Nate Silver and Objectivity vs “Objectivity”

Jim Naureckas has a very important observation at FAIR on Nate Silver’s problems with the journalistic culture.

Here was the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank (FAIR Blog, 11/5/12):
“There’s Nate Silver, a statistician-blogger at the New York Times, who predicts with scientific precision that President Obama will win 303 electoral votes and beat Romney by 2 percentage points in the popular vote…. The truth is anybody who claims to know what is going to happen on Election Day is making it up and counting on being lucky.”

The thing is, Silver didn’t think you could use polls to project the outcome of elections because he had a mystical faith in the power of polling–rather, he had looked at a large number of pre-election polls and found that they had a consistent correlation to the results on Election Day. But this kind of empiricism is weirdly frowned upon in journalism circles; the pundits denouncing Silver as a joke or would-be wizard in 2012 seemingly didn’t even bother to go back and check how he had done in 2008. (He had called all but one state, Indiana, correctly.)

This is what I like to describe as the difference between objectivity and “objectivity.” Objectivity is the belief that there is a real world out there that’s more or less knowable; the “objectivity” that journalists practice holds that it’s impossible to know what’s real, so all you can do is report the claims made by various (powerful) people.

The article is entitled “Nate Silver Didn’t Fit In at the New York Times Because He Believed in the Real World”. More at the link.


  1. Michael, your blockquote tags must be messed up above. I was about to credit you with the paragraph about "objectivity versus 'Objectivity'" until I went (by happy accident actually!) to the FAIR article.

    [ Fixed. Thanks! ]

  2. Pingback: Objectivity – A Few Things Ill Considered

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