Nate Silver: Geek? Yes. Thoughtful journalist? Bigger yes.

FiveThirtyEight post on disputed climate change story signals commitment to transparency

Yesterday, after reading criticisms of Nate Silver’s revamped FiveThirtyEight, I thought: Denny, find out for yourself. After all, I am, at least historically, a geek. And, I thought, years of reading his New York Times blog showed me Nate is King Geek and FiveThirtyEight at ESPN would, no doubt, reflect that.

So I read “The Messy Truth Behind GDP Data.” Not bad. Classic FiveThirtyEight geeky on an important topic. But, even through so many pundits and politicos base analyses on flawed understandings of GDP, reading the post was akin to watching paint dry. I tried Harry Enten’s story about Hillary and polling. Egads: So. Many. Numbers. Unfamiliar terms. Headache ensues.

Next, because I was a sportswriter, I tried to read “Quantifying the ‘That Guy Is Still in the Major Leagues?’ Phenomenon.” OMG! Help! FiveThirtyEight needs a glossary of so many terms I don’t know.

Nate has over-geeked, I concluded. The new FiveThirtyEight isn’t for me. And I like Nate. Read his book. Learned much from it. GeekSpeak as a news enterprise? Nope. Nate’s blown it. Big time.

But today I saw this FiveThirtyEight link on Twitter and read it. Whoa!

This piece — “FiveThirtyEight to Commission Response to Disputed Climate Article” — was written by Nate. It is not a correction. Rather, it is a detailed, thoughtful, and compelling reflection on readers’ comments as well as an explanation of the story’s genesis and how FiveThirtyEight will react to what readers said.

This is astonishing. Try to get a newspaper to do this, to react in such detail to readers’ complaints about a story. Try to get a newspaper to try to illuminate further — by commissioning a non-employee to write a piece — the fundamental issues raised by the original story and subsequent reader reactions. Nate has demonstrated his (and presumably his staff’s) commitment to transparency and integrity:

We appreciate your patience in the meantime. Climate change is not going away as an issue, and we want to get this right. All journalism relies on trust — between reporters and sources, between editors and writers, between a publication and its readers. Any time that trust is undermined, it’s a huge concern for us. We thank you for your continued feedback. We’re listening and learning. [emphasis added]

Did Nate and his colleagues overreact? Perhaps. But it’s this kind of overreaction that will have me returning repeatedly to FiveThirtyEight. Nate may be a geek, but he’s showing something many journalists do not — a willingness to listen to his readers and engage with them.

Well done, sir.

8 replies »

  1. Dan, my observation is not about his thinking on climate change. I’m aware of his critics. I’m focused here only on the difference between what he’s done as an editor acting in response to readers’ comments and how newspapers have historically responded in similar circumstances. Thanks for your comment.

  2. What’s interesting to me, Denny, is that Silver’s responses are more like those in scholarly discussion. So I guess my question would be, do you think Silver’s response represents a new way for journalists or is his reaction just geeky over compensation?

  3. he’s an interesting guy. what s the story with the split from nyt? (also, interesting world where a writer brigns a column then takes it with him when he leaves. is that std journo practice?)

  4. just jumped away and read the post. back now. i have to say i had the opposite reaction to yours.

    perhaps it’s my personal history. as you know, i quit blogging on this site after getting blasted because i said something that went against s&r orthodoxy (that teacher’s shouldn’t, can’t, and won’t get paid more, no matter what happens to government policy) and got blasted by salvo after salvo of criticism, none of which actually addressed my central thesis or had one whit of validity. the only other piece i ever published here that got any reaction like that was on gun control, where i said we should give up on gun control because the horse has left the barn, and many right wingnuts attacked me for agreeing with them for the wrong reasons–surreal, but a valuable learning.

    my takeaway from the 538 situation is that the left is just as stubborn and rigid minded as the right, or as sam harris recently said about a snarky and illogical review of his book by that daniel dennert that was longer than harris’s book, “i wonder if it is possible for an intelligent human to change his or her mind based on logic and argument.” we believe what we believe and shape the data to match, no matter how logical and fair minded we think we’re being. in the case of climate disruption (or its predecessor anti-growth stalking horses–protectionism, environmentalism, etc) those who are wary of economic growth and overuse of resources believe in it to a degree which precludes reason, and leads them to scramble the jets whenever anyone says anything that is in any way not sympathetic to their cause.

    early on, when i was writing here, i tried a post where i said the climate disruption folks were feckless because they are fighting a lost cause with patronizing logic, and was gently dissauded from it because the editor predicted exactly the sort of reaction that the 538 piece got, where readers wrote in questioning 538’s “views” . what’s going on here for god’s sake, a loyalty oath? this is a data site. the only relevant views of 538 involve the extent to which bayesian estimators should be applied to small data sets.

    in my view, silver, who is read primarily by democrats (according to a recent piece in wapo) was backed down and forced to retreat by a loud minority. i’d wager many of the articles on 538 or any other blog have problems and loose ends, but he hasn’t felt a need to apologize for those.

    i get it nate, you have to pay the rent, and sometimes a geek’s got to do what a geek’s got to do. but let
    ‘s not mistake economic pragmatism for journalistic principle.

  5. In general: Debate the policy implications of science, yes. Debate the science itself, no. While I applaud Nate Silver’s attempt to bring a data-driven approach to policy analysis, there is an entire process by which scientific questions are evaluated and answered and it doesn’t include political blogs, however well meaning, my opinion, or, most likely, your opinion. Journalists who cover science like a horserace, the way they cover everything else because conflict sells, merely serve to confuse and obfuscate the public discourse about science by giving the false impression that scientific truth is just a matter who said what.

    • “… my opinion, or, most likely, your opinion.”

      Speaking generally, of course; that final “your opinion” is not directed at anybody in particular.