In Reddit AMA, Nate Silver Admits He Stoked the Pundit-Geek War of 2012

Somewhere in the midst of a long thread about his future at The New York Times, baseball, Chuck Hagel, gun control, and more, Silver let out that, sure, he might have changed his tone "n terms of pushing back at the pundits."

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Nate Silver may seem like a mild-mannered statistician and blogger, but underneath his unassuming appearance is a man who will work over and antagonize his enemies to send them into fits of rage. At least, that's what you might have gathered if you read into Silver's Reddit Ask Me Anything session Thursday afternoon. Somewhere in the midst of a long thread in which he touched on his future at The New York Times, baseball, Chuck Hagel, gun control, and more, Silver let out that, sure, he might have changed how he spoke in interviews before the election and that, yeah, that might have intentionally pissed off guys like Joe Scarborough:

At some point in the last few weeks of the election, I guess I decided to lean into the upside outcome a little bit in terms of pushing back at the pundits in my public appearances -- as opposed to emphasizing the uncertainty in the model, as I had for most of the year. (Nothing about the model design itself changed -- just how I tended to talk about it.)

Stupid poker analogy: part of playing well is in maximizing the amount of value you get from a hand in the event that things go well, in addition to mitigating your losses if they don't.

He knew he could work over every pundit, from Fox to MSNBC, or the Washington Post to the Wall Street Journal, because he knew would be proven right. And he knew Politico and Co. would keep on chasing him to the ends of the data-mined earth. To muddy the analogy a little more, he was playing the heel, or acting like Ric Flair, which explains that $1,000 bet with Joe Scarborough. Some people did make money off Silver this year, though:

But Silver could also chalk up his brash talk to the craziness of the political discourse running off. According to Silver's AMA, politics is even worse to analyze than sports, what with all the crazy people:

Politics. I don't think its close. Between the pundits and the partisans, you're dealing with a lot of very delusional people. And sports provides for much more frequent reality checks. If you were touting how awesome Notre Dame was, for example*, you got very much slapped back into reality last night. In politics, you can go on being delusional for years at a time.

  • Full disclosure: I said in a NYT video yesterday that I'd bet Notre Dame against the spread.

Silver also blamed any feelings that the presidential race might have seemed closer than he was predicting on traditional news outlets "rooting" for the best story:

News organizations tend to have incentives to "root for the story". Part of what were were saying for much of the campaign -- both at different stages of the general election and perhaps even more emphatically in the end-stage of the primary when Romney pretty much had things wrapped up -- is that the outcome had become fairly certain. So that creates a bit of a culture clash.

    They have to write about something. Silver also cited Romney's shaky internal predictions: "Groupthink and perverse incentives were the causes; to the extent their polling or analysis was bad, it flowed from that," he wrote.

    With Silver looking to expand his successful FiveThirtyEight empire at the Times, he still has to be careful. It sounds like Silver will be a bit more open about his methodology in the future:

    I'd certainly like to aim to increase the level of disclosure at 538 going forward. Sometimes what happens is that I have best intentions to write a super detailed, 5000-word methodology post, and then some senate candidate does or says something stupid, and I get caught up in the news cycle and it gets forgotten about. Which is a pretty lame excuse, I know. At the same time, 538 is a commercial business and the ability to license proprietary intellectual property is a fairly big part of how I make my living, so the disclosure would probably stop short of outright releasing source code or my database in most cases.

    But, once the book promotional tour slash extended touchdown dance-style vacation ends, Silver also plans to resume writing "horizontally" about more topics, including one of his first loves and the subject of his post today: baseball. Yes, it sounds like sports, or other non-political topics of Silver's choosing, will make up more of the content on FiveThirtyEight this year:

    One of the things I'm trying to figure out is what range of topics to cover at 538. After the 2008 election, it became sort of a quantitatively-flavored politics blog, and I think that was something of a mistake. Some things, like cabinet nominations, really do requite careful reporting, and statistical analysis will provide a dollop of color commentary at best. On other days, the lead political story is just gossipy and stupid and isn't really newsworthy at all. So on a day like today, when the Chuck Hagel nomination is the major political story and that doesn't really play into our strengths, I'd rather write about something like baseball instead. The ambition is to expand 538 "horizontally" across topics, based on HOW we cover the news, rather than into the politics vertical, if that makes sense.

    Silver also said FiveThirtyEight was "overdue" for a few posts about same-sex marriage, but that gun control is a cause that doesn't lend itself well to charts and a blog post.

    Other things we learned about Nate Silver today include: he likes New York more than Chicago; he thinks baseball Hall of Fame voting needs to be overhauled; and we got a very encouraging preview of his next book:

    Also, he does not own a cat. Stop asking.

    This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.