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Nov 8 / King Kaufman

Nate Silver vs. the old school: What can we learn?

Nate SilverOne 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?

Further reading

True Hoop: NBA lessons from Nate Silver’s election predictions (video)

Mark CoddingtonWhy political journalists can’t stand Nate Silver: The limits of journalistic knowledge

Paul Bradshaw (Online Journalism Blog): The US election was a wake-up call for data-illiterate journalists

Simply Statistics: On weather forecasts, Nate Silver, and the politicization of statistical illiteracy

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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

  • Rob Goldberg

    Glad to see you talk about Silver in the blog. I just bought his book and plan on reading it over the weekend. I really do think it will help me overall in making predictions and backing them up. Of course, sports are more unpredictable than other things, but the same mindset is there.

  • Kelly Scaletta

    OK. First, I had no idea that you were involved with PECOTA. Seriously. MAD props on that. That is some ingenious stuff.

    Second, thoroughly enjoyed this entry. There’s also a Truehoop TV discussion on this line. In case you missed it, here’s the link.

    Third, to the point of the whole thing. ABSOLUTELY!!! This isn’t a “win” for Silver because the Dems won (after all he correctly picked them to lose in 2010 and Scarborough wasn’t complaining about his methodology then) but because FACTS won. MATH won. REALITY won.

    In sports if someone makes a shot in a game, gets a hit, or whatever, that’s a thing that really happened. It IS reality. They don’t tell us WHY something happened but they do tell us WHAT happened.

    As writers our main job as analysts is to analyze why things happen, but that doesn’t give us license to overlook or reinvent what actually happened. A big part of understanding why something happens is first being clear as to what is really happening. Nothing is a better indicator of that than statistics.

    There are going to be a ton of “Scarboroughs” who look at that with disdain, but in the end reality wins out.

    • King_Kaufman

      Thanks, Kelly. I didn’t and don’t have anything to do with PECOTA in any real sense. It’s the forecasting system that Baseball Prospectus uses. Silver sold it to BP years ago and administered it until he left to do 538 fulltime. It’s now administered by some other guys who are much smarter than I am. I don’t do anything with the stats side of the book beyond proofreading at the end of the process, making sure the pages all look like what they’re supposed to look like. My concern is the text in the team essays, player comments, etc.

      Also, I think this bears repeating:

      “A big part of understanding why something happens is first being clear as to what is really happening.”

  • Adam Fromal

    I’m not a politics guy—not by any stretch—but this was easily my favorite part of the entire election process. Following Silver’s posts and the reactions to them was massively entertaining and couldn’t help but make me think of the brief conversation we had about Trout and Cabrera. And that response to Scarborough had to be my absolute favorite quote of the entire election process.

    Kelly already nailed the detailed breakdown of why this was such a success, so I’m not even going to try to follow that up, but I will say that I’m quite impressed you’re involved with BP. As an owner of the last five editions, I have nothing but respect for what you’ve helped create.

    • King_Kaufman

      Thanks, Adam. I can’t take credit for helping create anything at BP. I’m strictly a hired hand who’s worked on the last and next book as an editor.

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