Conservative cable news host Joe Scarborough is the latest Nate Silver critic. “Anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue, they should be kept away from typewriters, computers, laptops and microphones for the next 10 days, because they’re jokes,” he said. Silver’s defenders point out that his model suggests Obama is a favorite to win in the electoral college, which is perfectly consistent with the popular vote being a tossup.
What interests me is how Silver responded:
— Nate Silver (@fivethirtyeight) November 1, 2012
In short, put your money where your mouth is.
When I first saw that response, I thought it was pitch perfect. It communicated, in one provocative Tweet, I am not a shill, I am not a hack, I know my business, and just to prove I am not bullshitting about any of that, I am willing to risk $1,000 of my own money on the accuracy of my model. It’s the reaction of an honest professional confident in his craft – and it’s very difficult to imagine, for example, Dick Morris reacting to Dave Weigel’s criticismin the same way. For all I know, Silver would lose the bet, but the fact that he made it seemed to exude earnestness, and probably caused Scarborough to reassess how sure he was about his own claim. (Of course, since his claim was that the election is a tossup, Silver should’ve given him odds.)
The New York Times Public Editor had a different reaction: “Whatever the motivation behind it, the wager offer is a bad idea,” Sullivan wrote, “giving ammunition to the critics who want to paint Mr. Silver as a partisan who is trying to sway the outcome.” In her estimation, betting on the accuracy of his model makes Silver more rather than less vulnerable to charges of shilling or hackery. This despite the fact that, as Silver put it, “I don’t stand to gain anything from it; it’s for charity.” I think I follow Sullivan’s reasoning, though she doesn’t spell it out. A journalist who bets on what he covers has a new stake in the outcome, and opens himself to the charge that his subsequent output is skewed: He just wrote that because he’s afraid that he’ll lose that bet. I understand why a publication would impose a general ban on journalists betting on what they cover.
Where Sullivan goes wrong is suggesting that Silver’s particular output is more vulnerable to criticism because of the bet. It isn’t. Inescapably, Silver has a powerful interest in his model accurately predicting the outcome of Election 2012. If everything plays out as he says it will, he’ll have the satisfaction of a craftsman who built something that worked, the monetary value of his labor will increase, he’ll be held in higher esteem, and he’ll be vindicated in arguments with numerous people. Compared to all that, a charitable bet with Joe Scarborough is inconsequential — especially when that bet further aligns Silver’s desired outcome with the interests of the audience, who want the guy they rely on for electoral analysis to be right in the end.
No surprise that the vast majority of the criticism Silver comes from a very different place — the critics say that masquerades as a craftsman who cares about his accuracy, but is actually a hack or a shill, just another liberal journalist who just wants Obama to win for ideological reasons.
I’d love to see Sullivan grapple with the fact that, while it may set a tricky precedent for the Times, Silver’s proposed bet makes him less vulnerable to the criticism he gets the most and rationally prioritizes. I wonder if the rest of the political press wouldn’t benefit from reflecting on that too.
We do have serious hack and shill problems.
Every time I write a story criticizing Mitt Romney, I get multiple emails that assume I’m a Barack Obama supporter. And vice-versa. Collectively, the opinion wing of the political press (and I include conservative sites, which are every bit as much a part of the mainstream media as anyone) has trained readers to presume everything we write is calculated to bring about our desired political outcome, rather than being our best attempt at the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, or offered because we think a given subject is important irrespective of its electoral implications.
Predictions made by the political press are especially suspect. This is partly due to the hack and shill problem, and partly because there is no accountability for inaccurate speculative analysis. It doesn’t matter that Bill Kristol has amassed a record of inaccurate predictions so long it is comical. He’s still treated by television hosts and fellow conservative writers as a knowledgeable speculative commentator. I don’t know how valuable speculative analysis would be in any case; but any value it has is significantly diminished by the Kristols of the world.
Is it any wonder that I sometimes fantasize about a media landscape where predictions weren’t taken seriously unless the people making them had some personal monetary stake in getting them right? How many pundits would’ve more carefully hedged their Weapons of Mass Destruction predictions? In these daydreams, Rush Limbaugh must effectively choose between being accurate, going silent, or going bankrupt. To save face, Donald Trump makes a $5 million bet that he’ll find Barack Obama’s “real birth certificate” proving he was born abroad. When he fails, I use my winnings to become a professional gambler. Betting against hacks left, right and center would be easy money, if only ponying up were a prerequisite to getting a hearing.
Of course, the daydream is unworkable — a moment’s reflection is enough to see how it could be gamed, and the perverse consequences it would have on public discourse. But I wish there really was a small, experimental “prediction casino” for opinion journalists, an online space where everyone could start with 1,000 units and make bets with one another, if only to impose a more rigorous thought process on the predictions we make. Over time, points would be amassed, and certain sober-minded people would gain stature. The odds agreed to in any bet would help signal to the public how serious the participants were. In a system like that, I wonder how many of his 1,000 units Nate Silver would wager, and how many Joe Scarborough would risk. I wonder who would amass the most units. And I bet the people who lost all their units would stop partaking in speculative journalism, if only because they’d be mocked otherwise.