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Care To Make It Interesting?

[ 70 ] November 2, 2012 |

Friedersdorf is right about this. The public editor’s admonition to Silver — who, if I understand correctly, isn’t even a staff writer — is silly on its face. But it’s doubly silly because there was a real and important point behind it: namely, that Joe Scarborough is selling the public bullshit in bad faith, and this is pretty much what at least 90% of punditry is.


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  1. norbizness says:

    Man, the New York Times is the REAL No Fun League!

    • howard says:

      the ny times routinely publishes drivel by david brooks, ross douthat, and tom friedman, but nate silver’s bet isn’t appropriate to the paper’s image?

      i’ve been reading the times since i was 5 years old; it’s my home page on my desktop, but sheesh, the self-absorption and foolishness of the succession of public editors is just appalling.

      i blame sulzberger….

  2. catclub says:

    I always get nervous when someone who is a loon on other issues agrees with me on one.

    William F Buckley loved Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion.

    It makes you re-evaluate your thinking.

  3. Erik Loomis says:

    Major newspapers are supposed to cave immediately in the face of Republican criticism and repeat Republican talking points without question. Why doesn’t Nate Silver understand how journalism works?

  4. Richtman says:

    I prefer the Tabarrok response (but the content is largely the same):

  5. Craigo says:

    The statisticians are the poker players know exactly their odds of winning any given hand. The pundits are the guys at the table who make decisions according to “their gut” because they think they can see “tells.”

    • Jeff R. says:

      Unsurprisingly, Silver was a fairly successful poker player back in the days when online poker was legal and suckers were plentiful. See

    • odds says:

      The number of great poker players who have used
      ‘feel’ to win is much higher than the number of great pundits who write based on their gut.

      • Joshua says:

        “Feel” comes from experience in poker. These pundits have been consistently wrong for decades.

      • dilan esper says:

        Actually, there has been an influx of rigorous mathematical types into elite poker and many of the “feel” players aren’t competitive anymore.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          Also, an ability to read players might matter at the margin, but it’s not going to work unless you’re extremely well-versed in the percentages.

          • Murc says:


            Discerning tells is a matter of experience with specific players. That guy who keeps thumbing his earlobe might just have a nervous habit; you won’t know unless you’ve seen him play a hundred hands or so and KEPT TRACK, though.

            And even once you’re pretty sure you know a persons tells, you have to combine it with knowing the percentages. “I have a 33% chance of winning this hand” usually means you fold; “I have a 33% chance of winning this hand, but my opponent is doing that thing he always does when he has garbage” requires a complete recalculation to decide whether or not this is, in fact, one of those 33% of times you want to go for it.

          • CaptBackslap says:

            You’re only saying that because we’re still in the iron grip of Hold ‘Em Hegemony. Picking up tells (as well as hiding your own) is more important in games with fewer known cards.

            • Murc says:

              You know, I don’t mind hold’em, it’s a perfectly cromulent game, but it wouldn’t hurt to see more stud or draw. There’s a simple elegance to a basic hand of draw poker, although I’ll admit it’s not as much of a spectator sport.

              And seeing hold’em in Casino Royale is still repugnant to me. A high-stakes invitation-only game in a European casino with mostly non-american whales? Yeah, no. There would be no hold’em at that table. Baccarat all the way.

              • CaptBackslap says:

                Hold ‘Em is probably the most watchable TV poker game, but a big part of the reason it’s always played in televised tournaments is the low player limit of draw and stud games. Ten players per table makes things a lot easier on the organizers, and it gives the show producers more hands where multiple players compete.

              • mds says:

                There would be no hold’em at that table. Baccarat all the way.

                More specifically, Bond usually preferred Chemin de Fer, as a variant which more player choice than “North American Baccarat” (pfui); can move faster; and permits one-on-one player matches, unlike Baccarat Banque; but the point is still sound. Good grief, they were able to include some Chemin de Fer in GoldenEye, and that’s a Bond film where the villainess was named Onatopp.

              • Colin Day says:

                And seeing hold’em in Casino Royale is still repugnant to me.

                Especially with the last hand. Just because one player goes all in doesn’t mean everyone else has to go all in. The other players only have to match.

            • dilan esper says:

              Many of the top mathematical players play mixed games.

              I am not saying tells and intuition are useless- they help on the margins- but math is way more important in every form of poker.

  6. JREinATL says:

    I don’t remember any garment rending from the public editor when John Tierney made a $10K bet with Matt Simmons about the future price of oil:

    • catclub says:

      Not really parallel, since the complaint was partisanship, not filthy gambling.

      Heck, newspapers used to mainly the racing form,
      plus the stock market reports often still are.

