Nate Silver vs. the old school: What can we learn?
One more election follow-up: The big media name in this election season was Nate Silver, a one-time baseball writer who transferred his statistical analysis over to politics in 2008. His FiveThirtyEight Blog runs on the New York Times website.
Silver came under considerable fire not just from Republican operatives who didn’t like his long-running prediction that President Obama was likely to be reelected, but from journalists who didn’t appreciate his style of using statistics to make judgments about what was going on.
This piece by Dylan Byers at Politico became a sort of standard-bearer for the anti-Silver crowd, which also included Silver’s fellow Timesman David Brooks and TV talker Joe Scarborough, who in a rant on “Morning Joe” didn’t seem to understand that when Silver said Obama had a 73.6 percent chance of winning, that didn’t mean Silver was predicting Obama would get 73.6 percent of the vote.
“I’m sorry that Joe is math challenged,” Silver told Byers.
“Election shows data illiteracy is a problem for journalists,” reads the headline on a piece by Amy Gahran on the University of Southern California Knight Digital Media Center website. The journalist and media consultant argues that this problem is also an opportunity for people who, like Silver, do understand simple and not-so-simple mathematics:
Journalists, editors and publishers who make an effort to become data literate may be able to demonstrate a competitive advantage to the communities they serve.
Now let’s see. Is there an area of endeavor that produces mountains of data that can be parsed in a thousand ways to tease out meaning and insight? Meaning and insight that in most cases is more enlightening than whatever this or that athlete has to say after the game?
This isn’t just about data literacy. That’s just what got Silver ahead. The larger point is the changing landscape of the news business, and that includes the sports news business.
When Scarborough launched his rant against Silver, he used access as a trump card. He’d talked to the campaigns.
“Nobody in that campaign thinks they have a 73 percent chance,” he said. “They think they have a 50.1 percent chance of winning. And you talk to the Romney people, it’s the same thing. Both sides understand: It is close, and it can go either way.”
Scarborough’s access didn’t help him help us understand what was really going on. Silver’s lack of access didn’t hurt his ability to do so. That’s a huge change from how journalism worked even 10 years ago.
Listen, access can be wonderful, but pay attention to which media figure made the biggest splash this election season: A guy with no particular access to anyone, who just found a way to do something interesting and enlightening with information that was out there for anyone to use.
What are the other opportunities out there?
True Hoop: NBA lessons from Nate Silver’s election predictions (video)
Paul Bradshaw (Online Journalism Blog): The US election was a wake-up call for data-illiterate journalists
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Disclosure: Nate Silver and I have never met, but we’ve emailed each other and spoken on the phone, mostly about Scoresheet baseball. Also, I’m the co-editor of the books “Baseball Prospectus 2012″ and “Baseball Prospectus 2013,” both of which make use of PECOTA, the player-prediction algorithm Silver developed in 2003.
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Photo: Nate Silver in 2009 by Randy Stewart / Flickr Creative Commons