Home / General / “In The War On Nerds, My Role Is To Keep Shooting Myself In the Foot”

“In The War On Nerds, My Role Is To Keep Shooting Myself In the Foot”


You may remember that when Dylan Byers rushed to the defense of various hacks who were attacking Nate Silver, various oxygen-using limb-walking-on urban elitists made him look ridiculous. And a man in his position cannot be made to look ridiculous! So he now has a new excuse. See, the various hacks who were attacking Silver may have been right had Silver not foiled them:

“The polls can certainly affect elections at times,” Silver told the audience, according to a report in Student Life, an independent campus newspaper. “I hope people don’t take the forecasts too seriously. You’d rather have an experiment where you record it off from the actual voters, in a sense, but we’ll see. If it gets really weird in 2014, in 2016, then maybe I’ll stop doing it. I don’t want to influence the democratic process in a negative way.”

Silver said he wanted to make people “more informed, I don’t want to affect their motive because they trust the forecasters.”

POLITICO reached out to Silver to ask how much of an effect he believed his data and analysis had on voters in 2012, if any. Silver, who has been a critic of this blog and of POLITICO in the past, did not respond.

So, the fact that there may theoretically be a bandwagon effect means that Silver may have influenced the election results because low-information swing voters compulsively check statistical analysis at the New York Times or something. Clearly, the people who attacked Silver with no evidence whatsoever were really onto something! (Of course, we can’t independently evaluate these insinuations; all we can do is attempt to ask Silver about them.) And then attribute to him a strawman about all “punditry” having no value, as if punditry cannot consist of anything but “magic dolphins told me that Mitt Romney is almost as much of a lock as Rick Lazio.” (Granted, that does represent a huge percentage.)

But, in fairness, at least Byers is gracious:

Silver has since turned his attention back to the world of sport, where he inaccurately predicted that the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks would meet in the Super Bowl, and then inaccurately predicted that the San Francisco 49ers would beat the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl. He has yet to release his predictions for this year’s Oscars.

Burn! Clearly a claim that the 49ers were more likely to win was falsified by a loss (in which they were 1st and goal down by 5 late in the game), because understanding how probability works is for NERDS.

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  • Malaclypse

    Would I be wrong in guessing that Silver never actually said “The 49ers will win,” but rather “The 49ers have (X=>50%) chance of winning”, with X not being all that much higher than 50%?

    • Jim

      Specifically, he said:

      The 49ers also have the better offense, according to S.R.S., so there isn’t much to recommend the Ravens . . . unless you look at the more sophisticated rankings published by Football Outsiders. Their system, known as Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (D.V.O.A.), accounts for a team’s success or failure on every play it ran during the year and not just on final scores. Those rankings find that while the 49ers had the better offense and defense, the Ravens had the best special teams in the league this year.


    • sharculese

      He actually emphasizes there’s really not enough data to say with any accuracy:


      • So when he said that he was picking SF but that it’s really not possible to predict with certainty, that was just like when he said there was a 92% chance Obama would be re-elected?

  • sharculese

    Almost as bad was Byers post-election wrap-up where he imperiously selected the ‘winners’ of the 2012 coverage while failing to mention Silver.

    Also, too:

    Silver has since turned his attention back to the world of sport

    Is he actually British, or just an all purpose dweeb?

    • He’s in the middle of the McArdle Correspondence Course in Proper Diction for Talking Out of Your Ass. Next week’s lesson: using “shan’t” for fun and profit (but mainly fun from profit).

  • rea

    Obviously, Silver could not hae been right–Romney must really have won the election, only to have it stolen by ACORN and the New Black Panthers.

  • Hogan

    Silver has since turned his attention back to the world of sport

    So he hasn’t even tried to predict the results of any of the elections we’ve had since last November? How conVEEEEnient.

  • Smut Clyde

    the fact that there may theoretically be a bandwagon effect means that Silver may have influenced the election results

    I’ll just hazard a guess here that Byers is not concerned about multiple pundits producing a bandwagon effect and influencing the election through their fact-free attempts to present their preferred result as the inevitable result; only about Silver’s counterbalance.

    • Smut Clyde

      To make the point more coherently and with a higher blood caffeine level:

      1. Let us postulate that there is a strong bandwagon effect from electoral prognostication.
      2. Imagine a hypothetical world in which Nate Silver did not maintain the initial unpopularity of Romney by calling attention to it.

      3. Further imagine that in the absence of his bandwagon, the majority of pundits — repeating the conventional wisdom that Romney was a competitive candidate — managed to bring about their own self-fulfilling prophecy, overcoming Romney’s initial unpopularity and swinging the election his way.

      How is this supposed to make majority pundits seem any more honest or credible?

      • It’s especially interesting since, at most, a Silvered bandwagon effect would be the result of an actual bandwagon,i.e., the reflection of the fact that Obama was actually popular.

        • I like how he ignored the fact that Obama’s GOTV effort was light-years ahead of the Republican effort, as though a NYT math nerd had more influence than the actual efforts of the Kenyan Usurper on the ground.

          • Well, in the end, let’s not quibble about which factor had the greater effect…we can all, I trust, agree that they are equally illegitimate? Indeed, illegitimate to the degree that they contributed to Obama’s re-election?

            I knew we could!

  • Chester Allman

    Please don’t remind me about the NE-SEA Super Bowl prediction. I was just on Football Outsiders for the first time in a few weeks and saw the Seahawks atop the final 2012 DVOA rankings. Somehow I ended up in the obscure parallel universe in which Seattle was unable to stop a last-minute field goal drive after completing a historic playoff comeback. And I don’t like it in this universe.

