Nate Silver’s predictions for the 2014 midterm elections have made many a fair-weather liberal friend turn on him. The FiveThirtyEight proprietor struck a particularly damning blow against newly-minted critic Paul Krugman in a wry column noting how rapidly Krugman turned on him the moment he left the New York Times.
After publishing a series of blog posts that describe Silver and the new FiveThirtyEight as “sloppy and casual opining,” “halfway between a disappointment and a disaster,” and prone to using data “the way a drunkard uses a lamppost,” Silver sifted through Krugman’s blog for mentions of himself or FiveThirtyEight and made a chart. The chart shows a deeply negative turn beginning almost the moment that Krugman left the Times.
Silver attributes the change in tone to two large shifts in the relationship between Silver and Krugman: they are no longer coworkers, and Silver has been particularly abrasive against former coworker’s of Krugman’s ilk. He notes, in third person, that “Mr. Silver has frequently criticized what he calls ‘pundits’ and ‘opinion journalists,’ including those who write for The Times,” and allows that “the difference in Mr. Krugman’s views could reflect a decline in quality for FiveThirtyEight,” though in a tone that leaves room to speculate whether Silver actually believes that.
Pundits have scrambled to figure out what could have caused this rift. Dave Weigel writes (expertly dropping a Frankie Goes to Hollywood reference in the title) that Silver’s site is simply “dull,” and Krugman has not actually been so harsh. On the other side of the Silver tolerance spectrum, Jonathan Chait suggests that “the real cause of Krugman’s disdain is the sheer ambition of Silver’s new venture,” a scope that threatens the usefulness of Krugman’s work. This is more in line with Silver’s argument that his criticism of opinion columnists is partly to blame. Most, including Silver, ignore one event transpiring on FiveThirtyEight in between Krugman’s praise and Krugman’s jeering: Silver’s prediction that there is a 60% change Republicans take back the Senate.
The point is simple enough: Silver’s predictions in favor of Democrats were both correct and highly convenient for those on the left, while his predictions for 2014 promise to be only one of those things. Silver’s commitment to objectivity turned him from secret weapon to opposing threat overnight.
To be sure, Silver makes it easy, as his analysis of politics relies on a fundamentally incorrect understanding of the nature of politics, particularly in a democratic system like the United States.
The premise of Silver’s “data journalism” thesis is that a political analyst cannot simply be a good writer or particularly adept at critical thinking. Without some numbers–any numbers–to back him or her up, a political analysis is worthless. Of opinion writers, Silver says, “they don’t have any discipline in how they look at the world.”
Silver’s predictions in 2012 may give him some freedom to rail against the human nature of politics, but he will ultimately always hit a wall. “Academia,” legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog once said, “is the death of cinema. It is the very opposite of passion.” That statement hits at the core of why FiveThirtyEight will ultimately fail. What is politics if not passion? It is a cultural, deeply emotional, and, above all, human competition for power. Politics is art, not science.
Krugman’s claim that Silver’s bullheaded insistence that politics is science leads to sloppy journalism because any point is valid if accompanied by numbers is flawed, however. It is precisely this philosophy that insulates Silver from the hackery he so despises and the sloppiness Krugman diagnoses. During years in which Democrats won the White House and made gains in Congress, he may have appeared to be working to the benefit of liberals–certainly it appears that some liberals mistook him for a loyal ally and not an honest data analyst.
His predictions for 2014 prove, however, that Silver will read the tea leaves as they land in the cup. The reality that his data journalism exposes is more important to him than whether that reality is convenient for the left, and this is an unacceptable attitude to partisan hacks. The fact that Silver is doing it all while waging war directly on their “bullsh*t” hackery makes it all insufferable for those who thrive on that editorial model.
Ideologues like Krugman would never have dared wagged a finger in Silver’s direction had he merely continued berating newspaper columnists while heralding in Democratic victories and claiming the numbers supported claims that weren’t there, and Silver’s data analysis of Krugman’s take on FiveThirtyEight shows this. Before Silver’s predictions stopped going Krugman’s way, he could do no wrong. It just so happens that he relaunched FiveThirtyEight under the ESPN banner just as the tide turned against Democrats, making it easier for Silver to blame Krugman’s ire on the decision to abandon the columnist’s employer.
There are many months between now and the midterm elections for Silver to continue confounding liberal columnists, and if he continues to dedicate himself to attacking partisan columnists and creating the appearance of deep ideological divides among the left, his predictions on 2014 might become self-fulfilling prophecy.