Nate Silver, the Times, and the Search for the Real World

By George Johnson | July 29, 2013 1:17 pm

Pick up a copy of the New York Times on almost any day and you will find on-the-ground reports of political unrest in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America or on the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. These are written and reported by correspondents risking and occasionally losing their lives. Periodically there will be investigative pieces, taking months of reporting — prying information from reluctant officials, filing Freedom of Information Act requests and lawsuits. The story might be on the misuse of medical radiation therapy or the Walmart bribery scandal in Mexico or the secretive financial empire of the Chinese prime minister. It might be on the the bankruptcy of Detroit or the scope of domestic surveillance by the N.S.A.

For all the economic difficulties the news business is facing, you will find work of similar scale and ambition in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post. Journalism attracts and nourishes people who have a burning curiosity for how things work, whether they are writing about warfare, politics, or the latest scientific discoveries. You gather the facts and do the hard work of conveying the sense of them.

Journalists, in fact, embrace the same basic philosophy that scientists do. There is a world out there of enormous complexity. We can sample it through the narrow bandwidth of our nervous system and make sense of it with our brains.

Given all that I was taken aback to see the attention accorded last week to a blog post on the website run by FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting). The headline, reflexively tweeted and liked until you could hardly avoid it, was “Nate Silver Didn’t Fit In at the New York Times Because He Believed in the Real World.”

The occasion for the pronouncement was the recent news that Silver and the newspaper that made him a household name had failed to come to terms on a renewal of his contract. As a result Silver, the sabermetrician who impressively applied his statistical skills to the 2012 presidential election, will be moving his shop to ESPN.

The disagreement was primarily over money but FAIR’s blogger, Jim Naureckas, interpreted it more portentously. Based on some brief comments by Margaret Sullivan, the Time’s ombudsman, Naureckas depicted Silver as the lonely bastion of true journalistic objectivity. The rest of the profession, as he described it, has embraced a post-modernist philosophy in which there is no real world. The Times, in Naureckas’s portrayal, found Silver’s empiricism a threat to its own — and journalism’s own — solipsistic worldview.

Here is what Naureckas wrote:

This is what I like to describe as the difference between objectivity and ‘objectivity.’ Objectivity is the belief that there is a real world out there that’s more or less knowable; the “objectivity” that journalists practice holds that it’s impossible to know what’s real, so all you can do is report the claims made by various (powerful) people. The chief benefit of “objectivity” is that it means you will never have to tell any powerful person that they’re wrong about anything.

Old-fashioned journalists, who deal in words instead of numbers, were threatened because Silver showed them “there are ways to figure out what’s actually happening with the world, and simply repeating without question what interested parties claim to be happening is not a very helpful approach.”

So forget about LBJ and Vietnam, Nixon and Watergate, Reagan and Iran-Contra, Bush and Iraq.  Forget all of the reporting behind the collapse of the derivative-fueled real estate bubble and the Obama administration’s Wall Street bailout. Journalism, as Naureckas describes it, involves taking official pronouncements at their word and looking no deeper.

It is true that some reporters become too comfortable with their sources and compromise their objectivity. And stories written on the fly can lapse into a rhythm of “he said, she said” instead of stepping back and saying, flat out, what is going on. But that is not the norm. Journalists are iconoclasts by nature, skeptics with a preternatural suspicion of authority. You excel by questioning everything.

Maybe Naureckas didn’t mean to speak so broadly, limiting his comments to political reporting or, even more narrowly, to the coverage of electoral campaigns. Even so his interpretation doesn’t hold up.

Margaret Sullivan didn’t elaborate on what she meant when she surmised that Silver didn’t “fit in” at the Times. I’m sure he ruffled some feathers. He may have felt uncomfortable, as he got prominent play, day after day, and compensation beyond what most of us can only dream of. What he did with his analysis of political polling numbers provided an important perspective. But while Silver was holed up inside with his algorithms, journalists were out talking to people — not just politicians and experts but also voters. They were taking the politicians’ pronouncements and examining them for accuracy. They were checking, line by line, every claim on the candidates’ resumes. They were examining the influence of interest groups and following the money trail.

They were reporting, in other words, on all of the issues that were presumably on people’s minds when they told the pollsters which way they would probably vote, providing the data for Silver’s statistical prognostications. What he was doing was a small part of an enormous effort. I doubt that he would disagree.

 

CATEGORIZED UNDER: select, top-posts
  • http://theoldbeggar.com/ Nikhil S

    Nice article, just want to mention that your blockquote of Naureckas’ comments on objectivity is very confusing without that paragraph’s introductory sentence: “This is what I like to describe as the difference between objectivity and ‘objectivity.'”

    • http://talaya.net/ George Johnson

      Good point. Thank you. I’ve added the sentence to the quote.

  • Psyclic

    Whether or not Silver’s “true motivation” was dollars, as you seem to imply, the whole point of the Naureckas article was the difference between the objectivity of the journalist who needs to discover the truth (as scientists do) and flack reporters who think journalistic objectivity means given equal credence to both sides of the story – whether it be about Benghazi or creationism. That is what Naureckas termed “objectivity”; not reducing reality to numerical analysis. This theme, termed “the view from nowhere”, is extensively examined by Jay Rosen.

    • Buddy199

      The flack types you mention are stenographers with press credentials. A real journalist goes after facts with the same ferocity a scientist does to uncover the underlying truth, regardless of where that leads. The worst of the flacks uncover or ignore just enough to push an agenda or get invited to all the right cocktail parties.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Fire in the Mind

Whether a subtle new pattern shows up in an experiment on the Higgs boson, an epidemiological report about a suspected cancer cluster, or a double-blind trial purporting to demonstrate ESP, it can be maddeningly difficult to distinguish between what we see and what we think we see. "Fire in the Mind" takes a look at the big questions behind today’s science news.

About George Johnson

George Johnson writes about science for the New York Times, National Geographic Magazine, Slate, and other publications. His nine books include The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine's Deepest Mystery (August 2013), The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments, A Shortcut Through Time, and Fire in the Mind. He is a winner of the AAAS Science Journalism Award and has twice been a finalist for the Royal Society science book prize. Co-founder and director of the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop, he can be found on the Web at talaya.net. Twitter @byGeorgeJohnson.

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT

@byGeorgeJohson onTwitter

Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »