Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Here Comes Mean Aunt Polly

with 12 comments

The “Nate Silver phenomenon” is a perfect example of Second Gilded Age puerility, a form of political commentary that is concerned not with meaning or ethics but rather with phenomenality, especially as translated into abstract forms, chief among them numbers. When I use “puerility” in this way, I don’t mean it pejoratively but literally: this is a form of boyishness, as boyishness has been constructed in U.S. history. It’s concerned first and foremost with abstract play—even a certain virtuosity with play—and it is entirely bound up its own game. And it is a game that may be a little ruthless, a game that implicitly must be played by a white, boyish figure, a Tom Sawyer who insists on playing even when a slave’s freedom is at stake. Silver’s Wunderkind image creates kind of persona from whom we are prepared to receive statistical models; it is entirely appropriate that his statistical forecasting began not in politics but in sports….

Natalia Cecire vs. the passion of Nate Silver.

Written by gerrycanavan

November 2, 2012 at 10:19 am

12 Responses

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  1. Look, it’s not like Silver is the only political journalist out there. He serves a specific function, one that others have served before him. Since we’re taught to periodize everything, claiming that he’s a sign of “second gilded age puerility” is, I’m sure, gratifying. But it sets off my bullshit detector, in the same way most attempts at periodization set off my bullshit detector.

    Alex Greenberg

    November 2, 2012 at 10:55 am

    • I don’t see the piece as being primarily or essentially about periodization, personally.

      gerrycanavan

      November 2, 2012 at 11:43 am

      • See my second comment. Nate Silver is a straw man. 538 was a response to the numbers magic that public news personalities were constantly performing before elections – what amounts to reading tea leaves. Blaming Silver for distracting political debates from what matters is like blaming the Enron whistle-blower for not allowing the company to just get on with its business.

        Alex Greenberg

        November 2, 2012 at 4:12 pm

      • If the question were: are Joan Didion’s writings on politics worth more than Nate Silver’s? the answer would be obvious. But it seems worthless to dwell on that.

        Alex Greenberg

        November 2, 2012 at 4:15 pm

  2. If Silver does something good for election coverage, it’s this: he takes away the ersatz suspense that the news networks try to keep constant. This allows us to worry about what Natalia Cecire wants us to worry about: actual issues.

    Alex Greenberg

    November 2, 2012 at 11:01 am

    • erm, if you read in the comments on her post (and i think the post is fantastic), the point is made that even if the intention (or ‘predicted outcome’) of what silver’s doing is to take away the suspense in order to allow a focus on actual issues, that’s not, in fact, the de facto effect.

      Lindsey

      November 2, 2012 at 4:34 pm

      • Yeah, I like the piece a lot too, precisely because I feel so implicated by it. I consume all this media exactly as I would events in a game, or as other people consume sports.

        gerrycanavan

        November 2, 2012 at 4:39 pm

      • It’s still shooting the messenger. It’s not like: we had substance, then Nate Silver came, and now people only want to talk about who’s going to win. Ted Turner ruined political discourse (i.e., CNN) long before Nate Silver came on the scene.

        Alex Greenberg

        November 2, 2012 at 4:45 pm

      • maybe i’m wrong, but that seems to me to be a little bit of a misreading of her argument–which as i see it is about the phenomenon surrounding silver and the misguided faith in and understandings of statistical modeling that that phenomenon has exposed. (she doesn’t seem particularly that interested in silver himself.)

        Lindsey

        November 2, 2012 at 4:49 pm

      • Fair enough. And I admit, I even like her closing paragraph: “A Nieman Lab defense of Silver by Jonathan Stray celebrates that “FiveThirtyEight has set a new standard for horse race coverage” of elections. That this can be represented as an unqualified good speaks to the power of puerility in the present epistemological culture. But we oughtn’t consider better horse race coverage the ultimate aim of knowledge; somehow we have inadvertently landed ourselves back in the world of sports. An election is not, in the end, a game. Coverage should not be reducible to who will win? Here are some other questions: How will the next administration govern? How will the election affect my reproductive health? When will women see equal representation in Congress? How will the U.S. extricate itself from permanent war, or will it even try? These are questions with real ethical resonance. FiveThirtyEight knows better than to try to answer with statistics.”

        But unlike Cecire, I really don’t think these “who’s going to win” games detract from the substance of the election. What detracts from the substance of the election is deliberate obfuscation and vagueness on the part of the candidates, their media teams, and the major networks. The horse-race coverage is just a side-effect, not that bad a side-effect if you ask me, because at least it gets people thinking about how this stuff (the “game” of politics) works, even if that’s not its stated purpose.

        Alex Greenberg

        November 2, 2012 at 4:57 pm

      • “What detracts from the substance of the election is deliberate obfuscation and vagueness on the part of the candidates, their media teams, and the major networks.”

        So, in other words, they’re not playing the game right?

        gerrycanavan

        November 2, 2012 at 5:07 pm

      • They are playing it right. That’s the problem.

        Alex Greenberg

        November 2, 2012 at 5:18 pm


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