      • Craigo says:

        The complaint here isn’t partisanship either. Silver (and Wang) don’t say Obama’s very likely to win because they’re Obots or whatever the idiotic slur is these days. They say Obama’s going to win because their data strongly suggests it. Sullivan is pissed because Silver is an upstart who has no respect for genteel old media like the Times and Joe Scarborough. “My boy, this sort of thing just isn’t done…”

        • catclub says:

          If you are betting on a partisan EVENT, the likelihood of partisanship is high, and likelihood of ACCUSATIONS of partisanship is very high.

          Tierney was betting on the price of oil, which although often actually a partisan event, is sometimes viewed as the result of impartial, non-partisan, markets.

          • JREinATL says:

            Yeah, you’re right, some of the criticism is that the bet looks partisan (which is wrong, but nevermind). But the heart of the critique seems to be that it’s unseemly for a writer at THE New York Times to engage in wagering.

        • herr doktor bimler says:

          The accusation of partisanship only makes sense if the Editor accepts the familiar complaint about facts having a liberal bias.

  7. FMguru says:

    The Baloon Juice crew caught two other things in Sullivan’s terrible article – the suggestion that his desk at the NYT legitimates Silver and he needs to respect that when in fact it’s the other way around, and her criticism of Silver’s wager as proof that he’s biased towards Obama (instead of being biased in terms of objective analysis and, well, the truth – Silver didn’t have any problem predicted big gains for the GOP in 2010).

    I clicked over to read Friedersdorf’s article, but gave up after this choice bit of smarmy above-it-all-ism:

    I seldom read Silver’s blog at the New York Times, having developed my own method for discerning with 100 percent accuracy the victor in every presidential, senate, house, and gubernatorial race in America. For reasons that are mysterious to me, the public lacks the patience for my “just wait until the votes are counted” method, preferring to obsess for months on end about who is up, who is down, and the precise statistical likelihood of still uncertain events

    What percentage of his time in high school did Friedersdorf spend trapped inside of a gym locker? 30%? 40%? More?

    • Bijan Parsia says:

      It’s especially hilarious since counting isn’t fully reliable (cf 2000).

      (Now, granted, we always have a declared winner in the end, so if the question is “who was certified the winner” then waiting is fine.)

    • Murc says:

      Still, Friederdorf managed to write something both accurate AND correct in nearly all of its particulars.

      Baby steps.

    • scott says:

      So the unskewing guy speculates that Silver is somekindapansy and progressives jump on him for the ad hominem stuff, but you take a guy saying he doesn’t obsess over polls and speculate (with apparent approval) that he got his ass kicked in high school. Difference?

      • Murc says:

        We’re random commenters on a blog who don’t profess that our personal slagging of Friedersdorf has any bearing on his professional skills.

        The unskewing guy is trying to argue that Silver’s professional skills are lacking BECAUSE he’s “somekindapansy.” And that’s just repugnant. Plus, he’s trying to find a platform to convince others of this, which puts a higher burden of behavior on him than people who are just kvetching.

        Having said that, we could be keeping a more elevated tone, I suppose. There’s so much about what Friederdorf usually says that’s legitimately ridiculous on its face that name-calling isn’t neccessary.

      • Walt says:

        I agree, here. FMGuru’s comment was pointless dickery.

    • sharculese says:

      “As a well-off white dude with a career where consequences are Not a Thing, I cannot believe some people gall to speculate about the outcome of an event that will have a major effect on their lives.”

      Classy. Friedersdorf is the ur-twit.

    • DrDick says:

      I think he likely lived there throughout high school and the first two years of college.

  8. dan says:

    I don’t particularly have a problem with a employee not wanting its employees to be making bets over their work product. That being said, Sullivan clearly misunderstands the relationship between the Times and Silver: though the Times may have given Silver credibility among the rapidly decaying consumers of print media, he was brought in because he gives the Times credibility among the new news consumers they are trying to reach.

  9. sharculese says:

    Alex Pareene pointed out today that if you look at Joe Scarborough’s actual thoughts on how the election is going to go, it’s… not really all that different from Silver’s.

    With President Obama maintaining his five-point lead in Ohio in today’s poll, Romney must run the table on the six remaining swing states or expand the electoral map. Considering how rough the internals look in this morning’s Ohio survey, Boston must know that winning the White House now depends on their candidate stealing Michigan, Minnesota or Pennsylvania out of the Obama column next Tuesday. Their play in those three Midwest states now appears to be more out of weakness than strength, though a new survey does put Romney within 3 points in Michigan.

  10. Auguste says:

    But whatever the motivation behind it, the wager offer is a bad idea – giving ammunition to the critics who want to paint Mr. Silver as a partisan who is trying to sway the outcome.

    How does making a bet sway the outcome? Does NO ONE understand ANY ASPECT of what probability means?

    Betting on the full house was a bad idea, because it gave ammunition to the critics who want to paint Mr. Hellmuth as biased against nut flushes.

    • Cody says:


      I was thinking the same thing. Obviously, we should all bet Obama wins. Then Obama will win!

      Now that I think about it, it appears the Conservative Confidence Fairy that Krugman talks about has infected all aspects of their existence.

