Nate Silver is tired of apologizing. Today, on the Nose, we’ll be talking about that.
He was Mr. Infallible in 2008 and 2012. During this cycle, he has often appeared to have roughly the same grasp of what was unfolding as these two numbskulls.
The same could be said for 99.9 percent of the people covering this race, irrespective of whether they were using data, shoe leather, political wisdom or ouija boards. But the struggles of the quants have elicited chuckles from some of the old school political reporters who felt dissed by the “Why Aren’t You Great Like Nate?” tenor or the recent cycles.
This month, the gloves came off. It started with a piece by NYT media columnist Jim Rutenberg which was at least nominally a “nostra culpa.” “We got it wrong,” writes Rutenberg. But the column did seem heavily weighted toward criticisms of quants like Silver who were unfavorably contrasted by the author with reporters who occasionally get up from their laptops and talk to real people.
It didn’t go over well. On the Elections podcast of 538, Silver and his confederates — but especially Nate — tore into Rutenberg as “snide and dismissive” and obtuse and unhelpful back in the days when 538 lived at the NYT. The tirade starts around 30:00 on the counter here and doesn’t stop for a while.
And then came Silver’s core dump: a 6,000-word treatise on what went wrong. One of his premises, amusingly, was that he and his datajournalists fell into the trap of thinking like dinojournalists, the kinds of pundits who eyeball a situation and attach a lot of certainty to their guesses. Who does that remind you of? Yes, the 538 gang momentarily succumbed to being the kind of fool they’re pretty sure Rutenberg is every waking minute. Another problem was extenuating circumstances, which seems like not much of a defense. One thing them circumstances do, pretty reliably, is extenuate.
Still, Silver is never not fascinating. I happen to enjoy both him and Rutenberg. His piece is a great read. But any time you have to write 6,000 words about your own performance, there’s a 92 percent chance that you have taken a wrong turn and gone 72 percent of the way up your own anus.