Monday, October 13, 2008

A "Silver" thumb on the scale

By Rick Morris

It's a good thing that I've got a capacity for dealing with complexity, because I'm about to do some carving up on someone whose skills I do really admire.

Although it is not a fantasy-oriented site per se, as somebody involved in the fantasy sports industry I can't help but take my hat off to the crew at Baseball Prospectus. Their brand, like the FDH one, is predicated on getting you to look at the subject matter in a new light. PECOTA is, and I'm not being facetious or mocking when I say this, one of the greatest inventions I have seen in my lifetime in terms of inventing a revolutionary perspective. BP's Nate Silver is the inventor of PECOTA.

This year, he brought another outstanding product on to the market,, a political website that breaks down stats and trends sabermetrics-style. As somebody with a strong interest in both baseball and politics, I was interested to see somebody invent a manner to bridge the gap between the two in terms of predictive analysis. Job very well done.

Having said that, though, the well-deserved praise for creating the site is clearly getting to Silver and his sidekick Sean Quinn. While they freely admit that they are voting for Obama for president (side note: I find it strange and inexplicable that so many members of the baseball intelligencia have radically different politics than mine -- if anything, I would think that more of them would have a strong American traditionalist vibe), their admirable honesty about their intentions does not restore the credibility they lose with their constant passive-aggressive jabs at the McCain/Palin ticket. And it does not restore any of the sheen they lost with their unprofessional meltdown on the pioneers of this-here Internet polling mashup business, Real Clear Politics.

Apparently, Nate'n'Sean objected to RCP's methodology because:

A) it's not totally transparent
B) RCP's polls dared cut against the grain of polling that showed the Obamessiah with an insurmountable lead

To answer the first part of the tirade, it's nobody's business what RCP's exact methodology is and I applaud them for refusing to make it public just because a new competitor nipping at their heels decrees that they must (maybe after an Obama win, Silver and the boys can get Nancy Pelosi to convene a Stalinist show trial to banish the peeps from RCP to an American gulag). To answer the second part of the tirade, people should be free to draw their own conclusions about the effectiveness of RCP poll averages. Silver himself concedes the obvious, that it's in the best interest for people to believe that 538 has passed the old brand in the dust.

But that's never going to happen as long as 538 maintains such a nauseating blend of sanctimony and propaganda. It's blatantly obvious that they're trying to create an environment of inevitability for Obama with their "analysis" on the race -- while at the same time calling out John McIntyre of RCP for "bias" that he never even openly utters on his site. Basically, Nate Silver and his sidekick want the freedom to shill like Kos about how big a can of whoopass Obama is going to open without being held to the same standards of accountability that he desires for RCP.

Now, I'll grant that 538's methodology is more transparent than RCP's. It's possible that their polling averages are more accurate than RCP's -- I'm not getting into that argument one way or another because I frankly don't understand all of the ins and outs of what they're doing -- but they're never going to convince anybody of that as long as their constant passive-aggressive propagandizing for Obama and potshots at those not in the tank for Obama continue.

Nate, you created PECOTA and a political site that I read every day because it is compelling in spite of the fact that the slanted "analysis" makes me want to puke. You're better than that.


Jacob Rosen said...

I couldn't possibly disagree with you more. I believe that Nate gave an honest and sincere analysis of what RCP has done wrong with reporting polls. They simply do not report everything, and you cannot say that his argument is lacking because he breaks down specifically where they have cherry picked certain polls for whatever reason. This has nothing to do with Nate's political preference, as he has the right just as anybody else does to announce his favorite candidate. Just because he is a statistician does not mean that he cannot hold separate political views.

Nate Silver is my new role model in life. Growing up, I always wanted to be involved in baseball and baseball statistics. His advanced statistical measurements for creating PECOTA and are well beyond my years, and I appreciate his raw genius. He might not be the best interviewer if you happened to see some of his spots on Keith Olberman, The Colbert Report or his interview with Dan Rather, but he is certainly a special mind in our day and age. He is revolutionizing the way popular media looks at statistics and he is doing it in a clear and pain-free way. Quit criticizing him for his open suggestions to both campaigns on how they can be most efficient.

Rick Morris said...

Nope ... as I said, his methodology may well be better and you would know that better than me. But his broadsides at RCP, the people who put this internet polling mashup business on the map four years ago, are petty. It's one thing to point out where you feel somebody else is lacking, and his points are persuasive to me on the surface. It's another thing altogether to attribute malign motives or "cooking the data." Pointing out flaws -- good. Accusations about what's in someone's heart when they aren't putting forth overt opinions -- bad. IMO, of course.

That takes me right to my main point. I admit that my knowledge of Silver's methodology with the polling stats is fairly shallow because I don't have a strong interest in those nuts and bolts. That is why I give the benefit of the doubt and assume that the work itself is strong. PECOTA is revolutionary as I said, so I give the benefit of the doubt on that part.

The analysis surrounding the work, however, I find frequently lacking. The night of Sarah Palin's speech in St. Paul, which was clearly the high-water mark for the Republican campaign at least to this point in time -- the party line on 538 was how great a night it was for the Democrats because the net effect would work in their favor.

This is, to be polite, absolute bullpucky. Obama subsequently overtook McCain when the Lehman collapse triggered economic chaos and McCain started shooting himself in the foot at every opportunity. Events bore out 538's optimism eventually, but Palin's speech certainly didn't move the dials for Obama at that point (although her mismanaged media appearances did subsequently undermine the ticket, but that is COMPLETELY different from the point made on the night of the speech). If EVERY day on that site is a good day for Obama according to the analysis, then they're not breaking it down, they're spinning. Color me shocked that Olbermann and Maddow are big fans.

Silver's more than entitled to his views. I imagine there are some who might discount my analysis because I am up-front about my voting preference -- but I've certainly criticized my side repeatedly and will again because of my frustration with the ineptitude of the campaign (stay tuned for that one). Silver's not, however, obliged to be even-steven in his analysis even though I try to make an effort (I editorialize and I say what I think is happening and generally try to keep the two in separate columns, as ineffective as some would admittedly find that distinction).

But I certainly am entitled to regard the analysis side of his site in a much lesser light when the thumb is on the scale in terms of his claims as to what the numbers and trends mean. I will say this, and I'm not being sarcastic when I do: congrats to him for being influential enough to help shape the perception of the race. When he beats the drum about how this race is over, it helps to advance the inevitability just as he seeks. As somebody with opposing public policy ideals, I regret that nobody on my side has the juice he does in terms of advancing his meme. I'd like to think, however, that even if such a person existed that I'd be equally skeptical of the analysis while being grateful for the outcome it helps generate. That comes from my commitment to intellectual consistency.

In the meantime, I will keep reading the site daily merely because I am a political junkie. Others may derive enjoyment from the actual process of taking in the 538 content and that is their right as Americans.