The Right Opinion

Nate Silver's Numbers Racket

By Jonah Goldberg · Nov. 7, 2012

In the last week or so, an intense kerfuffle broke out over the poll-prognosticator Nate Silver and his blog at the New York Times, FiveThirtyEight. Silver, a statistician, has been predicting a decisive Obama victory for a very long time, based on his very complicated statistical model, which very, very few of his fans or detractors understand.

On any given day, Silver might have announced that – given the new polling data – “the model” was now finding that the president had an 86.3 percent chance of winning. Not 86.4 percent, you fools. Not 86.1 percent, you Philistines. But 86.3 percent, you lovers of reason.

Not surprisingly, for nervous Mitt Romney supporters, Silver's model has been a source of vexation. For nervous Obama supporters, he's been a constant reassurance. On her Twitter feed, Katha Pollitt, a columnist for the left-wing magazine The Nation, prodded Silver: “Why are you on a plane when you should be at yr desk updating 538 EVERY FIVE MINUTES?”

When Josh Jordan, a National Review colleague of mine, posted a data-heavy and entirely civil critique of some of Silver's projections, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman unleashed a diatribe denouncing Jordan and the National Review for what he saw as a kind of heresy.

“On the right, apparently, there is no such thing as an objective calculation. Everything must have a political motive,” Krugman fumed. “This is really scary,” he added. If “these people triumph, science – or any kind of scholarship – will become impossible.”

Now, bear in mind that Jordan's critique centered on what Jordan (a numbers-cruncher himself) argues is Silver's over-reliance on small-state polls.

And on this rock the future of science – nay, scholarship itself – shall founder!

Now, I have no idea whether Silver's model is the psephological Rosetta Stone some hope – or fear – it to be. And no one else does either.

The truth is that any statistician can build a model. They do it all the time. They make assumptions about the electorate, assign weights to polls and economic indicators, etc., and then they wait for the sausage to come out. No doubt some models are better than others, and some models are simply better for a while and then regress to the mean. But ultimately, the numbers are dependent on the values you place on them. As the computer programmers like to say, garbage in, garbage out.

I'm not saying Silver's just lucky or shoveling garbage. He's a serious numbers guy. But so are the folks at the University of Colorado's political science department whose own model is based on economic indicators. Its Oct. 4 findings predicted Romney would win, as did many other models.

They couldn't all be right.

What interests me is the way people talk about math as if it's divinely prophetic. It's as if they subscribe to a religion that simply apes the terminology of science. To listen to many of Silver's defenders, questioning his methodology is akin to rejecting evolution or the laws of thermodynamics, as if only his model is sanctified by the god, Reason.

I wonder: What kind of scholarship do we have to look forward to when, in the words of Krugman, “facts really do have a well-known liberal bias” and a difference of opinion over poll-weighting foretells the end of science?

Don't get me wrong; I do understand that math can be ironclad. We know the decay rates of isotopes, how fast things will fall in a vacuum, what compounded interest rates will yield and all that.

But I like to think that people are different, more open to reason, and that the soul – particularly when multiplied into the complexity of a society – is not so easily number-crunched. Obviously this is a romantic view out of step with the times. Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism, lamented long ago that the “age of chivalry is gone,” replaced by “that of sophisters, economists and calculators.”

Still, isn't it possible that the passionate defense Silver arouses from some people on the left has just a bit more to do with the comfort he dispenses than with the sophistication of his analysis? And isn't it also possible that some of the conservatives screaming bloody murder about how his model has to be rigged are paying homage to the same cult of the numbers?

© 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

11 Comments

Richard of CT in Cheshire, CT said:

Well, I truly did not believe my fellow Americans could be this stupid. Four more years of a lame brain, community organizer, bought and paid for by the Chicago Machine, George Soros and the Hollywood 'elite'!!

You get what you deserve.

Thanks for selling our once beautiful Republic to the Communist Chinese and for ending the American Dream. Never again will we ever be held in the high esteem we once were. The whole world is laughing at us, and you probably think it is applause!

