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Thursday, November 1, 2012

The War on Nate Silver [Truthdig]

Nate Silver is seen by conservatives as a threat to Republicans this election. It’s not simply because Silver, the statistician behind the New York Times-hosted FiveThirtyEight blog, predicts that President Obama will win the election. Rather, it’s also because Silver is one of the most accurate forecasters out there.

Considering how spot on he was in 2008—Silver correctly predicted the results of 49 out of 50 states—that’s bad news for conservatives. Hence, the invective to discredit him. According to the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein:

First, there are the conservatives who don’t like Silver’s model because, well, they don’t like it. Obama’s continued strong showing is prima facie evidence of bias. Or, to put it slightly differently, the model must be skewed.

The answer to this is simple enough: If Silver’s model is systematically biased, there’s a market opportunity for anyone who wants to build a better model. That person would stand to gain hugely if they outpredicted punditry’s reigning forecaster (not to mention all the betting markets and all the other forecasters). The math behind what Silver is doing isn’t that complicated and the polls are easily available. But so far, the most popular conservative take on the polls was UnskewedPolls.com, to which … LOL. If Silver’s model is so easy to best, then what’s the market failure keeping a less-biased source from besting it?

But it’s not just conservatives who are fighting Silver—some in the news media are doing it as well. In fact, as Klein points out, much of that criticism is coming from the political news website Politico, and for good reason:

Silver’s work poses a threat to more traditional—and, in particular, to more excitable—forms of political punditry and horse-race journalism.

...If you had to distill the work of a political pundit down to a single question, you’d have to pick the perennial “who will win the election?” During election years, that’s the question at the base of most careers in punditry, almost all cable news appearances, and most A1 news articles. Traditionally, we’ve answered that question by drawing on some combination of experience, intuition, reporting and polls. Now Silver—and Silver’s imitators and political scientists—are taking that question away from us. It would be shocking if the profession didn’t try and defend itself.

Silver currently predicts that Obama has roughly a 75 percent chance of winning the election next week. He also forecasts that Obama will win 300 electoral votes to Romney’s 238.

—Posted by Tracy Bloom.

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