On FiveThirtyEight

Nate Silver launched FiveThirtyEight this week along with a really long manifesto. In it, he attacks a lot of other journalism and especially opinion writers. This is easy to do because a lot of journalism is pretty bad, often for the reasons he provides.

A number of other writers did not take kindly to Silver (I, II, III, IV). The criticisms are varied, some defending other journalism, others questioning whether Silver can actually accomplish what he says he will.

It is a bit early to say whether Silver’s project will actually be worthwhile. With that said, people should be skeptical of anyone who says they can cover politics in a just-the-facts, data-driven way (and I say this as someone who heavily relies upon data crunching, probably more so than 95% of political writers). There are political and economic topics for which pure data is interesting and illuminating, but not very many. The rest are deeply entangled with normative judgments that you cannot avoid. So Silver will either have to keep his project modest in its topical scope, rendering it boring, or expand it into normative subject areas, rendering it incompetent.

Perusing the site as it currently exists, things don’t look very promising at this very early stage. In a republished piece titled “What Is Driving Growth In Government Spending?”, Silver copies a bunch of charts from a website that tracks U.S. government spending over time and concludes strangely:

Nevertheless, the declining level of trust in government since the 1970s is a fairly close mirror for the growth in spending on social insurance as a share of the gross domestic product and of overall government expenditures. We may have gone from conceiving of government as an entity that builds roads, dams and airports, provides shared services like schooling, policing and national parks, and wages wars, into the world’s largest insurance broker.

Most of us don’t much care for our insurance broker.

This is utter trash and devoid of any rigor. If you told me Thomas Friedman wrote it, I would have absolutely believed it. Though it has a data gloss, it is weak hand-waving speculation as bad or worse than anything any other journalists ever produce. If this is the kind of stuff FiveThirtyEight plans to deliver, the only thing innovative about it will be its smart branding.