Nate Silver Is Making This Up as He Goes

Nate Silver in 2015. (Photo: Internet Week New York / Flickr/cc)

Nate Silver Is Making This Up as He Goes

One suspects that despite his claims to analytical rigor, at some very basic level, Silver does not actually know what a poll is.

There is a scene in "Hail, Caesar!" the Coen brothers' black, Golden Age Hollywood satire, in which a confused George Clooney, playing a dumbed-down 1950s version of himself, awakes after being kidnapped by a group of ineptly idealistic communist screenwriters and is exposed, for the first time, to a materialist view of history.

First explained in a relatively cogent if jargony manner by a fictionalized Herbert Marcuse, a real-life philosopher of the Frankfurt School, this thesis is then repeated with rather more hapless confidence by one of the kidnappers: "See, if you understand economics, you can actually write down what will happen in the future with as much confidence as you write down the history of the past. Because it's science! It's not make-believe."

"We don't believe in Santa Claus!" one of his compatriots exclaims.

I think of this scene whenever I am forced to reckon with the wisdom of Nate Silver, the baseball statistician-cum-polling analyst turned Twitter pundit. Silver is by no means a communist; he's not even a leftist. He presents himself as a kind of libertarian, and like so many tedious, self-styled iconoclasts, I suspect he would call himself "fiscally conservative, socially liberal." He has, at various points, expressed support for Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and even the two-time third-party candidate Gary Johnson. But while Silver holds no brief for dialectical materialism, he does evince a similarly fatuous belief in the Coens' satirically bowdlerized version of the axiom that history is "science," and that the future is an equation to be solved.

Silver came to political prominence in 2008, when his aggregations of election polls produced an impressive predictive model that called that year's national elections with remarkable accuracy. In subsequent years, he and his organization, FiveThirtyEight, have produced inconsistent results: an inaccurate muck-up of 2010 elections in the U.K.; an accurate prediction of the 2012 results in the U.S.; and a wildly incorrect take on the 2016 elections that he continues to attempt to retcon into an impressive showing by claiming he was slightly less overconfident about a Donald Trump loss than everybody else.

More recently, he was confidently mocking supporters of impeachment for their antimajoritarian views: "Wait aren't you the guy who thinks impeachment will be a really good political move for Democrats even though it polls at like 37%?," he tweeted in September, barely a month before the Democrats launched an actual impeachment inquiry following revelations that Trump clumsily sought some kind of foreign assistance in digging up dirt on his political opponents, a decision that within a matter of weeks swung a majority of public sentiment in favor of impeachment.

Increasingly, one suspects that despite his claims to analytical rigor, at some very basic level, Silver does not actually know what a poll is. He is not alone in this; a fair portion of the country's political punditry and opinion-making class is equally misinformed. In their conception, polls of opinion and sentiment represent not a snapshot of the present as informed by the past, but rather a hazy but prescient view into the future; not a measurement, but a prediction. "[Y]ou can actually write down what will happen in the future, with as much confidence as you write down the history of the past. Because it's science!" This is why so much media discourse around polling emphasizes a framework that paints polls of present attitudes as a form of absolute constraint on where sentiment will go.

But even as Silver continues to present himself as an analytically rigorous alternative to the entrails-reading punditry of the "Morning Joe" variety, he also has shown an increasing affinity for precisely that brand of unquantifiable storytelling and third-scotch-at-the-hotel-bar pontificating for which his original project was supposed to be a remedy. During a recent round of the never-ending free speech debates, he opined that "false statements of fact" aren't protected by the First Amendment, eliciting howling derision from the lawyers in the cloud. Just this week, he logged on to complain, after Trump was--entirely predictably, and without polling!--booed by a crowd at a Washington National's baseball game on the same day he'd announced that the U.S. had supposedly killed the alleged leader of Islamic State, that "many Libs can't even permit Trump to have *one good day* ... after US forces kill perhaps the world's most wanted terrorist." (He has since issued a tweet suggesting, unconvincingly, that he was trolling.) It's a curious stance from a man who claims, among other self-imposed limits and constraints, that his empirical models deliberately seek to ignore those major public events that move--usually briefly--opinions about politics and events. To use Silver's preferred turn of phrase, isn't one good day just more "noise"?

Now, I do not think that Silver is a secret Trumpist; he is just another commentator who, sheltered by his money and network of contacts, is free to view political alignments as mere fandom and political contests as another competitive league full of "stories," of rivalries and upsets, of failed Hail Mary passes and successful buzzer-beaters. It is a vision of politics beholden to the ephemeral post-Cold War order: capitalism ascendant; the U.S. utterly predominant; East Asia a vast frontier for labor arbitrage; the Middle East an anonymous background for the Israeli-Palestinian "peace process." For all this class's subsequent infatuation with ostensibly world-changing narratives of 9/11 and the "war on terror," it has never actually accepted that the world is changing, that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union signaled not a new era, but a brief interregnum before a series of convulsions of which we are only experiencing the first tremors.

"As someone who was neither especially optimistic nor especially pessimistic about the Warriors, I do kinda think people have to wait for more than 2 games," Silver recently said, accidentally summing up his politics in a tweet about one of his other favorite subjects, NBA basketball. And what would the rest of us give to have the luxury of sitting in the stands and seeing what shakes out, confident that we'll still have our tickets next year if our hometown favorites blow it this time around.

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