Former New York Times Wunderkind Nate Silver has launched his new website FiveThirtyEight. With it Silver has proposed bringing facts back into journalism. Naturally, his view has elicited a significant controversy.
It is fair to note that Silver gained fame and fortune by using advanced statistical techniques to predict the outcome of presidential elections. In 2012 his forecasts were vastly superior to those of other polling organizations.
He does not make a habit of touting his success, but he does have a right to suggest his methods have done a good job eliminating ideological bias.
If Silver were formulating hypotheses and testing them against real outcomes, one would say that his hypotheses were confirmed more often than those of just about everyone else. His is a variation on the scientific method.
Despite appearances, Silver is not measuring opinion. He is trying to predict behavior. A vote cast in an election is not an opinion. It is an action. A basketball game is not an opinion. It is an action.
Most data collection sites are not trying to delve into the depths of your mind. They are trying to predict your behavior.
Opinion journalism, on the contrary, tries to influence opinion. Often it does so by telling you to ignore facts that might contradict your opinion.
The other day Silver offered an interview to New York Magazine. In it he made some controversial statements and provoked a firestorm of criticism. He trashed a goodly number of opinion journalists, calling them unoriginal thinkers who only accept facts that affirm their ideas.
One understands his frustration. Having worked at the New York Times he seems to have believed that many of the paper's columnists are an embarrassment. If an old New York Observer article is to be believed, he is not alone in holding this judgment.
Silver is especially upset by the empty-headed offerings of one Thomas Friedman. Others have made the same point, but he makes it well:
If you know the subject that Thomas Friedman or whatever is writing about, you don’t have to read the column. You can kind of auto-script it, basically.
Silver took it a step further by calling it bullshit journalism, but one would have a hard time disputing his cogent view.
By contrast, Silver points out that another Times columnist, Ross Douthat takes on questions from a different angle:
I think Ross Douthat is someone who shows some originality. He seems to approach each topic freshly, where he has certain kind of semi-conservative views, but he doesn’t let this get in the way of thinking in an interesting way about a subject.
Again, this seems to me to be accurate.
You may know that the dispute between Silver and the opinion journalists has an important philosophical antecedent.
Whether he knows it or not, Silver has placed himself firmly with the British empiricists in their critique of Continental (and Platonic) idealism. Recall that David Hume famously argued that human beings do not have innate ideas but that human knowledge derives from experience. We reason from experience, but we do not create experience or reality by imposing our ideas on it.
As you know, Kant famously disputed Hume’s view by arguing that a priori ideas of time and space must precede experience.
Silver is offering a new, modern version of this debate.
He prefers writers who do not have an a priori ideological commitment, but who consider all of the facts, those that tend to affirm their hypothesis and those that tend to disconfirm it. Again, he is arguing for the scientific method.
Many pundits see facts as vehicles to express their ideas, but also to tell people what to think. Silver does not approve:
It’s people who have very strong ideological priors, is the fancy way to put it, that are governing their thinking. They’re not really evaluating the data as it comes in, not doing a lot of [original] thinking. They’re just spitting out the same column every week and using a different subject matter to do the same thing over and over.
Needless to say, opinion journalists have taken vigorous exception to Silver’s positions.
Ryan Cooper takes the Neoplatonic, radical idealist position, namely, that all journalism involves an ideological bias.
In his words:
In an attempt to focus solely on objective analysis, Silver is ignoring one of the hardest-won journalistic lessons of the last decade — there is no such thing as ideology-free journalism.
But at the risk of sounding self-defensive, Silver is not fully grappling with the truth about ideology. Everyone, without exception, has some kind of ideological-theoretical perspective that informs the way they interpret the evidence they see.
These are not hard-won journalistic lessons; they have been produced by the idealistic thinkers in American universities and the media.
If there are no facts, then everything is propaganda.
That means that a newspaper has every right to slant the news. If there is no such thing as fact, newspapers should try to influence opinion and behavior.
Over at The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier is in especially high dudgeon:
He [Silver] dignifies only facts. He honors only investigative journalism, explanatory journalism, and data journalism. He does not take a side, except the side of no side. He does not recognize the calling of, or grasp the need for, public reason; or rather, he cannot conceive of public reason except as an exercise in statistical analysis and data visualization.
I doubt that Silver ever said that there is nothing but fact. His appraisal of Ross Douthat suggests otherwise. He is certainly attacking the view that there is nothing but opinion.
Many of the issues that we debate are not issues of fact but issues of value. There is no numerical answer to the question of whether men should be allowed to marry men, and the question of whether the government should help the weak, and the question of whether we should intervene against genocide. And so the intimidation by quantification practiced by Silver and the other data mullahs must be resisted. Up with the facts! Down with the cult of facts!
Wieseltier seems to be creating his own cult to opinion. And yet, values are not opinions. Rules are not opinions. Even the word “opinion” is not an opinion.
The cult to opinion involves individual minds. When everyone plays by the same rules, as happens when everyone employs the same table manners, we are not talking about individual opinions.
Since an open society stands or falls on the quality of its citizens’ opinions, the refinement of their opinions, and more generally of the process of opinion-formation, is a primary activity of its intellectuals and its journalists. In such an enterprise, the insistence upon a solid evidentiary foundation for judgments—the combating of ignorance, which is another spectacular influence of the new technology—is obviously important.
An open society stands or falls on the way people conduct themselves, the way they act and the way they behave. We should try to get over this notion that opinion journalists, or anyone else, should be telling people what to think. And especially, that they should do so by only providing "facts" that confirm their bias.
Wieseltier is correct to say that judgment should be based on evidence. But then, he must accept that there is such a thing as factual evidence that is beyond interpretation.