The New Republic’s literary editor Leon Wieseltier ripped Nate Silver’s newly relaunched FiveThirtyEight website on Wednesday, urging readers to resist the “intimidation by quantification practiced by Silver and the other data mullahs.”
Silver’s venture relaunched on Monday under a fox logo — an allusion to Greek poet Archilochus’ saying “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” If Silver is the fox, he considers the opinion columnists he loathes to be the hedgehogs, and FiveThirtyEight to be the antidote to the chattering class’ blathering.
“Plenty of pundits have really high IQs, but they don’t have any discipline in how they look at the world, and so it leads to a lot of bullshit, basically,” he told New York Magazine.
Wieseltier blasted Silver for that “slander,” arguing the data guru has more of the hedgehog in him than he’d ever admit.
“The new technology, which produces numbers the way plants produce oxygen, has inspired a new positivism, and he is one of its princes. He dignifies only facts,” he wrote. “He honors only investigative journalism, explanatory journalism, and data journalism. He does not take a side, except the side of no side. He does not recognize the calling of, or grasp the need for, public reason; or rather, he cannot conceive of public reason except as an exercise in statistical analysis and data visualization. He is the hedgehog who knows only one big thing. And his thing may not be as big as he thinks it is.”
Wieseltier conceded that “the state of American punditry is not strong,” but warned Silver that separating analysis from advocacy may not be the best way to improve public discourse.
“Neutrality is an evasion of responsibility, unless everything is like sports,” he wrote. “Like Ezra Klein, whom he admires, Nate Silver had made a success out of an escape into diffidence. What is it about conviction that frightens these people?”
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Catherine Thompson is a senior editor for Talking Points Memo in New York City. She came to the site in 2013 and reported on national affairs. Previously, she worked as a research assistant to investigative reporter Wayne Barrett. She can be reached at email@example.com.