“[Giles] probably sat in math class thinking, ‘There should be more math. This could be mathier.’” — Buffy
I’ve been enjoying the wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Village Punditocracy, fretting their noggins to the bone over Nate Silver’s relaunched 538 Blog, that purports to be data-driven news.
But the best existential crisis, screaming into the void as it were, has to be the reaction from Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic who really seems to be taking it personally. And so he is shaking his fist at the clouds and muttering darkly at the kids to stay off his lawn (Emphasis mine):
The quality of opinion journalism in America is a matter of concern for opinion journalists, too. Opinion, after all, is easy. In a democratic society, moreover, opinion is holy. “It’s just my opinion”: with those magical words, which are designed to change the subject, Americans regularly seek sanctuary from intellectual pressure on their utterances. Their opinions do not deserve such immunity, of course, and neither do the opinions of columnists. The state of American punditry is not strong. A lot of it is lazy, tendentious, and lost to style. But Silver’s outburst is nonetheless a slander. There are all sorts of pundits just as there are all sorts of quants. The editorial pages of The Washington Post in particular are regularly filled with analytical and empirical seriousness. But Silver wishes to impugn not only the quality of opinion journalism, he wishes to impugn also its legitimacy. The new technology, which produces numbers the way plants produce oxygen, has inspired a new positivism, and he is one of its princes. He dignifies only facts. He honors only investigative journalism, explanatory journalism, and data journalism. He does not take a side, except the side of no side. He does not recognize the calling of, or grasp the need for, public reason; or rather, he cannot conceive of public reason except as an exercise in statistical analysis and data visualization. He is the hedgehog who knows only one big thing. And his thing may not be as big as he thinks it is.
Phew! I hope he remembered to breathe!
Paul Krugman wants some context around the data, which is not a bad point at all:
I feel bad about picking on a young staffer, but I think this piece on corporate cash hoards — which is the site’s inaugural economic analysis — is a good example. The post tells us that the much-cited $2 trillion corporate cash hoard has been revised down by half a trillion dollars. That’s kind of interesting, I guess, although it’s striking that the post offers neither a link to the data nor a summary table of pre- and post-revision numbers; I’m supposed to know my way around these numbers, and I can’t figure out exactly which series they’re referring to. (Use FRED!)
More to the point, however, what does this downward revision tell us? We’re told that the “whole narrative” is gone; which narrative? Is the notion that profits are high, but investment remains low, no longer borne out by the data? (I’m pretty sure it’s still true.) What is the model that has been refuted?
“Neener neener, people have been citing a number that was wrong” is just not helpful. Tell me something meaningful! Tell me why the data matter!
In my past, I remember having a calculus teacher who told us students that everything, every question can be expressed as an equation, ultimately, which means ultimately as data. From Craps in Vegas (two dice, six sides so 36 possible combinations; however there are more ways to roll a 7—craps—than there are to roll a 2) to Archimedes creating a Death Ray to fight off invading Romans’ war ships, using sunlight and mirrors in an array (like frying ants under a microscope), it all can be attributed to numbers.
But sometimes you need to roll the dice, and other times the Romans might sneak in at night.
Like my favorite book as a kid, The Phantom Tollbooth, words and numbers are not mortal enemies, but neither is much good without the other when you are trying to understand the world. I think Krugman has the greater point–and he used words to make it.