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One Irony of Nate Silver’s Leaving the New York Times

- July 23, 2013

Nate Silver’s imminent departure from the New York Times to ABC and ESPN — see details in the links within this Jack Shafer post — has elicited stories of hostility to Silver within the Times newsroom.  The Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, writes:

His entire probability-based way of looking at politics ran against the kind of political journalism that The Times specializes in: polling, the horse race, campaign coverage, analysis based on campaign-trail observation, and opinion writing, or “punditry,” as he put it, famously describing it as “fundamentally useless.” Of course, The Times is equally known for its in-depth and investigative reporting on politics.

His approach was to work against the narrative of politics – the “story” – and that made him always interesting to read. For me, both of these approaches have value and can live together just fine.

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 had a similar experience the night of the Iowa caucus in 2012.  Lynn Vavreck and I were in the lobby of the Des Moines Marriott talking to a senior Times reporter when the subject of Silver came up.  The reporter went on a rant about how Silver did not know things because he hadn’t been in the field as reporters are, about Silver’s “models,” and about how Silver could talk about polls that did not meet the Times polling standards (a fact that the Times polling editor Kate Phillips also referred to as “a problem” in a Twitter exchange with political scientist Daniel Smith).

The problem with this critique of Silver is that, if you follow his work closely or read his book, he’s extremely cautious about what data and modeling can accomplish.  Moreover, if you read his book closely, he is quite clear that the kind of data reporters (or baseball scouts) often gather — which is qualitative, not quantitative — is exceedingly valuable for doing what he does. This is a point about the book that hasn’t received much emphasis in the reviews I’ve read, even though the potential value of qualitative data in quantitative forecasts is well-established (see, for example, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita’s approach).

For example, although Silver developed a quantitative system, PECOTA, for evaluating baseball players, that you might think was the natural antagonist of qualitative data-gatherers like scouts, his book chapter on this has a section called “PECOTA vs. Scouts: Scouts Win.”  Silver writes:

bq. Although the scouts’ judgment is sometimes flawed, they were adding plenty of value: their forecasts were about 15 percent better than ones that relied on statistics alone.

He has the same view of quantitative election forecasting.  In a section of the book called “Weighing Qualitative Information,” he lauds the value in the in-depth interviewing of candidates that is done by David Wasserman and others at the Cook Political Report.  Silver uses the ratings that Cook and others have developed in his own House forecasts and finds that they also add value.

So the irony, as I see it, is that Silver faced resentment within the newsroom even though his approach explicitly values the work that reporters do.  Although I suspect that Times reporters wouldn’t like to simply be inputs in one of Silver’s models, I could easily see how the Times could have set up a system by which campaign reporters fed their impressions to Silver based on their reporting and then Silver worked to incorporate their impressions in a systematic fashion.

In short, even though it may be impossible to eliminate the tension between Silver’s approach and that of at least some reporters, I think there is an under-appreciated potential for symbiosis.  Perhaps Silver will find that at ESPN and ABC.

[Full disclosure: In 2011-2012, I was a paid contributor to the 538 blog.]