time geeking out on macro. So there was basically no value. In fact, I would argue the post actually made some very incorrect implications about IOER and QE both, which is worse than the fact that they were left unexplained.

That said, it’s a new site, it has ambitious goals, and a pretty sizable breadth of content to tackle for a non-newspaper-sized staff. It will be a daily click for me for sure, for at least a few months. When temps hit the 80s, if the economics content hasn’t improved, then maybe it falls off my bookmarks bar.

CPV March 18, 2014 at 1:35 pm

The beauty of un-analyzable complex systems is that everyone can have an opinion and provoke an argument about that opinion. If there is data involved, it is usually pretty cooked up to make the case. Macro economics, climate science, multiverse physics and most medical / dietary / lifestyle studies are all good examples. The most interest will probably be in the topics where data and modelling oesn’t help much. It takes more courage than the current academic establishment has to admit this.

Mitch March 20, 2014 at 4:13 pm

Actually, in climate science (as in all of physics, of which it is a branch) models do quite a bit. One (not the only) reason we know that doubling atmospheric CO2 from 275 to 550 parts per million will result in a temperature rise from 2-4.5 C is because of climate models.

Speaking of climate science, it’s not reassuring that Silver hired Roger Pielke to write on the subject. He is very far from being a “neutral” “data-driven” analyst.

CPV March 18, 2014 at 1:37 pm

But absolutely, for the appropriate target topics, this type of data driven journalism can’t help but be a good step forward.

Prior Probability March 18, 2014 at 3:07 pm

By the way, what’s a “tweener”?

Benjamin Morris March 18, 2014 at 3:27 pm


I appreciate your comments a lot, as do the others at 538 I’ve spoken to.

The sports writers had a conversation about this at SSAC: How do we write articles that can potentially be main-paged at ESPN, yet which can still inform (not to mention withstand the scrutiny of) our fellow conference attendees—without them turning into “tweener” pieces that are interesting to neither. It may take us awhile to get there (or we may end up going somewhere slightly different from where we intended), but that’s the goal. Not only do we share the concerns you’ve had so far, but they’re essentially driving the project.

As for philosophical and rhetorical rigor, we have those in mind as well (including plans for implementing them more consistently), but we launched now with the belief that refining our voice will be best done with the input of readers like yourself.

Christopher Long March 18, 2014 at 10:05 pm

The SSAC is a bad example, as it’s effectively become the NBA’s analogue of MLB’s Winter Meeting. The most common attendee is an economics or business major who wants to break into sports and become a GM, not a hardcore statistician/mathematician sports analyst. If you’re trying to impress the hardcore analytical fans who read Fangraphs or APBRmetrics people that’s realistically not going to happen. You may be smart, but they’re just as smart and there’s a lot more of them.

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