    • Leeds man says:

      Something to do with the Observer Effect, and the collapse of the Election Wave Function.

    • NonyNony says:

      How does making a bet sway the outcome?

      Conservatives all think they live in the Matrix and if the consensus believes something then it is the truth. Making a bet is therefore a propaganda move to make people believe that your guy is going to be the winner so he will be the winner.

      It’s all Green Lantern politics. You just need the Will to win. And therefore what Silver is doing is trying to depress the conservatives and sap their Will to win.

      Does NO ONE understand ANY ASPECT of what probability means?

      No – the great average of people do not understand probability.

      But that really has no bearing on this. If the numbers worked in the GOP’s favor this time around you’d have conservative pundits out there talking up the probabilities and getting it mostly right off their crib sheets. And making “even the liberal Nate Silver’s numbers agree with us” arguments.

      It’s all just propaganda. And they just assume that it’s the same for Silver. ’cause even the local movie theater doesn’t have as much projection as your average Republican pundit.

    • anonymous says:

      If the point is that Nate Silver, as a writer for the NY Times has some sort of influence over the election, then he should not be making predictions in the first place, because by making predictions in the first place, he has some interest in their being shown to be accurate (people read Nate Silver not because he gives probabilities for certain outcomes, but because the outcomes for which he has given high probabilities have frequently happenned). I guess the argument is that by making a bet, he is solidifying his mathematical models into an clear prediction, and is giving himself a more clear interest in the outcome of the election. Still, that seems minor.

      • spencer says:

        I guess the argument is that by making a bet, he is solidifying his mathematical models into an clear prediction, and is giving himself a more clear interest in the outcome of the election.

        I thought he already had a clear interest in the outcome of the election – i.e., he wanted his model to be demonstrated correct so that his reputation will remain solid.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Alex Tarrobak on Marginal Revolution has a great post on this . Basically he argues that “betting” of this kind should not just be encouraged but required of those making claims of expert knowledge.

    • Quercus says:

      Marginal Revolution calling for ‘experts’ to put up or shut up because it would eliminate BS and hackery? That is priceless. Possibly worth adding to the classic definition of ‘chutzpah’, I think.

  12. Ginger Yellow says:

    It’s also inappropriate for a Times journalist, which is how Mr. Silver is seen by the public even though he’s not a regular staff member.

    Don’t flatter yourself, NYT. Silver is seen as “that guy who does 538”.

  13. cpinva says:

    it didn’t used to be completely this way. there was a time, pre-reagan and the rightwing takeover of both talk radio and tv talking heads, when reasonably intelligent people took to the papers and airwaves, and presented thoughtful commentary. but then, it did require that “reasonably intelligent” part.

    namely, that Joe Scarborough is selling the public bullshit in bad faith, and this is pretty much what at least 90% of punditry is.

  14. Uncle Ebeneezer says:

    Just curious: Does Silver still write about baseball? Did he make predictions about playoffs/WS? Were there howls of outrage and charges of bias based his rooting interests?

  15. Donald says:

    Sullivan didn’t side with Scarborough–she said Silver as a NYT employee (of some sort) shouldn’t be making bets. Seems reasonable to me, even if I do think Silver is right and that most pundits are morons. What is silly are the people claiming Sullivan is folding to Scarborough when on the substance of the issue she sides with Silver. In fact, she says so here–

    “Mr. Silver is quite accurate in his argument against Mr. Scarborough. He clearly says that the closeness of the popular vote does not affect the probability that Mr. Obama will win. They are, simply, two very different things.”

    As for Douthat, Brooks and the other clowns the NYT publishes (in fact, almost everyone on the opinion page with the exception of Krugman and sometimes Kristof and Nocera), well, yeah, they’re idiots and sometimes worse than idiots.

    • Leeds man says:

      What is silly fucking stupid is saying that Silver is “giving ammunition to the critics who want to paint Mr. Silver as a partisan who is trying to sway the outcome”.

  16. herr doktor bimler says:

    What kind of odds on a Romney victory is the UnskewedPolls dude offering, and how much money is he putting on the table?

  17. BertieW says:

    Friedersdorf is right, although it would make for a really nice change if he actually understood what he’s right about. It’s pretty clear on the article that he doesn’t understand these issues at all. Scarborough is arguing that Silver’s 3-1 odds against Romney are wrong, and that true odds are actually even money. Well, that’s what Silver is offering. Even money. If Scarborough believes the outcome, he should be all over that bet. I don’t understand what odds Friedersdorf thinks Silver should give him. Silver’s right, and Scarborough is wrong, but I seriously doubt, based on his piece, that Friedersdorf understands the issue enough to weigh in with an opinion on it.

  18. CJColucci says:

    The Times is entitled, if it wants, to have a rule against what Silver did, and to whack Silver if he broke it. If the Times didn’t have a rule, and now plans to institute one for the future because of what Silver did, fine. But if there is no rule and there isn’t going to be a rule, STFU.

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