Nate Silver is known for two things: (1) being one of the old school Baseball Prospectus people, where he developed the PECOTA projection system; and (2) being a political polling analyst/prognosticator and proprietor of the FiveThirtyEight.com blog, which appears in the New York Times. He used to crunch baseball numbers. Now he crunches political polling data. Viva varied interests and transferable skills.
One of the facts of life for the early Baseball Prospectus folks was the skepticism to the point of disdain they received — and in some cases still receive — for their methods, conclusions and tone, with said skepticism and disdain coming most significantly from the establishment baseball press. The worst of that is long over — most baseball writers now accept that general take — and it’s actually notable now when someone whips out a decade-old criticism of sabermetrics and other Baseball Prospectusy things.
Silver is reliving the bad old days in the political arena, however, as in recent weeks a healthy portion of the political punditry has become consumed with attacking Silver, his methods, his conclusions and his tone. While I don’t have nearly the investment in the political stuff as I do the baseball stuff, as far as I can tell, most of the criticism of Silver’s work is based on (a) a basic misunderstanding of statistics and what they can and cannot prove; and (b) a resentment of sorts that someone from the outside, as opposed to political writers who have made their bones pressing the flesh, is making headlines and earning a paycheck in their business.
Gee, sound familiar?
I am not going to jump into the specifics of that debate here because this is a baseball blog and not a political one, but the broad strokes of it all are instructive for our purposes. The best summary of it I’ve seen so far — one which actually explains why these camps fight the way they do as opposed to merely arguing up one side or down the other — comes from Mark Coddington, who has a great post up today talking about it all.
The executive summary: when someone gets their information and their authority from being on the inside, they are inevitably wary, and often hostile to those who seek to play in their sandbox without getting their information and authority from the inside themselves.
I would also add that those on the outside have historically tended to be overly dismissive of information from people who work on the inside, and have their own history of hostility toward their inside counterparts. There are differences in how that is all manifested — one side clearly is the establishment here and one side the newcomers, which shapes the rhetoric of it all — but it’s mostly a fight about how one comes by information and what one considers to be legitimate information.
It’s a fascinating topic. One which I think serves all of us who care about the information we get and are critical of its sources. And Coddington, I think, does a great job of laying it all out without getting sucked into the minutiae of the actual warring camps.