Nate Silver and the fetish of data-driven journalism

Silver’s accuracy is not the issue here. Everyone get things wrong from time to time. It’s just that despite being fabulously wrong over and over again, and despite his admissions of fallibility, people still cling to his pronouncements as the ultimate argument from authority. This signals a more profound structural problem with the culture—one too eager to find quantifiable solutions to complex and often unquantifiable situations, especially when those quantifiable solutions comport to their views of the world as it should be.

It’s not Silver. He’s just the fetish for the phenomenon.

Jason Rhode, in Paste Magazine, opens his withering critique of Silver with a quotation from Federalist 55: “Nothing can be more fallacious than to found our political calculations on arithmetical principles.” And yet today many seem to believe that Silver is arithmetic made flesh, as such he’s an avatar of a cultural desire for statistical certainty in light of a constantly changing and often unpredictable world of human interaction and politics. He is Hermes bringing us the word of the gods. But sadly, we miss the point of hermeneutics, that discipline of critically assessing the nature of Hermes’ message.

Instead, invoking FiveThirtyEight seems to bestow upon the speaker of the Silverian incantations an air of both intellectual superiority and mathematical indifference. “Nate Silver predicts…” is akin to saying “Shut up idiot, what do you know? The numbers don’t lie, don’t doubt your betters!” But that appeal to Silver is really an appeal to the illusion of a fully predictable future.

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