Nate Silver’s Joyless FiveThirtyEight Isn’t Expanding Journalism — It’s Reducing It

In Creativity, Inc., the new book on Pixar’s creative culture by Pixar head Ed Catmull, the name behind movies like Toy Story and Ratatouille and a man who holds a PhD in computer science, rails against relying solely on data:

There are limits to data, however, and some people rely on it too heavily. Analyzing it correctly is difficult, and it is dangerous to assume that you always know what it means. It is very easy to find false patterns in data. Instead, I prefer to think of data as one way of seeing … The problem comes when people think that data paints a full picture, leading them to ignore what they can’t see.

W know what this talk about data leads us to: Nate Silver. He created his own niche in journalism by figuring out how to translate statistics and data to political horse races, outdoing the established old-timers at their own game at a crucial time for journalism’s future. He is best known for disrupting politics with his scary, pinpoint accuracy regarding the elections in 2008 and 2012, and he continues to threaten the narratives that journalists are writing for upcoming elections. He’s been his own brand, he’s been a brand inside The New York Times, and with the recent debut of the splashy, “foxy” FiveThirtyEight as an ESPN offshoot, he’s the figurehead his own independent brand that will cover Politics, Science, Life, Economics, and Sports.

FiveThirtyEight, the reboot, is a baby website. And Nate Silver, with his bestselling-book bravado and his willingness to say “later” to The New York Times, is a really, really appealing target. From Al-Jazeera America: “‘We’re not sociopaths,’ Silver has said, but that’s not something that someone who isn’t often accused of being a sociopath usually has to say.” Silver works as our “public statistician,” but whether his appeal will translate beyond becoming the center of all data journalism remains to be seen. Paul Krugman, Politico, and The New Republic have filed piece after piece pointing out FiveThirtyEight’s weaknesses and trying to take him down. Regarding Krugman, Silver responded with a chart.

But today, The New Republic ran an asinine piece that shouted, “Leave Nate Silver Alone!” in a tone that was mostly reminiscent of Chris Crocker begging for us to be nice to Britney Spears on YouTube. The point that Danny Vinik makes, in so many words, is that Nate Silver is expanding journalism with his focus on data and Moneyball-ish stories.

But the very problem with FiveThirtyEight, as it stands so far, is that it’s not expansive, or generous of spirit. Nor is the writing particularly good, or interesting, or lively, unless you like reading professors explaining news in the most boring terms possible. (It is the difference between Obama the law-professor wonk and Obama the guy making a moving speech, and it often involves mentioning real, human people’s real experience.) FiveThirtyEight’s approach reduces the world to numbers and data. It makes everything into a Fantasy Baseball League death march of statistics, above human error and above human stories. In a world where we’re all very connected, someone who can explain black and white results, as Silver does, can be necessary and useful — on certain subjects. But that leaves out the shades of gray, where the meat of human stories lies.

There’s something joyless about Silver’s approach to explaining the world. It’s not about people and their stories in his account — it’s what their actions can be whittled down to. And while that’s all fine for sports and maybe even politics, the world is not sports, and it can’t be reduced to sports. (One can see this Silver approach is creeping into all categories: imagine going to a GQ-sponsored men’s clothing event, where guys try to couch their burgeoning metrosexual clothes obsession in ideas like “denim weight” and “American made,” nerding it out in order to justify the effort.)

Funnily enough, the arena in which Silver’s approach to journalism doesn’t work yet is one that could be quantifiable, maybe, but that also requires lots of schmoozing, hustling, and shaping an actual narrative: the movies. Silver has been the most fallible when it comes to Oscar predictions — remember when he ruined your Oscar pool in 2009? His results improved in 2013 when he looked at the endless rounds of precursor awards, but he still called Steven Spielberg as the Best Director for Lincoln, above the eventual winner Ang Lee. This year, he created a super-boring chart about “what Best Picture winners have in common.” Writers like Nathaniel Rogers and Mark Harris are much more trustworthy when it comes to the Oscars, but as an employee of ESPN, Disney, and ABC — which airs the Oscars — Silver is very likely on the road to being an Oscar prognosticator, even though movies seem like the last thing on his wonky mind.

If Silver followed the Oscars at all, he would know what gets someone up on the podium, accepting their award: it’s story. Not in the reality TV sense of the word, per se, but a narrative that’s something like “it’s time” or “I lost all this weight” or “I am Daniel Day-Lewis.” A story that can appeal to a lot of old men, on top of it. (There’s a reason my parents are killer at their Oscar pool.) It’s not simply about the best performance or the best film. It never is. Since there have been dedicated Oscar pundits, there’s been far less fun at the Oscars, fewer Marisa Tomei-like surprises — and that’s OK. But add Silver’s data analysis on top of it and it gets totally un-fun.

Again, FiveThirtyEight is in its early stages. Maybe it gets better, and creates its own lane for journalism. Frankly, I expect it to, once it finds the right story that’s something along the lines of Moneyball. Or once the elections come around again. But watching a site build itself around a man with the charisma of a robot is disconcerting for journalists and people who like stories. It feels like one step forward for data, and one step back for human connection. In Nate Silver’s world, everything is baseball.