Nate Silver's war on opinion

 
Nate Silver FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver opts for data over opinion

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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:

Start Quote

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”

End Quote Nate Silver New York Magazine interview

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.

Start Quote

Neutrality is an evasion of responsibility, unless everything is like sports”

End Quote Leon Wieseltier The New Republic

"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.

 

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 17.

    The biggest reason the Major news media hates him is he has shown them up as fools and made them a laughingstock. Billionaire Brothers try and buy up American Media to control the public opinions for their own gain; this person shows us the ugly underside of American "Strictly for Profit, not for truth" media. I gave up on major American media outlets, for them it's "Profits uber allies".

  • Comment number 16.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 15.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 14.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this
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    Comment number 13.

    In this ‘social-opinion-media’ environment as it currently exists Silver’s concerns are well-founded. A lack of rigorous analysis of the facts, poor critical-thinking and problem-solving skills among journalists plus the time-constraints of a 24/7 news cycle all contribute to the problem. Also, the line between news and entertainment has become so blurred it’s virtually non-existent.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 12.

    its a two headed coin. i run on hunches not empirical data.
    how do i know my hunches are correct?
    i work in IT support and would be fired if I didn't fix things
    in the quickest time possible..
    and they are very complex systems..

    the empirical, statistical method is way to slow... the spreadsheet always out of date. and everything changing far too quickly...

    horses for courses..

  • rate this
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    Comment number 11.

    @8 There's actually a very lively debate in the US about whether you can be objective and a good journalist, whether it's even worth aspiring to that standard. Jay Rosen has some very interesting takes on neutrality, and how it can conflict with "truth-telling".

    Ps. Don't kid yourself about Murrow, a great journalist, but certainly not always neutral (eg on US joining WW2 or McCarthyism).

  • rate this
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    Comment number 10.

    Opinion formation is no longer a function of free dissemination of information.

    Facts available to the citizenry are tainted & distorted by powerful propaganda machines masquerading as news organizations. The decision by the US SupremeCourt allowing Fox News and others to report lies as news is at the heart of an attack on democracy in the US. Opinion journalists then report the trash as truth.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 9.

    A bit bizarre that he would choose these three newspapers. Surely he could have broadened his perspective a bit to comment on some of the more patently-biased opinion-sellers. Some cannot base thought on anything but the market-place; some abhor any deviation from the dominant social mores of the times. Silver appears to be picking a fight with some media outlets rather than lousy journalism

  • rate this
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    Comment number 8.

    For what it's worth, 100% agreement with Nate Silvers. A journalist's job is to report the news, not tell us what to think about it. There are magazines or shows that are clearly biased, and as long as they let you know their bias up fine I'm fine with it, but publications such at the NY Times or Wall St Journal are billed as 'objective.' See Edward R. Murrow if you need an example.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 7.

    Sorry but I used opinion pieces to avail myself with facts. I guess I'm crazy...

  • rate this
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    Comment number 6.

    I like Silver, and he's done some very impressive things - his PECORA system for baseball was groundbreaking. His poll aggregation methodology is outstanding (but not unique). He even managed some decent Oscar forecasting.

    It seems however that he has extrapolated from these past successes a general ability to beat pundits. If that's 538's new outlook, it will fail to live up to its own hype.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 5.

    It is not a surprise that the usage of " neutrally balanced " fact as a bases of opinion would really hurt the crap slingers that support their opinions only based on some pie in the sky BS which they have distorted to fit their ideas. There are extremes on both sides of the coin; however, at this point in our history the left has tilted the balance so far out, Silver is fresh air.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 4.

    2 daedalus
    His business isn't punditry, it's data analysis. He's good at it.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 3.

    It just gets easier to add names to the by-line of the great American political fiction.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 2.

    So a man whose business is punditry attacks someone who thinks punditry is rubbish.

    Well he would, wouldn't he?

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 1.

    I followed Silver's work before the election with great interest. He was bang on. He also has a point that most pundits cherry pick a few "facts", usually out of context, to support their thesis. They are brought and paid for and you know what their "opinion" will be without bothering to look. That's one reason original, well research opinion pieces are fascinating. They make you think,

 

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