On hating Nate Silver

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Since I first wrote about him weeks ago, Nate Silver has become an even bigger topic of conversation.

A lot of people have asked me why his critics are spending so much time elevating him. The answer, of course, is that he drives them mad.

There are a few reasons for this. First, there is resentment over the fact that anyone who is the least bit skeptical of Silver’s model is immediately branded a rube by the media intelligentsia.

Consider this tweet from the Washington Post’s resident wonk Ezra Klein:

The message is simple. Merely questioning Silver’s model constitutes a war on math.

Except it doesn’t. As statistical political scientist Andrew Gelman writes, “I think Nate is great, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to contribute to his blog for a while. But I’d still say the election is too close to call.”

Funny, that’s almost exactly what I wrote a couple weeks ago.

In fairness, Gelman also notes that he can “simultaneously (a) accept that Obama has a 72 percent chance of winning and (b) say the election is too close to call.”

The problem — and part of the reason that conservatives aren’t terribly happy with Silver — is that, as Gelman also writes, people have a hard time dealing with probability and uncertainty.

Silver’s smug defenders assume that it is his detractors who can’t grasp the concept — but Silver’s critics know that the general public doesn’t understand the nuances at play here. And that’s part of problem.

Silver comes out of the baseball statistics world, and his defenders like cite sports and gambling analogies when defending him. But there is a key difference. If Silver says the Giants have only a 5 percent chance of winning the World Series again next year, it is highly unlikely that would impact the outcome of games. Umpires won’t begin making bad calls, the fans won’t stop attending games, etc.

But when the public sees that a prominent New York Times writer gives Barack Obama a 70 percent chance of winning, that can become a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy. It has consequences. It drives media coverage. It dries up donations. Whether Silver likes it, or not, people do interpret his numbers as a “prediction.” They see this as election forecasting.

Sometimes I think this is all a matter of semantics. “If Silver’s model is hugely wrong — if all the models are hugely wrong, and the betting markets are hugely wrong — it’s because the polls are wrong,” writes Ezra Klein.

This is a true statement. It’s also exactly the point conservatives have been making when questioning his model.

Conservatives are, by nature, skeptical of utopian schemes. The “best and brightest” always believe they can invent a perfect analytical model that will solve all the worlds problems. This, of course, is a fatal conceit. Models break down.

This model might be breaking, too. Yesterday, Gallup wrote, “Romney currently leads Obama 52% to 46% among voters who say they have already cast their ballots.” Assuming that is true (and some dispute it), this leads me to conclude that the energy will be on Romney’s side. That likely means the polls using a 2008 turnout model are, in fact, skewed, and that Romney’s turnout will be higher than anticipated.

If polls are skewed, then (as Klein states), Silver’s model is wrong. Garbage in, garbage out.

There is another reason that conservatives have grown to disdain Silver, and that has to do with the condescending attitude put forth by media elites. What is more, conservatives sense his friends in the media will protect him, no matter what.

“If Mitt Romney wins on election day,” Klein insists, “it doesn’t mean Silver’s model was wrong.”

Barack Obama might have only a 70 percent chance of winning, but Nate Silver has invented a scheme where he wins no matter what happens. If Barack Obama wins (certainly a possibility), the mainstream media will deify him. If Romney wins, the mainstream media will defend his model.

In fact, Klein’s is already laying the groundwork for that.

Matt K. Lewis