Much to the delight and self-satisfaction of the reality-based community, “Big Data” has been en vogue of late, and to such an extent that it has promised to make hipsters of the terminally uncool.
In the space of just a few weeks, both Nate Silver and Ezra Klein have launched brand new websites, which, although imperceptibly different in their core objectives, both promised to overlook the “fundamentally useless” “pundits” that sully the nation’s media and to replace them with the calm explication and modest objectivity that one can only get from the sort of detached, numbers-driven pragmatists who made their names working at the Daily Kos and The American Prospect.
The two ventures — FiveThirtyEight and Vox, respectively — allegedly represent a significant shift in power, away from old-fashioned opinion journalists and toward the sort of people who appear earnestly to believe that there is such a thing as a neutral “explanation” of the day’s controversies, and whose unashamed tendency is to conceive that the sum of human experience can be contained within the confines of Microsoft Excel. They promised, too, to render their architects immune from the usual charges of bias and of ideology. “Don’t shoot me, I’m just the messenger,” and all that.
Alas, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. In the last couple of weeks, both Silver and Klein have been on the business end of aggressive warning shots — shots that were fired neither by critical conservatives nor by the jealous dinosaurs of the legacy media, but by the disgruntled members of a progressive community worried that, freed from the constraints of the establishment and safe to experiment a little, their heroes may just elect to write as they please.
All told, this pushback must have come as something of a shock. Once upon a time, Nate Silver was the golden boy — an online superhero whose sabermetric prowess and much-publicized disdain for America’s political class served as a beacon for the mathematical and the plain. Ezra Klein, too, was cited in debate as if he were a man of perfect reason, tirelessly battling the foes of leftward-inclining truth one comprehensive chart at a time. What better illustration could there have been of the Democratic party’s commitment to rationalism and to evidence than that its sympathizers were calling election results and crunching CBO data as a magician might guess a hidden card or walk a coin across his fingers? And what clearer reminder of the shallow and antediluvian nature of the nation’s Republicans, who cruelly questioned Silver’s predictive methods and mocked his models, and who charged cruelly that Klein was merely an ideologue who had draped himself in the disinfecting clothes of an accountant?
What have the duo done to deserve their scorchings? Little more than to have proved more independent than their champions had assumed they would dare to be. Silver has been censured largely on the back of two terrible “mistakes” — those being to have hired Roger Pielke Jr., an economist and climate scientist of whom our self-appointed arbiters of taste evidently do not approve, and to have fired up his famous model and predicted that the Republican party had a 60 percent chance of taking the Senate this year. In Washington D.C., meanwhile, Klein was lambasted for hiring one Brandon Ambrosino, a gay writer who has apparently been operating under the impression that he has the right to deviate from the zeitgeist. Oops!
In both cases, retribution was immediate. The New York Times’ Paul Krugman — a man whose faith in the power of experts appears to start and end with himself — quickly pronounced Silver’s new enterprise to be “something between a disappointment and a disaster,” while a panicked Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee sought to discredit his well-trodden approach. (Democrats who believe that they can will Silver’s predictions away might look at how well this worked out for Republicans in 2012.) The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier, meanwhile, labeled an embryonic FiveThirtyEight “the hedgehog who knows only one big thing.” (Its slogan: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”) The message, simultaneously propagated by a host of progressive publications: This man cannot be trusted.
As for Pielke himself, he was re-excommunicated with extreme prejudice. “Disinformer!” the Daily Kos screamed. “One of the country’s leading tricksters on climate change,” charged the Huffington Post. “Inaccurate and misleading,” was ThinkProgress’s measured verdict. Even that doyen of professionalism and sworn enemy of hyperbole, Michael Mann, weighed in, knocking his foe for his “pattern of sloppiness.” The pile-on was as predictable as it was unjust. At root, Pielke’s biggest crimes are to have walked at slightly different pace than his peers and to have refused to bow to the president. Pielke accepts the IPCC’s view of the climate-change question but suggests in parallel that man’s response is unlikely to have a “perceptible impact on the climate for many decades” and that civilization should thus adapt to, rather than attempt to prevent, change. Elsewhere, Pielke has corrected Barack Obama’s “science czar,” John Holdren, who has recently taken to claiming that everything under the sun is the product of global warming — droughts, hurricanes, wildfires — and who never misses a chance, in Pielke’s words, to “[exaggerate] the state of scientific understanding.” For this unconscionable resistance to fashion, Silver and his hire were marked for destruction.
Klein has fared little better. The Ambrosino hire, Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern suggested, demonstrated “startlingly bad, potentially catastrophic judgment.” Klein’s old haunt, The American Prospect, went one further, contributor Gabriel Arana declaring that Klein’s “decision to hire Ambrosino shows how much he has to learn about genuine diversity.” Across the web, progressives followed their preferred path: first compiling enough out-of-context quotes and self-serving charges of “prejudice” to convince the more hysterical and gullible among the flock that Ambrosino was bad news; then throwing the full force of the word “bigot” at anybody who would listen, hoping all the while that nobody involved would bother to investigate for themselves whether it was true; and, finally, incessantly hounding the employer of its target in the hope that, under pressure, he would change his mind.
Refreshingly, Klein didn’t — and for a damn good reason. Ambrosino is in no meaningful sense a “bigot.” Evidently, he contains multitudes: There aren’t a great number of gay people out there who believe that their sexuality is a choice, who graduated from Liberty University and are happy to defend the humanity of Jerry Falwell, and who vociferously defend the opponents of “marriage equality” and the supporters of gay-conversion therapy but criticize the excesses of gay-rights parades. But “there aren’t many of you” has never been a good reason to exclude someone from the public square, nor to tar and feather them as an enemy of toleration. Witnessing a minority group preparing the effigy of an eccentric and attempting to burn it has been frankly perplexing; but watching a former favorite push back against the ploy all but canceled it out.
Irritated by the flap, the Dish’s Andrew Sullivan inquired drily as to whether Ambrosino was “supposed to take some gay test before he’s allowed a voice?” The answer to this, apparently, is “yes” — or, at least, it is that the professional Left would prefer those they consider to be simpatico to run their hiring choices past the committee. If Klein and Silver have learned anything in the early days of their independence, it will hopefully be that “neutrality” is a mirage — a comforting story that ideologues of all stripes tell one another as to prevent themselves from having to face their prejudices and stand up openly for anything concrete. Being smart sorts, one suspects that in their quiet moments, the pair might have guessed as much. Now they have their precious data, with which to support their hunch.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.