Green Room

The beatification of Nate Silver

posted at 9:24 pm on November 8, 2012 by

Dan Foster doesn’t get it. Neither do I.

Though it had lots of different inputs, especially early on, by the end Silver’s famed model was an approximation of a simple Monte Carlo of the polling data; or, if you like, a different way of presenting a variety of polling averages. It was not sorcery. Silver deserves credit for analyzing the data he had in a plausible, straightforward, and fairly transparent way, and for communicating his assumptions at every turn.

But the crap that Silver took from a lot of conservatives being held up as evidence of the supposed mass delusion and anti-empiricism of the Right makes little sense. I think a lot of conservatives with humanities degrees (myself included) instinctively thought that all the decimal places were too cute by half – just like a lot of liberals with humanities degrees instinctively thought every additional decimal place meant MOAR SCIENCE. (Aside: This is a longstanding bugaboo of mine. The “I Swear to Science!” and “Science Bless You! Haha Lolz” crowd are often in the same epistemic position vis-à-vis statements they take on bald authority as are cult members. The fact that journalists writing dire warnings about global warming, or activists campaigning against intelligent design could learn about long-term climate modeling or the mechanisms of natural selection if they wanted to doesn’t change the fact most of them don’t.)

He deserves his victory lap for getting the result right, but so do Drew Linzer and Simon Jackman and Sam Wang, who appears to have nailed the popular vote precisely (51.1 percent). They were all correct (because they were all modeling the same state polls), yet it’s Silver who’s on “The Daily Show” while the other guys are basically as anonymous as they were six months ago. And they’re not the only ones being overlooked. I keep wondering how Tom Jensen of PPP or Lee Miringoff of Marist (NBC/WSJ) are feeling watching Silver be treated as some sort of oracle. They were the ones who gave him the raw data for his model; they were the ones whose reputations were on the line when more established pollsters like Gallup showed a break in the national vote towards Romney. Silver had cover from Linzer et al. to support his state-poll model but Jensen and Miringoff were out on a limb in seeing a deep-blue electorate — and they got it right. Not a perfect analogy here, but it’s as if Silver predicted that Josh Hamilton would hit 100 homers this season and then Hamilton did hit 100 homers, and the media responded by swarming around Silver, not Hamilton. Note to liberal math wizards: Both accomplishments are impressive, but one’s more impressive than the other.

The reason Silver’s being worshiped, I think, is because (obviously) he’s got a vastly larger platform than the other modelers and because he writes engagingly on his subject, for which he also deserves credit. He was the left’s security blanket for six months; whenever they feared that Mitt Romney, the new Republican Hitler, was on the verge of destroying America as we know it, Silver was there to reassure them that there was still a 71.4935 percent chance that it wouldn’t happen. Looking forward to seeing how the model does in an election where nearly every major state poll isn’t breaking for the same candidate in the last few weeks.

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