Why Nate Silver's Gambling Streak Makes Me Trust Him More

In the political press, hacks and shills are among the biggest problems -- and they're unwilling to risk their own money on being right.

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Reuters

On Nate Silver's Wikipedia page, he is described as "an American statistician, sabermetrician, psephologist, and writer." Put more simply, he is far more numerate than the vast majority of people who write about politics for a living. In 2008, he correctly predicted the outcome of the presidential election in 49 of 50 states, and accurately identified the winner in all 35 Senate races.

I seldom read Silver's blog at the New York Times, having developed my own method for discerning with 100 percent accuracy the victor in every presidential, Senate, House, and gubernatorial race in America. For reasons that are mysterious to me, the public lacks the patience for my "just wait until the votes are counted" method, preferring to obsess for months on end about who is up, who is down, and the precise statistical likelihood of still uncertain events. But if someone interested in that sort of thing asked me where to find it, I'd send them to Silver, both because there's no one more skilled at what he does and because his work seems to have integrity. What I mean is that when Silver makes an electoral prediction, I trust he believes it. His seems extremely interested in excelling at his craft, and uninterested in influencing elections by using his prominence to exaggerate the chances of his favored candidate. I am not sure if his Election 2012 predictions will be as accurate as the ones from four years ago, but neither is anyone else.

That brings us to this week's big question: Is it okay for Nate Silver to wager money on the accuracy of his own predictions? Or is that a journalistic sin that jeopardizes his reputation for integrity? I submit that this case study gets at tricky questions that the political press would do well to confront.

A bit of background for the uninitiated.

America is filled with people who think its okay to lie, bullshit, or otherwise misrepresent the truth in order to advance the electoral prospects of a politician or the cause of a governing coalition. Let's call them shills. Other people aren't necessarily aware that they're misrepresenting the truth, but their work is so shaped by what would advance the causes of a candidate or governing coalition that it's often indistinguishable from the shills. We'll call them hacks. In a better world, journalists would be sworn enemies of shills and hacks, and the best are. Unfortunately, the press, especially the political press, has more than its share of shills and hacks.

There are shills and hacks in the polling business too. You'd think that all pollsters would have an incentive to be as accurate as possible. But telling partisans what they want to hear, or telling undecided voters what partisans want them to hear, can be lucrative -- it is widely believed in politics that if enough people say something will happen, there is a better chance of it happening.

And that may be correct.

What does this have to do with Nate Silver?

"He has been predicting that President Obama has about a 75 percent probability, give or take a few points, of winning re-election on Tuesday. He uses an algorithm -- some call it a secret sauce -- that combines the numbers in public opinion polls and produces a result that he then turns into a prediction," New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan explains. "That has endeared him to liberals and Democrats, just as it has infuriated conservatives and Republicans."

Basically, there are people trying to claim that Nate Silver is a hack or a shill -- some of them because they really believe it, and others because they themselves are hack or shills. Ain't politics grand?

Conservative cable news host Joe Scarborough is the latest 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:

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 criticism in the same way. For all I know, Silver would lose the bet, but the fact that he offered 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.)    

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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