Watching Nate Silver squander his reputation

Nate Silver is putting together this journalism startup, and it’s already on the path to failure. I mentioned his oblivious sexism the other day, and now we learn the name of the ‘science’ writer he’s bringing to to cover the environment.

Nate Silver’s highly anticipated data-driven news site FiveThirtyEight launched on Monday, with a controversial figure covering science issues. Silver has brought on Roger Pielke, Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, as a contributing writer – a political scientist who comes with a long history of data distortion and confrontations with climate scientists.

That last sentence is a lovely example of understatement. Pielke, both Jr. and Sr., are denialist kooks.

I don’t think I’ll bother reading FiveThirtyEight. “Data-driven,” hah.


  1. mildlymagnificent says

    Bluddy, bluddy hell. R.Pielke Jr is one of the worst obfuscators of science and fudger of policy options on the market. Sr is a scientist. He just changes the datasets he prefers to rely on depending on which way the trends are looking. Not so many years ago he was nagging everyone to look over here, ocean heat content isn’t rising very fast at all, why do you folks want to look at surface temperatures. Now that OHC is rising faster than surface temperatures – depending very much on which way you choose to look at the data – he’s jumping up and down about the OHC numbers not showing “the whole picture”.*

    * Always bearing in mind that you’re supposed to look at anything he presents to you in the approved standing on head, squinting with the left eye manner otherwise you might miss his oh-so-obvious interpretation of the dataset/ time series/ squiggly graph.

  2. infraredeyes says

    Very disappointing. I had some hopes for the new FiveThirtyEight because I generally like Silver’s work.

  3. Steve LaBonne says

    Silver should have stuck to his area of competence, baseball. He wasn’t even the best political poll aggregator out there.

  4. gussnarp says

    Wait, a political scientist? Do they understand that political science is not actually science?

  5. doubtthat says

    He obviously made the choice that his governing principle would be contrarianism, rather than reasoned inquiry. I’ve watched this happen quite a bit: a fairly un-political academic sort begins applying rigorous analysis to key issues of the day. Inevitably that rigorous analysis rejects right wing horseshit giving the appearance that the previously un-political academic is a frothing liberal. The Washington press corps types start describing said academic as a “liberal” or “progressive,” and the title sticks.

    Now the person has a choice. They can look at the world around them knowing full well that they did not begin their endeavor in an attempt to promote one side or the other, and accept the fact that so long as they promote reason and rational process, they will spend 95% of their time arguing against conservative positions. This is what happened to Paul Krugman. He really was not a political firebrand early on. He took his work seriously, he grounded it in the data, and the result was that he found himself arguing against Republican positions and advocating the progressive agenda.

    The other choice is to go “Sister Souljah.” You need to start taking progressive scalps. You need to find people and issues over which you can bash the group you’ve been assigned to prove to David Gregory that you really aren’t biased. This necessarily leads down the path of 1) making shit up and 2) hopping in bed with other folks that are attempting this same sort of slimy “centrism.” It’s a reactionary position, and, ironically, completely undermines any actual effort at removing bias. Obviously the Clintons are great examples of this. John Stewart periodically flirts with this urge but more or less has it in check.

    This is always, ALWAYS the result:

    Horseshit work.

    Of course, there’s also the ego-massaging notion that Silver has it all figured out and the world is made up of people far dumber than him. No climate scientist has ever considered anything as elegant as his work…

  6. says

    May I be the first to say, “Goddammit all to hell…. I did not know about Silver’s sexism issues OR his pick for science editor guy… Fuck, I just got back from that site wishing his enterprise well. Looks like somebody named ‘Me’ didn’t do his research

  7. Anthony K says

    Wait, a political scientist? Do they understand that political science is not actually science?


  8. says

    The most frustrating thing about this is that we really, really need a statistically based journalistic resource. Maybe the better formula would be to have a quasi-aggragate site where admins (statiticians) could quality-control check data and analysis before officially posting it? Or Just do what Silver is doing , but put our dear old friend Ian Cromwell AKA Crommunist in charge! We KNOW he’s a big winner in both science and ethics issues!

  9. Rey Fox says

    Yeah, it looks like knee-jerk “We’re gonna shake up the Establishment!” hiring.

  10. says

    Politics aren’t science. Sure. Also, rocks aren’t science.

    Geology is studying rocks, scientifically.

    Political science is studying politics, scientifically.

    Get it now?

    (Not that that makes it a good idea to hire a political scientist to write about the science of climate change.)

  11. gussnarp says

    OK, fine. Political science is social science, not physical science. And he’s being hired to write about physical science.


  12. Paul Brown says

    I read “Signal and the Noise” closely enough to write a review of it.

    Whatever his other biases, something else about Silver’s method was made clear in that book. He gave three examples of analytic situations where he combined his fundamentalist Bayesianism with deep subject matter knowledge to make predictions. Silver himself was a pretty good poker player. He writes chapters about sporting predictions. And he wrote (natch) about his political work.

