Nate Silver and the Two Cultures

You’ve probably read that Nate Silver has left the New York Times for ESPN. In this article by the Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, says

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.

I tend to view the world as divided by C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures, so this story plays right into my biases. Silver is in one culture and the traditional journalists are in the other. It’s no wonder they disliked him and his methods.

Strictly speaking, I see the Two Cultures a little differently from Snow. He divides them into literary intellectuals and scientists; I divide them into those who believe in the power of argument and those who believe in the power of facts. Of course, we all have some of both cultures in us, but most of us lean strongly in one direction or the other. The first group thinks that matters get settled through discourse—may the best debater win. The second group thinks you “win” by figuring out what the objective truth is and aligning yourself with it, because facts are immune to rhetoric.

Many things are amenable not to an objective, factual investigation, and an irony of the Two Cultures viewpoint is that it is one of them. Snow, who favored the scientific approach, was attacked by those who preferred argument. Since the debate was on the arguers home field, and was typically judged by other arguers, Snow was often declared the loser. Those of us on the fact side don’t accept the results.

Indeed, we on the fact side tend to refer to the debating tools of the other side as “bullshit,” a term akin to the phrase Silver applied to traditional punditry: “fundamentally useless.” But that’s an overstatement. Just because something can’t be reduced to numbers doesn’t mean it can’t be subjected to rigorous thought. But it certainly seems that those inclined toward bullshit rather than rigor tend to end up among the arguers. It’s easier to hide over there.

As I said in this post back in November, too many people oversimplified Silver’s election predictions and declared the results a “victory for science.” Actually, Silver never said Obama would get 332 electoral votes. He said it was the most likely outcome, but he assigned it only a 20% probability. Still, this misinterpretation wasn’t Silver’s fault—he used the information presented to him and delivered an answer based on that information and generally accepted statistical methods. He’s definitely on the facts side of the cultural divide.

It’s not surprising that other political journalists at the Times took a dim view of his methods. First, they didn’t understand it. Second, it was at odds with their methods of prediction, which consisted of listening to the arguments of various political insiders and then making an assessment based on those arguments as leavened by their own experience, judgement, and savvy. In other words: bullshit. If Silver had come up with predictions by this method, no matter how different they were from the predictions of others, he would have been welcomed into the fraternity.

Political punditry fascinates me because it is so much at odds with my business. In engineering, judgement is considered vitally important because one often must make decisions with incomplete information. But there is, ultimately, an objective reality: either the machine works or it doesn’t. If your designs consistently produce machines that don’t work, you won’t be designing very long. Political punditry also has an objective reality: in an election, one candidate wins and the others lose. You would think that making predictions that are no better than a coin flip would remove a pundit from his position at the Times or CNN or wherever, but it doesn’t seem to work that way. Have you ever heard of a political columnist getting fired because his predictions were wrong?

I wish Nate Silver well at ESPN. Sports journalism is certainly an area that’s used to dealing with numbers, even though most sportswriters and sportscasters are no more numerate than political pundits. Come to think of it, I’ve never heard of a sportswriter getting fired for making bad predictions, either.