Sound of Silver

11 Nov

NOTE: Black Ships is still celebrating Obama’s historic victory with a one-week sabbatical from political posts. This one pushes up against the edge of that pledge, but we’re going to file it under math, media and baseball.

Plenty of people had a pretty good week last week, but with one (cough) notable exception, Nate Silver had as a good a week as anybody. The New York Times‘ profile on the math whiz behind FiveThirtyEight goes beyond the now legendary stories circulating about him, but Silver’s rise is mostly indicative of how sloppy statistical analysis has been in politics until now.

Baseball’s love affair with numbers is fairly well-documented. Even as people disagree over the relative importance of batting average versus on-base percentage, reasonable people still accept the integral role that math plays in understanding baseball. Silver made his reputation after the Chicago White Sox ended an 88-year title drought in 2005. People might have disagreed with his prediction that the champs would faceplant the following year, but they didn’t laugh him out of the room. Nor should they have. Just as he predicted, the Southsiders lost exactly 90 games in 2006, and Silver’s credentials were established.

Which is why it’s bizarre that in politics, the media accepts statistical analysis that’s little more evolved than divining the entrails of some ritually slaughtered animal. Whether it was undercounting cellphone users, weighting all polls equally (including ones that had proven to be unreliable in the past) or including outliers without verifying them, the gaffes continued apace this year. Baseball executives make their share of horrible mistakes, especially when glaring into the hypnotic gaze of Scott Boras, but baseball rightfully demands (and usually gets) high quality statistical analysis when it’s time to break out the checkbook. Sure, baseball’s important. But one would think that our media would demand the same level of analysis in prognosticating the Presidential Race. Judging by the fact that Dick Morris is still employed, apparently not. Equally appalling is that the financial industry (Official Motto: “It’s Only Money”) is almost as bad. The recent furor over bond ratings has shown that not only were the raters performing faulty analysis, sometimes they weren’t performing any at all. The Times article says that Silver left accounting firm KPMG for baseball after he got bored. Maybe he just wanted to find a receptive audience.

Hometown Buffet just got $36 million richer

Hometown Buffet just got $36 million richer

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