Thursday, August 1, 2019

What Nate silver has in common with Bob Dylan, Tom Wolfe, and Pauline Kael.

I don't remember if I ever got around to it, but for years I've been meaning to write an Andrew Gelman style class post on people whose work is great but whose imitators drag down the field.

I go back and forth on Bob Dylan here. There is no counting how many coffee house hacks have convinced themselves that the obscure lyrics they are croaking out are the next Tangled Up In Blue. On the other hand, a lot of brilliant artists have done some of their best work inspired by Dylan.

With Tom Wolfe and Pauline Kael, however, the divide in quality between the originals and the imitators is much more sharp. For more than 50 years now, we have suffered through journalists and critics who have annoyingly affected the tics and mannerisms of both writers, while having none of the talent or insight and being completely unwilling to put in the hard work of research and revision that made Wolfe and Kael so formidable.

I don't want to oversell Nate Silver at this point (he's no Bob Dylan) but he deserves great credit for his Innovations in the way we cover politics. He saw the fundamental problem with remarkable clarity and understood the appropriate level of complexity needed for a solution. As a statistician, he has considerable limitations. When he strays too far from his areas of expertise such as when he writes about climate models, the dunning-kruger effect has a tendency to come down hard, but he does have a natural talent and an all too rare capacity to learn from his mistakes.

His success unfortunately has inspired a wave of data journalists who are more often than not terrible at their jobs. It turns out that being enamored with data and yet being bad statistics is often worse than ignoring data entirely.

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