On the Beatification of Nate Silver

by Daniel Foster

I’ve already written a couple of meandering posts on the topic of why I was never a Nate Silver skeptic but nevertheless found Nate Silver skepticism a respectable position. And Jonah has other useful things to say on the subject. But the occasion of his elevation to sainthood by liberals over the last 48 hours, combined with their usual, empty, ritualistic signification of “math!” and “science!” in celebration of him, leaves me with one more thing to say.

Though it had lots of different inputs, especially early on, by the end Silver’s famed model was an approximation of a simple Monte Carlo of the polling data; or, if you like, a different way of presenting a variety of polling averages. It was not sorcery. Silver deserves credit for analyzing the data he had in a plausible, straightforward, and fairly transparent way, and for communicating his assumptions at every turn.

But the crap that Silver took from a lot of conservatives being held up as evidence of the supposed mass delusion and anti-empiricism of the Right makes little sense. I think a lot of conservatives with humanities degrees (myself included) instinctively thought that all the decimal places were too cute by half –  just like a lot of liberals with humanities degrees instinctively thought every additional decimal place meant MOAR SCIENCE. (Aside: This is a longstanding bugaboo of mine. The “I Swear to Science!” and “Science Bless You! Haha Lolz” crowd are often in the same epistemic position vis-à-vis statements they take on bald authority as are cult members. The fact that journalists writing dire warnings about global warming, or activists campaigning against intelligent design could learn about long-term climate modeling or the mechanisms of natural selection if they wanted to doesn’t change the fact most of them don’t.)

Anyway, those competing instincts explain a lot of the feeling toward Silver in the lead up to the election. But this is a mostly separate question from the question of “why didn’t conservative believe the polls?” and what that means for the future of the movement. These questions, as others have already pointed out, are askable and answerable without ever making reference to Silver. The short answer, as I see it, is that most conservatives (myself included until the last 10 days or so) failed to internalize the fact that there are simply more Democrats than there were ten years ago.