For those of you that fought the good fight over these past months and weeks, thanks for trying.
I hope you survive the dark night that is about to envelope us, with a few more super liberal appointments to the SCOTUS, more Executive orders that will strip us of our freedom and liberty, and if you happen to be over 65 you can forget about receiving the kind of healthcare your parents enjoyed.

Oh, and our grandkids will be paying the bill for this until the day they die.
Peasants and serfs is what we will be, on the Obama Plantation.
Hope and Change has morphed into Rope and Chains!
Best,
Richard

Wednesday, November 7, 2012 at 2:44 AM

Chris in Dallas replied:

I'm sorry Richard but that kind of thinking is absolutely ridiculous. I understand the general feeling that liberals spend more than conservatives, but if you look at the facts and not opinions by people with the name Koch on their paychecks you'd learn that Obama has NOT exploded the deficit. He hasn't reduced it either, but in tough economic times austerity is not the way to go. I'm confident that the dems can get spending under control.

By the way, if you look at actual polling done by groups, a majority of citizens in other countries LOVE Obama. So much for laughing at us. (oh pakastanis were hoping Romney would win because Obama has been cramming drone strikes down their throats).

By in large, democrats expand civil liberties more-so than republicans. They don't taint our democratic principles by reducing early voting to cut down on urban "-see African American voters." That is the most despicable thing that I've seen yet in politics.

I really think you should be thankful that Obama won. You can still criticize future presidents for not having Christian values. You were about to elect a non-Christian to the White House. I personally think that was pretty progressive of you. Congrats

Wednesday, November 7, 2012 at 8:03 AM

wjm in Colorado replied:

Chris, you treasonous idiot, the fact of the matter is that Americans have voted to destroy their own country. The leaches and worthless ticks have now become more numerous than the producers and voted themselves into slavery to the state. This marxist ideology has always failed, and will here too. We are going the way of Greece. There is noone, however, to bail us out. When the end comes, I hope you are among the first to die.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012 at 12:16 PM

Wayne in Hinesville, GA replied:

I can't believe that you said Odumbo didn't explode the national debt. What rock have you been living under? Austerity is the only way to get spending under control. You can't spend your way out of a deficit. Run up a hugh amount of debt and try spending your way out and see how far you get. By the way, hard work, taking care of your own, and taking responsibility for the choices you make is not exclusively Christian values. They used to be American values but are no more. There is a hugh difference between civil liberties and mooching off the system. If the world was so happy that Odumbo was relected then why were their stock markets down? You think maybe they know something you don't? Citizens in other countries don't have to live with Odumbo's Marxist policies so it doesn't matter what they think.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012 at 12:39 PM

Chris in Dallas replied:

Dear Old Sarge,

Deficit = the amount of money that you are spending per year more than you make

Debt = the amount of money in total you owe

Under Pres. Clinton, we spent less money than we took in. Instead of a deficit, we had a surplus meaning we were bring the debt down. When Pres. Bush came to office, he cut taxes while paying for two wars. That EXPLODED the deficit. Meaning we were spending WAYYYY more money than we were taking in. Pres. Obama hasn't done much by way of bring down the DEFICIT. Its about the same so the debt is rising fast. If you cant understand that, then don't read further because you won't understand this at all.
Now, if the government starts to DRASTICALLY cut its budget, the shock to the system WILL collapse our economy further, putting more people out of work and we start to look like Greece. The largest problem we have in the short term is to find a way to minimalize the damage that the automatic spending cuts are going to make to our economy and defense. In spite of that, our economy IS coming back with Obama in office. More people are going back to work. There are more taxes coming in. As long as Obama doesn't start any new costly programs, our deficit will start to come down and eventually we'll be able to balance the budget. When that happens, and that's a lot, we'll be exactly back where we were when this government was making money like under Clinton's second term. BOOMING!!
As far as Obama being Marxist, I tend to think of it being like the people calling him a Muslim, and saying he isn't truly an American because he wasn't born here. C'mon really????
As far as the markets... Who is it that has a vested interest in the right winning elections. The richest because they want lower taxes. After Democratic elections, the markets always throw a little tantrum. Then after a day or two, everybody realizes that they have money and they can make more of it, so they put it back into the system so the markets recover. Smart financial people know this. That's why foreign markets go down. It'll only be temporary.
Everybody around here needs to breathe. Things will be alright. Obama is not going to eat your young. He isn't some evil villain sitting in the Oval Office petting his cat and laughing.

