March 28, 2014

Nate Silver's new website

How's the much hyped new quant website run by Nate Silver, the former NYT election data guru, doing at the close of its second week? 

I seem to be the only person in the world who has usually had mildly positive views of Silver. During the 2012 election, he did a good job of making up a spreadsheet with weighted averages of the 90 or so different Presidential polls out there. It wasn't exactly quantum mechanics, but it was quite sensible. Ironically, his final prediction turned out to be off by a couple of points, just like Republicans were hoping. Unfortunately for Romney, though, Silver underestimated just how much Obama would win by: 3.8 percentage points.

But Silver's forecasting error was ignored in a tidal wave of Democratic self-congratulation upon how the existence of Nate Silver proves Democrats are better because Science.

So now he's left the NYT to start a website under the ESPN aegis, casting aspersions upon most NYT columnists other than Ross Douthat, with the old guard denouncing him back.

How's his new website going?

Not bad, but not too exciting either. I haven't gotten interested in the NCAA basketball tournament this year, so their coverage of that hasn't been of interest to me. The other stuff seems okay, but so far it's not clear that having a website organized around a methodology (because numbers!) is some overlooked killer app.

The feature article today is by Emily Oster:
Reports of a Drop in Childhood Obesity Are Overblown

But Razib Khan of The Unz Review did that in Slate an entire month ago:
The Obesity Rate for Children Has Not Plummeted

Mostly, Silver seems to want to do short pieces. For example, here's a baseball one
Quantifying the ‘That Guy Is Still in the Major Leagues?’ Phenomenon

where Neil Paine made up a table of all the players in the league in 2009 based on their age and 2007-2009 performances who are the most improbable that they are starting 2014 on an MLB roster. That's interesting to only a small fraction of the audience who might be interested in, say, political forecasting, but it's pretty interesting to people who find it interesting. Having gone to all the work of ranking all the players in the league on this dimension, Paine could have easily milked his database for 1500 words of this and that, but instead he wrapped it up in a few paragraphs. Paine had so much good stuff that down in the comments he tossed in other factoids he'd uncovered like the players who are most surprising that they aren't in the league anymore. So why not put more good stuff in the original article, especially in this period when the website needs to be building its brand among influential people with long attention spans (e.g., me)? There will be plenty of time in the future to dumb it down for the short attention span masses.
Check it out and see if I'm overlooking something in my tepid response so far.


Anonymous said...

"Paine could have easily milked his database for 1500 words of this and that, but instead he wrapped it up in a few paragraphs"

A click is a click, no?

Anonymous said...

I hate spectator sports. His site will only interest me once we get some of his takes on the upcoming congressional election. He seems to be waiting for the primaries to occur before he commits himself to any serious prediction other than "the Democrats are in deep trouble."

Anonymous said...

It's been pretty disappointing so far. Maybe he's stretched the site too thin. So far it seems he doesn't have the smarts necessary to distinguish which writers can provide truly insightful pieces on a variety of topics. Everyone I know has been underwhelmed and it has a pseudo-intellectual feel.

Back when he started, he was one of the first movers on using data in journalism. But now there's an increasing number of news publications and journalists that are learning to use data.

I'd rather bet on Jeff Bezos (Amazon Founder & CEO) who bought the Washington Post to lead data journalism. He's known using data in transforming online commerce, and his ability and mind is far greater than Nate Silver. He's just plain smarter and it's obvious.

Paul Krugman and many others have lambasted Silver on the Climate Science article. I've read his sports stuff, and I'm not impressed so far.

Nate had his corner with political projections. He's a specialist. 538 will have it's good writers, but overall the site won't separate itself from the pack. It's just another online news source.

Dave Pinsen said...

The media has turned on Nate Silver faster than they turned on Gladwell. Partly for the reasons you've mentioned, but also because he posted something skeptical about global warming and hired a gay guy who isn't for gay marriage, IIRC.

Steve Sailer said...

Suddenly, it dawned on Volunteer Auxiliary Thought Police: if this guy wasn't both gay and Jewish, he'd be a ... [gasp] Republican! He worked in corporate consulting, then baseball statistics, then professional poker in Las Vegas, says he got interested in politics when the Republicans cracked down on his beloved online poker (Sheldon Adelson's influence?) ... this guy just can't be trusted!

Anonymous said...

I hope this is another one of Biden's uncontrollable outburst:

Joe Biden: Undocumented Immigrants Are 'Already Americans'

Anonymous said...

You're probably right about some of that Steve. I didn't even know Nate was gay. I've never heard anyone mention that before.

But his site just isn't that great. That obesity piece might be the best thing I've read, and it was already written about.

If the site had lived up to expectations, the backlash would've been muted. Critics have material to attack. Let's remember that Nate has been on the offensive in burning bridges in the interviews leading up to the launch of his new site.

You can't go around saying everyone in journalism is bad, while claiming your ability to use data separates you from the pack, and then launch with the mediocre stuff that he has. I've heard people comparing him to Malcolm Gladwell. There's alot more noise than signal.

Dave Pinsen said...

I didn't know he was gay. Speaking of the Volunteer Auxiliary Thought Police, though: have you followed the Stephen Colbert / Suey Park kerfuffle on Twitter? Colbert mildly mocked Asians in character as his conservative buffoon (as part of an anti-Dan Snyder bit). An Asian American activist named Suey Park played the outrage card (and, lamentably, Michelle Malkin ran with it). But lefty whites (including Patton Oswalt) were unimpressed, and, in some cases, doubled down.

Steve Sailer said...