    But in all those cases I think he missed the point that it took expertise about the phenomenon under review to figure out what data to pay attention to. In poker, the way hands play out is the consequence of the elaborate rules of the game. In basketball and baseball, his examples of success involved a deep understanding of the game’s mechanics (combined with systematic updating of priors). And his political work was all about rigorous application of what (he acknowledged) political scientists already knew; that national elections played out within the frame of “big national trends”. As soon as he wandered off his expertise…into climate change, for example…his lack of domain expertise rendered him unable to figure out what was important.

    At some level I think Silver’s just skeptical of of “expertise”. Witness his (arguably justified) contempt for opinion journalism. Yet in the places where he’s been successful, it’s been precisely his own expertise that’s helped him. Silver sees himself as a “fox”. I think he’s a “hedgehog”, contemptuous of other “hedgehogs”.

  13. isochron says

    Unfortunately Nate Silver, despite his claims to be driven by evidence, is an anthropogenic climate change denialist kook. He has written on this topic before and used some of the most fudged figures I’ve ever seen to ‘prove’ his point, which was promptly torn down by some rather more knowledgeable people than me. He probably thinks these two are the right people for the job.

  14. Rich Woods says

    highly anticipated data-driven news site

    Data-driven? That just means they’re storing their bullshit in a database rather than in individual files.

  15. says

    OK, fine. Political science is social science, not physical science. And he’s being hired to write about physical science.



    Best would be, “I’m sorry for perpetuating social sciences denialism, and I promise to never do it again and to challenge it whenever I see it in the future.”

  16. says

    Nate already revealed himself to be a denialist in his book. If you google his name and climate denialist you’ll find many people pointing this out over the last couple of years.

    Basically, he’s following the Freaknomics method: “let’s just all say dumb shit, attach some numbers to it, and make some money”.

  17. numerobis says

    I read a few articles yesterday, and learned… nothing. The blog is precisely as gripping as reading a raw table of numbers, with at best a trend line thrown through them for no good reason. None of the articles were by Pielke — I know because none of the articles accused anyone of fraud.

    Related, I had a discussion with a “friend” who was saying that Pielke wasn’t a climate change denier, and neither was Steyn. Push come to shove he fell back on a position of saying it’s redolent of thought-crime to want scientists (and those who report on science) to discuss reality.

  18. Ichthyic says

    I don’t think I’ll bother reading FiveThirtyEight. “Data-driven,” hah.

    well, technically he could just be referring to the structure of the site; database driven back end with html/script up front.

    the IT geeks have spoken.

  19. Ichthyic says

    Basically, he’s following the Freaknomics method: “let’s just all say dumb shit, attach some numbers to it, and make some money”.


    and of course he hired pukey simply because he’s “controversial”. If the site actually starts generating revenue, look for Silverman to hire a “counter” to pukey to add even more “controversy”.

  20. says

    Awwww, how sweet: it thinks its gotcha-game comments are still going to be here in a few hours. Kootchie-kootchie-koo, chewtoy – who’s a wozzawozzasillyrabbit?

  21. Anri says

    geraldo @ 29:

    Drop the dehumanising tigtog. You don’t refer to a person as an “it”.

    Translation – blog rules are for you, not for me.

  22. says

    So Xanthe, Anri, how are you anyway? And what do you think – do troll performance art personas have personhood? Or are anthropomorphized sockpuppets generally understood to be non-persons?

    I’m happy for these natterings to be removed when the troll droppings get cleaned up, btw. Just feeling my oats a bit tonight after a few hours mucking about at choir, so having a wee frolic before PZ wakes up.

  23. cim says

    As with most initially competent-seeming journalists, the time you lose respect for them is when they write about something you know and prove they don’t, and by implication therefore that’s their standard for the stuff you don’t know about too.

    In my case with Silver it was when his site was covering the 2010 UK elections and believed – and while it wasn’t him personally writing that article, just someone he’d hired to cover European politics, still his responsibility as editor – that combining the Scottish Nationalist Party and Plaid Cymru (centrist or centre-left nationalist/separatist parties) with the British National Party (fascists) and the UK Independence Party (isolationist ultra-conservatives) under a bulk category of “nationalist parties” was a sensible thing to do, in the face of just about all their UK readers going “you realise that makes no sense”. I assumed from then (and another article making a similar “you’ve never actually asked anyone from here, have you” mistake) that the only reason his US political predictions worked was that in a genuine two party system there’s very little you can actually get wrong.

  24. Anne Marie says

    “In a 2012 interview with Charlie Rose he stated, ‘I’d say I am somewhere in-between being a libertarian and a liberal. So if I were to vote it would be kind of a Gary Johnson versus Mitt Romney decision, I suppose.'”

    Maybe that explains it. *sigh*