    • Rhino

      Yeah, it still hurts. The worst part was watching the Super Bowl and rooting for both teams to lose and ray Lewis to get kicked good and hard in the testicles.

      • Chester Allman

        What with the blackout, it seemed for a little while like there was a chance for all of those things to happen. But alas.

  • Todd

    Conservatives had 65+ Million problems on election day, but Nate Silver wasn’t one of them.

    Although, he probably was one of them.

    • Funkhauser

      IIRC, he stated that he didn’t vote.

      • john (not mccain)

        that’s such an affectation. at least one sc justice used to not vote too and that was stupid as well, although more justifiable. BE A CITIZEN AND VOTE.

        • spencer

          Agreed. I get that some people might see Silver voting as a conflict of interest because ZOMG his one vote in New York is totally going to make his prediction about Obama winning Virginia come true, so no fairsies. But those people are stupid.

          • Rhino

            I would assume that a pollster would be way to damned busy to vote on Election Day. Where is he supposed to find three hours to stand in line amidst presumed tv appearances, radio calls, number crunching etc etc etc?

          • I get that some people might see Silver voting as a conflict of interest …But those people are stupid.

            I don’t get the first part! Are politicians not supposed to vote for themselves?

            I’m trying to think of a situation where it makes the remotest sense to require someone not vote in this sort of election. It’s a secret ballot! Serving military are allowed to vote (rightly!).

            I mean, my understanding is that the line is that Silver shouldn’t be allowed to vote because he’s voting “wrong“.

  • c u n d gulag

    Well, why SHOULDN’T he be stupid/wrong again?

    It’s not like there’s any punishment for pundits if they’re stupid/wrong?

    Usually, it’s a stepping-stone, UP!

    Of course, denizens at Tucker’s ‘House O’ Teh Stoopid,” and the receivers of Breitbart’s (YAY! STILL DEAD!!!) internet empire, might prove that theory may not be 100% accurate.
    But, if you’re THAT stupid, that you end up at either place, then you’re probably on your knees most of the day, thanking whatever God(s) it is that you believe in, that breathing is an involuntary reflex.

  • There’s a very satisfying comment at the top of the pile at the link.

    • Gary K

      Which link?

    • Jewish Steel

      Several satisfying comments.

  • Jordan

    Nate Silver has too much influence because he is too accurate. Clearly, we need to go back to the good old days when prognosticators were all terrible at making predictions. For Democracy.

    • Anonymous

      Those “good old days” haven’t passed.

      • Jordan

        They are not *all* terrible. In fact that is precisely the problem!

  • penpen

    Dear god this is infuriatingly stupid

  • Sly

    “You mean all you do is compile state-by-state poll results and compute an average? Are you serious? That’s it?”

    “Uh… yeah. That’s it. And it worked, so why don’t you do it?”


    Though I guess the argument deserves some credit, because clearly Politico’s gut-instincts on how the election would turn out had no impact on the actual results.

  • Interesting how “low-information voters” has become rightcode for “minorities.”

    • Cody

      Worse yet, I don’t think it’s even true. I’m not sure where the link is, but rural white people happen to be rather low information voters.

      Yet somehow no one is “accusing”(randomly saying?[bullshitting])of influencing the rural white population.

    • spencer

      The logical steps go like this: “low information” ==> “low intelligence” ==> minorities.

      You could also put “apathetic” in place of “low intelligence.”

      This is why my in-laws got so mad when I told them that they were low-information voters – even though they had just admitted as much when they said they were too busy to follow politics and the news as closely as I do.

    • And thus pejorative.

      I think people perceived it as pejorative and then went from there.

  • CD

    interesting how “reached out to” has come to mean “tried to contact.”

  • Warren Terra

    Nate Silver probably predicted this response by Byers – indeed, precipitated it. And this LGM post mocking Byers. And this comment exegeting the whole thing. Oh, god, I cannot stop writing this comment, Nate Silver made me do it, the tinfoil hat does nothing

  • rickhavoc

    The dogs bark but the carnival moves on. Silver might could get that but he’s climbed the pole and is trying to make nice with professional idiots with different skin in the game. His deference is a plus.

    • Malaclypse

      Now that, boys and girls, is how you properly mix metaphors.

    • Njorl

      Carnival dogs bark
      Silver climbs the pole makes nice
      Deference a plus

  • I notice David Brooks is walking this beat again too. “What Data Can’t Do” is a fantastic primer for anyone wanting to understand the mind of a man so egotistical he’s convinced his five minutes thinking about how statistics in the real world might be harder than the stuff we teach 16 year olds has resulted in him uncovering hard limitations on the field as a whole.

  • mds

    the mind of a man so egotistical

    You misspelled “humble.”

    • A thousand apologies! I should have known better than to try and determine where Brooks lies on the humbleness scale without having attended his course on humility.

      You can rest assured that after this horrible experience I shall stick to only poking around in fields of endeavour that the utter layman can pontificate upon with utter ease. Statistical analysis, for instance…

    • Njorl

      He could teach a course in humility!

  • spencer

    Byers kind of gives the game away with this sentence:

    He is now a best-selling author, a major traffic draw for the New York Times website, and a champion among those who believe punditry has no place in a process beholden to polling.

    Doesn’t even try to hide that his writings about Silver are motivated purely by hurt feelings and fear for his phony-baloney job.

  • Chance that Dylan Byers will turn into a goat and receive sexual attention from Mickey Kaus? 50.1%.

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