Okay, I don't know for sure he's gay. That's just the impression I got, so if other people haven't heard that, I could well be wrong.

Anonymous said...

No, he's gay.

He described himself as "sexually gay but ethnically straight."

Which is another way of saying: gay but I like sports.

Anonymous said...

Nate Silver is gay, but not that gay.

Sexually gay, but ethnically straight, is the term he used.

Dave Pinsen said...

There's a fine visual line between gay and hipster.

James B. Shearer said...

... That's interesting to only a small fraction of the audience who might be interested in, say, political forecasting, but it's pretty interesting to people who find it interesting ...

It isn't obvious to me that sports fans are vastly outnumbered by politics fans.

Anonymous said...

"He described himself as "sexually gay but ethnically straight."

Does that mean he's a top?

Anonymous said...

This convinces me that you must try your hand at writing fiction. Please!

Big Bill said...

The writing is insipid. It reads like a high school term paper. Take this article by his chief economist:

The writing is pedestrian and the insights are commonplace: ND is growing but can't take all of America's unemployed.

That which is interesting he refuses to comment on (or even notice): What is going on that 90%+ of the US metro areas with highest unemployment located in farming areas of California?

Deliberate PC blindness + insipid writing = no return visit.

San Joaquin Sam said...

" Anonymous said...
"He described himself as "sexually gay but ethnically straight."

Does that mean he's a top?"

Power Bottom.

Anonymous said...

The website is a victim of expectations. Nate has a good audience built around the ncaa tournament and the upcoming midterms. The value beyond that is the commitment to hiring data journalists to cover subjects that aren't normally given the econometric treatment. I read Mr. Silver as a guy who enjoys solving puzzles and making money, but not a somebody who's trying to change the world overnight.

Bert said...

The Colbert thing is very amusing. The marriage between white liberals and aggressive ethnic activists is a very tense one that is doomed not to last.

Bert said...

I love how Paul Krugman is treated like some kind of god by liberals and any attack on him is treated like the worst kind of blasphemy.

ben tillman said...

Well, at least, the article "Quantifying the ‘That Guy Is Still in the Major Leagues?’ Phenomenon" led to a very interesting article on catchers and the value of framing a pitch.

Whiskey said...

Bezos will fail in transforming the Post because his reporters and editors are mostly dull SWPL elites who are there because they are married/related to DC power players.

They don't have the brains or the inclination to understand data or numbers, and Bezos has limited leverage on them -- because of their marriages or relations to DC power players.

What, Bezos fires them and thus the whole nexus of marriage/family comes down on denying the Post access?

Transforming an organization is nearly impossible unless it is faced with total annihilation. People are just not built that way. They do what they have always done.

Tom Marvolo Riddle said...

Oogabooga I predict that Obama will be hero worshiped by brainwashed and gamed women.

Wow! Just wow! Give that man 10,000,000 dollars.

Tom Marvolo Riddle said...

Colbert hates Anglos with a passion reserved only for Plastic Paddy.

He won't wake up until it is too late.

Z Blog said...

Just for fun I used 538 to pick my NCAA bracket. They had published their probabilities for each team in each round before the start of the tournament. I picked winners and losers in chronological order using their analysis.

So far, I'm in the bottom 20% of the group in three separate pools. They had Louisville as the favorite to win it all so there's no chance for me now.

I suspect Zogby and Rasmussen are getting a chair ready for Nate. He's going to be joining them in the club for fallen seers.

a Newsreader said...

Judging from Silver's cringing reaction to the Pielke haters, it doesn't seem likely that 538 will be permitted to gather interesting conclusions from the data.

If you are a data driven media operation, you have two options:
the Murray-Sailer option where you publish what you find, and the Gladwell-Gould option where you publish the politically correct conclusion regardless of the data. I don't think Nate Silver wants to be in Steve Sailer's niche.

Lacking Gladwell's ability to make PC conclusions seem interesting, and lacking the nerves to reach conclusions that are interesting on their own, Silver is not going to keep a lot of readers interested.

Noumenon said...

this period when the website needs to be building its brand among influential people with long attention spans (e.g., me)? There will be plenty of time in the future to dumb it down for the short attention span masses.

So that's what happened to Bloomberg Business Week.

countenance said...

Probably Silver's underestimating Obama's margin of victory in the national popular vote was him missing what we all missed until the 20/20 hindsight: The 45+ black women and the Melowese Richardson types voting six times.

Turtle said...

Maybe Miss Silver (haha, j/k) could develop some model about Quantifying Gaydar and tell us the Pr{Aaron Rodgers is gay}.

I have no model, but given that he is a top-tier QB, it would have been close to the .1 baseline, despite the existence of rumors and that he's single. But then he dated go-to beard Taylor Swift and now I'd say .5.

Ă…sille Olava said...

You seem to have overlooked that one of his science contributors is a semi sceptic on climate change. The audience did not overlook it and safe to say it didn't go down well.

Seems Silver is under substantial pressure and has "commissioned a rebuttal" to his site's own article.

Fivethirtyeight to commission response to disputed climate article

Anonymous said...

The article invites one to ignore it when it lists Adam Dunn and David Ortiz as first basemen.

But I'll answer his question for him. Team sports, especially baseball, will always have a spot for the generalist, the guy who does nothing great but everything OK. The older guys used to be priced out of the market due to union salary scales, but the younger generation has become so specialized the the old guard are a better deal. Throw in the experience factor, particularly with catchers, and it's the prudent course.

Dave Pinsen, I commented to a friend last week that I, as a fifty-something, can't really tell anymore if a kid is gay or straight.