Nate Silver's highly anticipated new site, FiveThirtyEight.com, launched on Monday to great fanfare. As an opening act, FiveThirtyEight posted a sprawling manifesto, written by Silver, in which the former New York Times star promises that his new website will "make the news a little nerdier" and won't be like "opinion journalism," a school of journalism that, according to Silver, "doesn’t seem to abide by any standard at all."
Yet despite Silver's well-won reputation and the current trendiness of what he calls "data journalism," FiveThirtyEight has so far failed to impress at least three influential readers. One of them is a journalist famous for in many ways embodying everything Silver created FiveThirtyEight to push against; but the two others are far less personally invested in criticizing Silver, and offer their unhappiness with something of a heavy heart.
The one predictable Silver hater is none other than Salon's chief hack of 2013, Politico's Mike Allen. While Allen doesn't have the inclination to directly challenge Silver and FiveThirtyEight, he has a clear zinger in the Tuesday edition of his influential daily "playbook" email. Beneath a headline that says, in part, "NATE SILVER takes the high road," Allen writes this:
NATE SILVER’s FiveThirtyEight debuts, finally giving smart people something to read on the web: “You Just Had Sex, So How Many Calories Did You Burn?”
Well, OK then! Take that, Nate Silver, you nasty sex-haver, you!
Silver's aforementioned other two critics, however, are not nearly as glib in their criticism. They've also got considerably more authority when it comes to the value of "data journalism" and Silver's approach in general. Their names? Paul Krugman and Tyler Cowen.
Of all three, Cowen, a libertarian economist and celebrated blogger, is perhaps the most surprising Silver critic. Writing at his blog on Monday afternoon, Cowen described FiveThirtyEight's content thus far as being composed of “tweener” pieces, which he describes as "too superficial for smart and informed readers, yet on topics which are too abstruse for the more casual readers."
"I have long been a fan of Nate Silver," Cowen notes, "but so far I don’t think this is working."
Building off of Cowen's post, Paul Krugman also weighed in on Tuesday morning on his New York Times blog, and also wrote that Silver's project was faltering. Noting how Cowen is "not impressed," Krugman writes that he is "sorry to say that I had the same reaction." Citing Silver's manifesto, Krugman worries that "it looks as if the Silverites have misunderstood their mission."
Critiquing what he sees as FiveThirtyEight's belief in letting data speak for itself, Krugman writes, "If you think the data are speaking for themselves, what you’re really doing is implicit theorizing, which is a really bad idea (because you can’t test your assumptions if you don’t even know what you’re assuming.)"
After selecting a post on corporate cash hoarding as a particular example of what he hopes FiveThirtyEight won't continue to do, Krugman writes, "'Neener neener, people have been citing a number that was wrong' is just not helpful." "Tell me something meaningful!" he continues. "Tell me why the data matter!"