Nate Silver, Daoist Data Master
In the dying days of the 2012 campaign, conservative pundits like Karl Rove and Joe Scarborough fixated on an unlikely enemy – blogger Nate Silver. Bad choice.
Silver, a Vegas-trained poll analyst and data scryer, angered conservatives by predicting Obama’s victory – with astonishing accuracy, as it turned out. This year, he correctly predicted all 50 states and 31 of 33 Senate seats. In 2008, he was 49 of 50 states and got all 35 Senate races. Internet wags are jokingly wondering if he is a witch.
The strange twist is that Silver is not a partisan; he predicted the Republican midterm gains in 2010 just as accurately. In fact, his rare missteps – such as this year’s Senate races in Montana and North Dakota, and Indiana’s presidential tally in 2008 – usually favor Republicans.
To step out of today’s partisan bickering and ideology, let’s look at Silver from the perspective of Taoist philosophy, based on two books written around 300 years before Christ’s birth. That, too, was a time of bitter political fighting; historians call it “The Warring States period,” before China had ever been unified. I have no idea if Silver has even heard of Taoism, but he exemplifies many of its principles.
Those classic books, the Tao Te Ching and Chuang Tzu (or Daodejing and Zhuangzi, in more modern spelling) use parables and enigmatic, paradoxical sayings to describe a way of acting and being. Americans like to dress it up as mystical and exotic, but Taoism is a relentlessly grounded philosophy. It celebrates humble people who stay home rather than travel, who gain wisdom by practicing their craft diligently and attentively, not by higher educatiion. The heroes are butchers and wheel makers, not rich or learned men. At a time when leaders were macho warlords, it celebrated the feminine and was nearly pacifist.
More than anything, these books teach that improving the world starts with improving yourself – perceiving clearly, avoiding traps of ego, fame, emotion and riches – and understanding how the world works. In the 1960s, this was misunderstood as “going with the flow.” In my humble opinion, it’s more like “don’t fight the tide; surf it.”
Nate Silver is a diligent, patient, modest workman. He just happens to work with data instead of wood or meat. Like a Taoist sage, he ignores the conventional wisdom and crafts his raw material, relentlessly, until he sees the patterns hidden within. Rather than trying to shape reality, he accepts its nature and plumbs its deeper currents.
The news media presents a presidential race as a bunch of isolated snapshots of the “horse race,” manufacturing phony drama over predictable ups and downs (a post-convention bump, for example) to make even runaway elections seem closer and more exciting. Silver sees (and quantifies) the flow of elections, using the known effects of economic data, debates, party conventions, time left until the election, and other factors to adjust poll results. Some pollsters, such as Gallup, change their predictions at the last minute when results are more clear. Silver’s predictions are yet more accurate (compared to other prognosticators) the further away from the election you are. He tells you not only who he thinks will win, and by how much, but also what percentage of certainty the model has.
Just as importantly, he observes human behavior – especially his own – and works with that nature, too. Rove and Scarborough accused Silver of bias, because he openly preferred Obama to Romney. What Silver understands is that all humans are biased. Instead of pretending otherwise, he factors bias into his calculations.
One way is that he constructs a mathematical model at the beginning of each campaign season, with all of his adjustments. After he has built this model, he accepts the numbers and will not change them, even if they seem wrong. (He does comment in his blog posts, though.) This is specifically to prevent his natural human emotions from altering his judgment, as happens with so many other pundits.
Republicans are not wrong that the New York Times leans Democratic. But what they miss is that the newspaper is the leading news source in this country because it’s good, not because it’s liberal. They get it right, and have done so for decades, regardless of whether their reporters sympathize with the right or the left. And this is not an exclusively liberal trait. The Economist magazine offers a very sharp — and often amusing — conservative perspective, and the Wall Street Journal (excluding its editorial page) was an excellent, slightly conservative news source until Rupert Murdoch took it over.
The biggest weakness of Fox News and fellow conservative movement mouthpieces and pundits is not that they trend right; it’s that they refuse to acknowledge their bias. Fox’s slogan (“fair and balanced’) would be comical if so many conservatives did not literally believe it, which makes it tragic. Only by accepting and adapting to reality — including the reality of our own biases, and the possibility that our opponents might be right — can we perceive correctly and act accordingly.
Silver honed his technique in the most brutal, unsentimental arena we know – Las Vegas. He began crunching baseball numbers, as in the movie Moneyball, then made his living playing poker in casinos. No bias or connections will help you there. Vegas money is the grinding stone of reality, and any bias or error will quickly be exploited by opportunists happy to make coin off of your emotions and inaccuracies.
Some conservatives have attacked Silver – who is openly gay — as effeminate, which seems like a complete non sequitur. Silver has been on TV a lot, and doesn’t read as effeminate to me, but he does lack the macho bluster and preening so popular on Fox News. Daoism has a lot to say about gender. The Tao Te Ching advised readers to “Know the masculine, but keep to the feminine,” which was radical advice in 300 B.C.E. The point was avoiding ego gratification and other stupid boy failings, focusing instead on your work. Silver has certainly done that.
When TV host Joe Scarborough – a failed congressman turned failed prognosticator – called him a fraud, Silver immediately offered a thousand dollar bet, with the proceeds going to the Red Cross. No taunting or name calling; he was happy to let reality be the judge. Scarborough, the macho guy, backed right down, suggesting they both give $1,000 to the Red Cross regardless of results. Silver instead doubled the bet to $2,000, giving just as much to the Red Cross; Scarborough wasn’t man enough to accept.
Cool, confident, and rock solid. Just like the fighting roosters trained by the Daoist master in Chuang Tzu, who weren’t ready until they stopped strutting, ruffling feathers, or reacting at all when they approached a battle.
“Now he is nearly ready.
When another bird crows,
his eyes don’t even flicker.
He stands immobile like a block of wood.
He is a mature fighter.
Other birds will take one look at him and run.”
There’s a lot to say about how Republican strategists, especially Rove, roam away from reality, whether for tactical reasons or simply solace. Too much to fit into this post, in fact, but we’ll get back to it. For now, it’s enough to note Nate Silver’s very simple and very difficult discipline — accepting and following reality as closely as possible, and discarding everything else that might be a distraction.