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

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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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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.)    

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.

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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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