If you stand on your head and look around, the world is going to look pretty wrong. If everybody else is wrong but you, most likely you just need to get off the floor.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012 at 6:39 PM

Brian in Newport News replied:

When Bush jr took office, the national debt stood at $5.9 Trillion. When he left office it was $10.7 Trillion. So he "exploded" the debt by $4.8 Trillion in 8 years. Our debt now stands at $16.3 Trillion. Obama increased the debt by $5.6 Trillion in only 4 years, or at over the twice the rate of Bush.

I am so glad that is not an explosion. I really feel better about the numbers knowing Obama did not "explode" the debt.

Thursday, November 8, 2012 at 8:54 AM

Thomas Long in St. Augustine, FL replied:

Go to sleep Richard, you'll wake up in a better world. One where you can't lie your way into public office, or steal an election by restricting access to the polls. Remember, this is a democracy (you might want to look that one up), and by the way, President Obama just won... again. Get over it and show the man some respect. He just accomplished something you or I never will, and he deserves it.
Nate Silver is just a man telling the truth, but obviously there are alot of people out there who don't want to hear the truth. The GOP needs to do some real soul searching. The Tea Party is a cancer, and if you don't cut it out your slide will be epic, but hey, what do I care? It just made it that much easier for us to put our man back where he belongs.
Regards,
Thomas

Wednesday, November 7, 2012 at 8:05 AM

READY4ACHANGE in ILLINOIS replied:

Well Thomas, you keep thinking like that - and when you are walking in the line for the soup kitchen, don't say we didn't try to save you. But, alas, stupidity won out this time.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012 at 10:27 AM

wjm in Colorado replied:

It is because the useful idiots such as yourself treasonously voted for Marxist Statist ideology and the end of the REPUBLIC. We were not a Democracy you fool, that is MOB RULE. May your chains lay lightly upon you comrade, America has gone over the edge and abandoned the Constitution. The TEA Party is made up of Patriots who understand our founding principals, unlike the leaches who now outnumber producers and vote to destroy the county. Thomas, I despise you and your treasonous ilk who have now sent America on the road to ruin. Congratualaitons for Destroying what was the last hope of the World.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012 at 12:13 PM

Chris in Dallas said:

Jonah, I think your article is very well written and very level-headed. It is possible that nates defenders find comfort is his numbers because they have been mostly accurate and have sided with the Dems. Lets wait and see if he accurately predicts a republican winner. Only then will I truly be convinced he deserves all the acclaim he's been getting from the left. For now, I am still somewhat impressed.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012 at 8:27 AM

Thomas Long in St. Augustine, FL replied:

Chris, I'm pleased to hear a reasonable voice on this site, maybe there is hope for the right (pardon the assumption). I agree with you on Nate Silver. I'm a big fan of math, and all he did was put the math out there. He wasn't the only one doing it, and he wasn't alone in his assessment. Actually, the only wrong calls he made on this cycle were two senate seats in Montana and North Dakota, one of which he called "safe republican". I think he was wrong because of a lack of polling data in those markets, but made those calls based on the bias and voting record of those states. So, I think he has shown his integrity there. Still, you are correct, and the future will tell. Me, I'm a lefty, but I enjoy a good debate. I also get a little kick out of the ranting you can get back when you insert reason into a vitriolic stewpot. I always find it amusing that every election cycle is portrayed as the ultimate battle between good and evil, and every generation thinks it's the end of the world when things begin to change.
Thanks, and warm regards,
Thomas

Wednesday, November 7, 2012 at 4:09 PM