A Data-Driven World

news reporter

“[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.

Vox (Updated)

I try to not ascribe motive to the actions of others, but sometimes it is hard not to. Take Ezra Klein’s decision to hire Brandon Ambrosino for the news blog site, Vox.

Now, aside from Ezra (may I call you Ezra?) trying to fill in coverage areas with science, policy, reporters hired recently, he hired openly gay Ambrosino (presumably to cover gay issues). But when you look into Ambrosino’s work, it becomes clear that he is not exactly a spokesperson for gay rights. He really might be a self-loathing character out of Boys in the Band. Let’s look into this:

  • Hails from a deeply religious and conservative family
  • Attended Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University
  • Wrote an apologia for the University, “it’s not as bad as you might think” which sort of put Ambrosino on the radar of Conservatives
  • Says that there is nothing anti-gay about not wanting to give gay people marriage rights
  • Declared that he would go fishing with the Duck Dynasty star — after that man’s homophobic rant
  • Defended Alec Baldwin’s critics when Baldwin used gay slurs against a photographer
  • Claimed that he chose to be gay (and gave more fuel to the fundies’ claim that it is a lifestyle choice and not innate)
  • Finds “ex-gay therapy interesting”

Maybe Ambrosino thinks he is edgy instead of self-loathing? The evidence suggests otherwise, but this is only a blog post, not a clinical diagnosis. I doubt very much that anything Ambrosino will write will speak for or even to the gay community, just for himself. I doubt that Ambrosino will develop much of a following from the Castro or Christopher Streets, either, but he probably will have the Xristian Xrazie demographic locked in.

And now onto motives that I try not to ascribe: I can only conclude that the reason one hires an apparently, self-loathing, gay man is because you are uncomfortable with gay people yourself, Ezra. And from reading the linked articles, Ambrosino is not that good a writer. You could have done better. Much better.

Everything I read about Vox tells me that my initial impression of Klein was right: sooner or later bloggers who sell out for access become the thing they mocked. Welcome home, Ezra.

(Equality Matters)


The Sunday Talkies is up at Crooks and Liars

blam-blam darth

As always, Nicole Belle has the rundown, and once again her head notes to the post are required reading.

Today Nicole takes on Maddow’s recent claim that “we” were all fooled by the bad intelligence that led us into the Iraq War, etc. But especially she takes on the claim that the media was fooled.

Bravo, and well done Nicole!

The only thing I would add is to carefully look at Face the Nation’s discussion of Ukraine: there is not one single person who is not a hawk or a neocon. It is really shocking that the breadth of opinion is from A to B and back again.

A Kinder, Gentler Fox News

According to Business Week, there is a disturbance in the Force:

The Next Ailes: Newsmax’s Chris Ruddy Preps TV Rival to Fox News

Here’s the take-away: Ruddy sees an opening in the cable news market for a conservative audience that feels Fox has turned too far to the right. Well, he could look to CNN to see how well it is doing (if this is one of their months to swing rightward).

Says Ruddy:

“Our goal is to be a little more boomer-oriented [TG: yeah, the Boomers never have a voice in anything], more information-based rather than being vituperative and polarizing,” he says. Ruddy says he can make NewsmaxTV profitable entirely through advertising and selling Newsmax’s consumer products over the air. It’s the same business model that’s been sucessful [sic] for QVC, Home Shopping Network, and numerous televangelists, but no one has tried it on cable news. He’s quick to add that he doesn’t need to beat Fox News, he just needs to shave off a little of its audience — particularly those conservatives who feel Fox has drifted too far to the right. “If we take 10 to 15 percent of the Fox audience,” he says. “and they are making $1 billion a year, then we are going to be hugely profitable.”

In the greater scheme of things, I’m always glad to watch wingnuts beat each other silly, it is a win-win in my opinion. And if Ruddy hurts Fox News in the wallet, all the better.

The problem of course, is that this assumes that there is a limited amount of crazy out there to be shared by a few cable channels, and I suspect it is not a closed system. Just like building freeways, no matter how many, they will always fill up.

Another Morning Quote

Scott Brown

In a brief interview Monday in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, the former Massachusetts senator [Scott Brown] said he was still seriously weighing whether to run in New Hampshire against Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and would “probably” make a decision before the June filing deadline.

Good idea, Sparky.

(Breathlessly reported by Politico)

Dancing with the Gregory

Death of the Media

Why is this even positioned as a debate? It just legitimizes the know-nothing of climate denial.

Blackburn made assertions without presenting any evidence. Nye presented evidence. That said, Dancin’ Dave gives Blackburn more time to present her industry perspective, and then calls it quits.