Commentary: The GOP Witch Hunt Against Nate Silver Is Silly

The famous statistician is being wrongly accused of being in the tank for President Obama.

Posted: 10/31/2012 05:34 PM EDT

You might know Nate Silver as the statistics whiz who, in 2008, accurately predicted the way in which 49 out of 50 states would vote in the presidential election (he missed Indiana, which went for Barack Obama by one percent). He also accurately predicted every single one of the dozens of Senate races that year. Before picking horses in politics, Silver made his living by predicting baseball and business, but now his blog, FiveThirtyEight, is a hallmark of The New York Times’ website.

Essentially, Silver has for years now — he graduated college in 2000 — been a numbers guy. He uses math in various capacities to try and guess the outcomes of things. He’s never marketed himself as some sort of magical clairvoyant and his calculations have actually been remarkably accurate thus far. But now some conservatives have decided they don’t like Silver and his mathand they’ve made a job out of complaining about him in recent days.

In an article called “Nate Silver Is Partisan and Wrong,” Telegraph columnist Tim Stanley writes, “A former business and baseball analyst, Nate came to fame in 2008 when he correctly predicted the outcome in 49 of 50 states in the presidential election. Frankly, a headless chicken could have done that. It was a wave election and we all knew Virginia and North Carolina were in play.”

New York Times author David Brooks also mocked Silver’s reading of polling data, saying on PBS recently, “If you tell me you think you can quantify an event that is about to happen that you don’t expect, like the 47 percent comment or a debate performance, I think you think you are a wizard. That’s not possible … The pollsters tell us what’s happening now. When they start projecting, they’re getting into silly land.”

Essentially, what many of Silver’s critics seem to believe is that he’s somehow skewing the numbers. The reason many of them believe this? Probably because Silver gives Mitt Romney only a 25 percent chance of winning the election next week. In an election cycle that saw Republicans “unskewing” polls in an effort to make it seem like Obama was doing more poorly than many pollsters said he was, watching this latest conservative effort to go against math is not surprising.

What is surprising is this assertion that Silver is somehow a partisan hack simply because he says Obama is going to win. Though Silver does indeed occasionally take issue with polls that seem to lean too far right, he tends to give clear explanations as to why. What Silver does isn’t perfect, but he uses data in the way any predictive field — meteorology, for instance — uses data to try and ascertain a best guess, and his guesses are very often on point. Going after him for trying to cheat Mitt Romney out of anything is like going after a meteorologist for conjuring Hurricane Sandy. Predictors don’t bring the rain, they just try and tell you when to make sure you have an umbrella.

Now to wait a week to see if Silver is right all over again.


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