Shooting the Messenger's Numbers: Nate Silver's Struggle (The Redux)

Nate Silver, the famed statistician behind the FiveThirtyEight election forecast blog at the New York Times, is wrong. And gay. At least according to the more virulent elements of right-wing media. That he's wrong is only confirmed by his gayness, just as surely as his gayness is the source of his wrongness. Nate Silver is a tautology of being queer as hell about everything.

Hardcore conservatism's loathing of science has lurked around GOP politics for so long that its easy to forget how nasty it is. Over 40 years, that disdain has slid from "pointy-headed intellectuals" to something very like a jock slapping a math book out of a kid's hands and saying, "NICE NUMBERS, FAG." But this is what you do when you can't crunch the numbers yourself or when they will not save you. You shoot the messenger.

By now you might have heard the angry arguments against Silver's projections, which have held steady for months with an over 70% probability of Barack Obama winning next week's election. There was MSNBC's Starbucks Street Team Leader Joe Scarborough sputtering out his squinched-up face about how NOBODY on Obama's team thought they had better than a 50.1% chance of winning. Scarborough evidently doesn't know the difference between the percentage of the electorate that Obama will probably win and the probability of winning.

Then of course there's Dean Chambers, the Meat Loaf of numbers, who runs "Unskewed Polls," in which he corrects for bias in polls by making them say things that don't make him angry. He wrote:

Nate Silver is a man of very small stature, a thin and effeminate man with a soft-sounding voice that sounds almost exactly like the "Mr. New Castrati" voice used by Rush Limbaugh on his program. In fact, Silver could easily be the poster child for the New Castrati in both image and sound. Nate Silver, like most liberal and leftist celebrities and favorites, might be of average intelligence but is surely not the genius he's made out to be.

Don't you get it? Nate Silver is wrong, because Nate Silver sounds like a goddamn queer. (Note: Yes, a castrato and a gay man are not the same thing, but this is Rush playing with effeminacy via dog whistle.) And how does Chambers know that? Because he sounds like the straw-man character of some unmanned intellectual that a ruggedly obese viagra-smuggling drug addict thinks is funny. Sounding like a woman or a gay man is effectively the same as being a dead man to the true-believer hard-right audience Chambers and Rush play to, so this is what works. This is how you shoot the messenger. You don't have to worry about Nate Silver, because he isn't even alive.

Chambers and Rush need to do this, because they don't have numbers. (Well, Chambers does, but they're generated in the same way that a kid turns an F into an A by drawing an extra bar down the right side of it.) They're hardly the only ones. As David Roher points out in an excellent piece at Deadspin, this kind of fact-free raging at unmanly number crunchers differs only in topic and intensity from the treatment Silver received as a baseball statistician. There, Silver's analysis impeached the lazy dramas of HEART and HUSTLE that bad sportswriters traded in. And, for the last few months, he's been the turd in the punchbowl of Beltway horserace pundits, who need to blast, "MITT IS WINNING!," "NOW MITT IS LOSING!" headlines to push pageloads, and who have to pretend not to see that "over 70% probability" number sitting quietly but firmly at FiveThirtyEight.

Those analysts' antipathy is understandable, though. Sure, they're hacky and stupid, but they just want to keep the good jobs they've earned by being hacky and stupid. Here comes the steam-powered hammer, and it's going to dig railroad tunnels while John Henry screams "MITTMENTUM!" and "IT'S THE ECONOMY STUPID" until he dies with an iPad and a Situation Room clicker in his hand.

But Chambers, Rush and others' motives in attacking Silver are peculiar. It's not as if their audiences want to believe Silver's projections, so simply ignoring him affords him no prominence or credence. On the other hand, attacking him so suddenly and with such consensus only does two things, both of which are negative.

One, they make Silver important, an authority. There's no reason to shoot the messenger unless he's bringing you news that you cannot stand to hear, and there's no reason to react so violently to him unless the news is probably true. You can laugh off or ignore someone so wide off the mark, but when you stand from the throne and start calling for an execution, it only makes people wonder what power the messenger holds.

Two, if anything, ignoring Silver's numbers while proffering poll results that are definitionally counterfactuals only robs the Romney campaign of real urgency to its get-out-the-vote efforts. If Romney's projected to win by 7% and by over 100 electoral votes, Rush's dittoheads might stay home. If anything, Silver's numbers could be used as a motivational tool. Certainly don't claim that they're wholly valid, but perhaps pair them with some conspiracy about how all the blacks in Ohio will vote twice to make his projections come true. The GOP has always prided itself on its get-out-the-vote efforts, and in the last few decades has almost branded successfully converting 1-2% margins into victories via a relentless ground game.

So there's no real margin in simply looking at the numbers and claiming that the opposite is true. Unless you don't really care anymore if Romney loses. Or unless any mathematical challenge leaves you standing impotent before it.

Illustration by Jim Cooke.