Saturday, November 3, 2012

Nate Silver and Sam Wang vs. the Pundit Class

      It's getting personal. The pundits don't appreciate the work of the Nate Silvers-or Sam Wangs-of the world and it's becoming obvious why. Nate, Sam, and company are a threat to the pundits' bread and butter: the rationale for why they matter; as the philosopher Richard Rorty would have put it, the rise of poll analysts threaten the very fabric of "the stories the pundits tell themselves about themselves."

     What Nate and company have done is give us an end run around the noise of Krugman's very serious people. The pundits don't like this. This week we've seen an "escalation of hostilities" with Scarborough going after Nate-and Nate offering him a simple bet. Then Sam Wang offered to eat a really big, disgusting bug on camera if Romney wins Ohio, Pennsylvania or Minnesota.

     "Earlier in the week, when Silver still forecast just a 73.6% chance of an Obama victory, Republican former congressman and MSNBC pundit Joe Scarborough tore into Silver, saying, “Anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue…they're jokes.”

    "Indeed, among the pundit class, it’s the conventional wisdom to call the race a toss-up. But then again, if you read Silver’s book you’d probably never take anything a pundit says all that seriously ever again.",0,1129852.story?track=rss

     I think this jibe of Scarborough cuts to the heart of the problem. Who are the real jokes?
What does a look at the respective track records of Silver vs. pundits like Scarborough suggest?

     "In the chapter “Are You Smarter Than a Television Pundit?” Silver relates how, on the eve of the 2008 election, two of the four television pundits on the McLaughlin Group said the race was too close to call, one said John McCain would win, and one predicted an Obama victory."

     "Obama went on to win the election by nearly 10 million votes. But no one ever called out the McLaughlin pundits on their poor prognosticating. So Silver analyzed 1,000 of the predictions made on the show. The pundits were right exactly half the time—which made their predictions no better than a coin flip. What’s more, none of the pundits on the show was better at making predictions than any other."

       Based on this record can the pundits whose predictions are no better than a coin flip call Silver who called 49 out of 50 states in 2008 a joke?

       Indeed, it seems to me that what the Scarboroughs of the world hate about poll analysts is why the the Church Fathers hated the Copernican view of the universe-it diminishes their importance. And it frees us from being stuck with the pundit's shoddy narrative. If we didn't have Nate and
Sam we'd probably still be hearing about the "Romney momentum" or would have done at least until Hurricane Sandy.


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