Among the parade of critics who have lined up to pick apart Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight since the site’s launch, Paul Krugman has stood out. But Silver saw it coming.
“I haven’t been surprised by Krugman’s criticism because I’ve fired some shots at the New York Times editorial page, of which he’s a member,” Silver told TPM in an email on Monday, adding that Krugman “was full of praise for FiveThirtyEight while it was part of The New York Times.”
The turning point may have come earlier this month, when Silver told New York Magazine that “op-ed columnists at the New York Times, WashingtonPost, and Wall Street Journal” are most like the hedgehog, a creature that the Greek poet Archilochus said knows “one big thing.”
As Silver sees it, those hedgehogs run in contrast to FiveThirtyEight’s scrappy crew of foxes, who know “many little things.”
“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,” Silver said in that interview.
When Silver was asked to identify an exception to such criticism, Krugman’s name wasn’t mentioned. The stats guru instead named Krugman’s conservative colleague at the Times, Ross Douthat, as “someone who shows some originality.”
Since FiveThirtyEight’s launch a week ago, Krugman has been unsparing in his criticism. First, he argued that Silver and company “have misunderstood their mission” by “letting the data speak for itself.”
“You use data to inform your analysis, you let it tell you that your pet hypothesis is wrong, but data are never a substitute for hard thinking,” Krugman wrote last week. “If you think the data are speaking for themselves, what you’re really doing is implicit theorizing, which is a really bad idea (because you can’t test your assumptions if you don’t even know what you’re assuming.)”
Krugman followed that up with another blog post on Sunday titled “Tarnished Silver.”
FiveThirtyEight, Krugman wrote, has so far resembled “something between a disappointment and a disaster.” And he made another critique to Silver’s approach.
“Basically, it looks as if Silver is working from the premise that the supposed experts in every field are just like the political analysts at Politico, and that there is no real expertise he needs to take on board,” he wrote in the post. “If he doesn’t change that premise, his enterprise is going to run aground very fast.”
Krugman told TPM he’s been a “Nate fan,” but that the site left him “somewhat shocked.”
“I mean, I’m a quant myself; but I expected more thoughtfulness,” he said in an email.
Krugman did not respond to a question about Silver’s interview with New York Magazine.
Silver, for his part, said he doesn’t shun the negative reviews that FiveThirtyEight has drawn in its infancy, telling TPM that much of the criticism will help the site improve. He just doesn’t think Krugman’s assessment has been on the mark.
“His comment about experts was particularly strange given that (i) we publish lots of articles by experts, e.g. academic economists like Emily Oster and political scientists like Dan Hopkins and that (ii) Krugman has himself been very critical of Very Serious People and experts in economics and other fields,” Silver wrote in the email.
He thinks Krugman wrote his latest post “with his pundit hat on — it wasn’t making an attempt to be fair.”
“But we’re making plenty of mistakes and I’m happy to forgive one of his,” he said.
Silver’s full email to TPM:
We’re a new organization and we’re learning as we go. A lot of the criticism we’ve taken is valid and important and it will help us to get better.
But I’d stand behind what I said on Twitter, which is that Krugman is making a strawman caricature of FiveThirtyEight that doesn’t at all match what we’re doing on the site.
His comment about experts was particularly strange given that (i) we publish lots of articles by experts, e.g. academic economists like Emily Oster and political scientists like Dan Hopkins and that (ii) Krugman has himself been very critical of Very Serious People and experts in economics and other fields.
Furthermore, we see reporting as complementary to our approach. Our beef is with punditry, not reporting. If people think we’re publishing articles that fall into the punditry category, that’s something we’ll take VERY seriously. If our journalists are doing some reporting, that’s terrific.
I haven’t been surprised by Krugman’s criticism because I’ve fired some shots at the New York Times editorial page, of which he’s a member. Krugman was full of praise for FiveThirtyEight while it was part of The New York Times.
In short, I think this was a piece Paul wrote with his pundit hat on — it wasn’t making an attempt to be fair. But we’re making plenty of mistakes and I’m happy to forgive one of his.