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Who’s Afraid Of Nate Silver?

2014 April 2

Nate Silver doesn’t look very threatening.  With his spindly frame and eyeglasses, he looks more like the prototypical 98 pound weakling than an emergent media juggernaut, but he’s got a lot of people running scared nonetheless.

Whereas other pundits earn their living through a special blend of insights and access to inside sources, Silver has neither.  In fact, he bases his analysis on data that, in most cases, everyone else has access to yet he’s somehow able to prove experts wrong.

And that’s exactly what makes Silver so scary, not for what he does, but what he represents—the primacy of data and analysis over personal experience.  If Silver, a relative neophyte with no substantial experience on the political beat or in the halls of power can outperform respected pundits, then what does that say about the rest of us?

The Invasion Of The Quants

While many in the news world see Silver and his fellow data journalists as newfangled interlopers, the truth is that politics is only the most recent area where data has upended the existing order.

In his book, The Quants, Scott Patterson chronicles how, starting in the early 1970’s, traders armed with computers and algorithms began dominating those who went on instinct.  Today, trading programs operate with limited day-to-day intervention and execute trades in microseconds, much faster than any human could hope to keep up with.

Since then, data analysis has bested experts in a number of fields.  In Super Crunchers, Ian Ayers explains how Orley Ashenfelter, a Princeton economist, outperformed the most influential critics with his wine equation and Sabremetrics redefined how professional baseball managers evaluated talent.

Today, data has become a big business.  The Google Flu Trends service monitors outbreaks of influenza and algorithms that evaluate creative work are being deployed in the music and film industries.  It was only a matter of time before someone like Nate Silver came along.

How Experts Fail

Most people are paid for their work, but experts are paid for their insights.  They succeed by boldly asserting claims that no one else has thought of.  With superior experience, access and intelligence, experts purport to look beyond the surface, to that which is not immediately apparent to those of us with less penetrating minds.

Unfortunately, this often leads to what Daniel Kahneman calls “substituting one question for another.”  Rather than merely looking at what the facts tell them, experts often listen to their inner voice and then go find the data needed to support their argument.  Here’s longtime pundit Peggy Noonan writing just a day before the 2012 election.

Romney’s crowds are building—28,000 in Morrisville, Pa., last night; 30,000 in West Chester, Ohio, Friday.  It isn’t only a triumph of advance planning: People came, they got through security and waited for hours in the cold. His rallies look like rallies now…

…All the vibrations are right… Something is roaring back…

Is it possible this whole thing is playing out before our eyes and we’re not really noticing because we’re too busy looking at data on paper instead of what’s in front of us? Maybe that’s the real distortion of the polls this year: They left us discounting the world around us.

And there is Obama, out there seeming tired and wan, showing up through sheer self discipline.

Noonan, a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, has been a longtime political observer. She goes to Ohio, feels the “vibrations,” believes in them and then concocts a theory to explain them.  Surely, as a woman of uncommon stature in the political realm, her deeply felt feelings must count for something.

So she substitutes the question of “does Romney have a mathematical chance at winning the Presidency?” with “what do I feel at an Ohio political rally?”

The Fox And The Hedgehog

Nate Silver entitled the manifesto for his new website, What The Fox Knows.  He presents it as an allusion to an old Greek fable and the adage that while a fox knows many things, a hedgehog knows one big thing.  But the truth is that the metaphor is much more.

Philip Tetlock spent 20 years studying the predictions of political experts and found that they were no more accurate than flipping a coin.  For all of those thousands of column lines and hundreds of hours on cable news shows, the talking heads really don’t know any more about the future than the rest of us.

Yet all experts were not equal in Tetlock’s famous study.  The hedgehog pundits, who focused on a specific area of interest, tended to perform considerably worse than the foxes, who had a much broader base of knowledge.  What’s even more interesting is that, despite being wrong more often, hedgehogs were also more confident in their judgments.

Anybody who reads Nate Silver can see that he works on the basis of prior doubt rather than prior belief.  He looks at an assertion, finds a way to test it with data and then tests it some more.  He’s not trying to be right as much as he is trying to be less wrong over time.  He aspires not to superior insight, but greater rigor.

The Hedgehog’s Fatal Flaw

A hedgehog claims unique insight.  A fox does no such thing.  Although data scientists do sometimes keep specifics proprietary, they talk about methods and use sources that are, if not public, then available to others.  Their methods can be questioned and critiqued.

A hedgehog, however, purports to have unique powers derived from immersion in a specific set of experiences.  Peggy Noonan’s “vibrations” were important because she felt them.  She urged us not to be blinded by what everyone can see—public polls—and to focus on her special brand of insight.

After all, what she saw was undoubtedly true.  I’m sure she really did feel vibrations when she saw Mitt Romney.  But others saw a failed Governor and a tax cheat who had no business running for the nation’s highest office and still others saw a “vulture capitalist” who preyed on those less fortunate than a millionaire’s son.  Our feelings are not facts.

And that’s what’s scary about Nate Silver.  He asks us to take our most heartfelt beliefs and put them to the test.

– Greg

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