Here are a couple tweets from politics polling seer Nate Silver, founder of ESPN math website FiveThirtyEight.
As near as I can tell, the actual substance of the idea being expressed here goes something like, “I told you assholes the polling data supported no actual predictions, but you didn’t believe me, and that’s because you’re a bunch of dummies.” Yeah? If there’s some other way to read this, I would love to hear it.
The thing is, nobody needs to be told that the polls show a close race—a dead heat, even—between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump; nobody anywhere is saying the race is not tight. The big story of the past few weeks from virtually all corners of the political press has been that the race has narrowed to the point that the two nominees are running virtually neck-and-neck, and that therefore tonight’s debate has taken on grave importance for both campaigns. That is the conventional wisdom. I can get it from Chris Cillizza, for chrissakes.
Which, hey, maybe that’s the only position FiveThirtyEight’s sophisticated proprietary modeling algorithms (or whatever) support! Fine! That’s fine. But if that is the case—if all Nate Silver’s analytics are doing at this point is underlining every other pundit and poll-watcher’s take—then doing a touchdown dance over it is kind of a weird thing for him to do. This is not vindication, pal! It is an expression of a belief in quantum uncertainty which many if not most if not all of the people who turn to FiveThirtyEight for knowledge and analysis share. Nate, my friend, you are not the first man to summit Mount Hell I Don’t Know. We’re all here with you.
On its own, this wouldn’t be anything much; going by every way of looking at it we have, this race is tight, and anyone invested in reporting true facts to readers will say as much. The thing is that Silver has been describing the state of the race as unknown and unknowable for some time now, and, further, offering thinly-sourced explanations for why this is so. Take this bad tweet ...
... or this one:
... or this extremely bad tweetstorm, which is basically just a shaggy-dog recitation of political pundit clichés (“enthusiasm gap”; “winner’s halo”; “bad news cycles”; “bandwagon effect”; “new normal”) leading to a sweaty shrug:
(Here’s a question. Theoretically, Nate’s model is empirical in nature, based on past results, raw data, and economic fundamentals. If that model says the race is a dead heat ... why does he need pundit-y campaign narrative reasons to explain it? “The race is a dead heat according to our model” should suffice. Why drag out the dummy unfalsifiable “enthusiasm gap” shit to prop up an empirically airtight position?)
These are all just bad tweets, which, no big deal; sending a bad tweet is something any Twitter user might do. (Buddy, don’t I know it!) Together, though, they amount to what certainly looks like a neurotic distancing from any sort of hard call that might later prove to be wrong. That’s understandable! There are lots of media-political types who make lots of money by making judgments that can’t be held against them at a later date. But very few of them have a routine based on the idea that they aren’t making judgments at all, but just presenting facts in a neutral and dispassionate way. The issue here isn’t that the hedging goes one way or the other; it’s that there’s hedging here at all.
Here’s my theory: I think Nate Silver is broken. I think the primaries, in which he took Ls just about hourly on his (reasonable and justified!) certainty that Trump was about to flame out, broke him; the lesson he took away from the beating seems to have been Nothing is knowable. I think he is Nate Bronze now. I cannot express to you, the readers, the full depth of confusion and dismay that erupts across the Deadspin staff at each newest instance of Silver—a friend of our site for whom we have stanned in the past and will stan in the future—issuing one of these hedging takes, covering a previous ass-covering by posing as though he has definitively proven the existence of uncertainty. It is the most dismaying thing.
“I don’t fuckin’ know, man” is not an answer to a problem. It is a problem. FiveThirtyEight is supposed to solve it.