When Two Wonks Go to War (Go to War, Go to War)

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
March 26 2014 7:44 PM

When Two Wonks Go to War (Go to War, Go to War)

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You can do better than that, Nate.

Photo by AFP/Getty Images

Paul Krugman has greeted the launch of FiveThirtyEight with disappointment and dread, and today Nate Silver slaps him right back. "For Columnist, a Change of Tone" starts with a great headline, and then ... well, it seems to underscore the problems Krugman and other former (and future, maybe) Silverphiles have with the new site's ethos.

Krugman, writes Silver, "has mentioned FiveThirtyEight four times in just nine days, all in negative contexts." When Silver was a colleague of Krugman's, FiveThirtyEight was mentioned favorably 15 times, neutrally five times, and negatively just once. Leaving aside the composition of this data for a chart-joke—a labor that required Silver to capture and classify every mention of himself on Krugman's New York Times page—it just doesn't follow. From post to post, Krugman's not analyzing the same aspects of Silver's work.

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Case in point: On Nov. 4, 2012, Krugman took one last whack at the conservatives who doubted that Obama was winning the election. He showed readers a chart from RealClearPolitics' poll aggregator. "You can see right there why all of the poll aggregators—not just Nate Silver, but also Sam Wangelectoral-vote.comDrew LinzerPollsterTalking Points are showing an Obama advantage," wrote Krugman. "It’s not the political leanings of the analysts; it’s the polls. Again, the polls could be wrong, but they have to be systematically wrong by at least 2 percent to reverse this." Silver only appears as the most prominent of six data-watchers who are coming up with the same conclusion. Silver tags this as a "favorable" post.

Today Krugman approvingly linked to a criticism of FiveThirtyEight, saying it crystallized his own problem with the site. "For all the big talk about data-driven analysis," he wrote, "what it actually delivers is sloppy and casual opining with a bit of data used, as the old saying goes, the way a drunkard uses a lamppost." Silver tags this, fair enough, as an "unfavorable" post.

But it's hardly dealing with the same subject as the November 2012 post, is it? In one, Krugman was praising FiveThirtyEight for relying on data and ignoring pundit spin. In the other, Krugman is criticizing the new site for being glib and only using a "bit of data." In other public responses to Krugman (pre-dating and I guess inspiring this post), Silver suggests that the columnist is angry because "I've fired some shots at the New York Times editorial page, of which he's a member." That's awfully ungenerous given that Krugman keeps to-be-sure-ing his posts with the hope that FiveThirtyEight will improve.

Hey, so do lots of people. For now, the site's political vertical is offering too much one-chart wisdom about how some things that pundits are saying are basically right. The president's party suffers in a second midterm (though "history doesn’t always repeat itself"). Hillary Clinton's strong poll numbers and cleared primary field make her a strong general election contender ("history suggests possibly"). It's dull, which means if we readers were smarter we should have seen at least the high probability of a fight to enliven things.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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