New Media Alert: Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight

Slashdot is reporting that superstar statistician Nate Silver has officially launched his own website (another WordPress blog) call  If you’re a fan of applied mathematics and/or infomatics or just really interested in the numbers behind the news, it is well worth your time.  As Hugh Pickens said when referring the story to Slashdot:

After a parting of ways with the New York Times after calling 50 out of 50 states right in the 2012 elections, Nate Silver has relaunched FiveThirtyEight as a website dedicated to data journalism under the auspices of ESPN. Silver has expanded his staff from two full-time journalists to 20 and instead of focusing on politics exclusively FiveThirtyEight’s coverage will span five major subject areas — politics, economics, science, life and sports. According to Silver, his team has a broad set of skills and experience in methods that fall under the rubric of data journalism including statistical analysis, data visualization, computer programming and data-literate reporting. ‘One of our roles will be to critique incautious uses of statistics when they arise elsewhere in news coverage. At other times, we’ll explore ways that consumers can use data to their advantage and level the playing field against corporations and governments.’

Check it out.  It’s good stuff.  Numbers often reveal a truth otherwise unseen.  I was so impressed, I’m considering adding a blogroll widget just to list the site.

About Gene Howington

I write and do other stuff.
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22 Responses to New Media Alert: Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight

  1. Thanks for he heads-up, Gene!

  2. swarthmoremom says:

    Thanks. Been a follower of Nate Silver for years. I even went with his picks for the NCAA brackets one year. That did not turn out so well.

  3. I have 538 bookmarked and check it at least once every week or two whenever I want to look up some kind of trend, so I knew he was leaving the NYT for ESPN. Looking forward to the new and improved 538.

  4. bigfatmike says:

    ” I even went with his picks for the NCAA brackets one year. That did not turn out so well.”

    Followed his advice on the last presidential election. He was pretty close.

  5. swarthmoremom says:

    bfm, Yeah. I check him nearly every day in election season. There was some shock on the RIL blog about Obama’s margin of victory. 🙂

    • bigfatmike says:

      “There was some shock on the RIL blog about Obama’s margin of victory. :)”

      Speaking of shock, I still remember Rove’s on FOX air appeal for more time before Ohio was declared for Obama.

      Of course, we probably should not be surprised at such a response from a person who declares words to the effect ‘when we act, we create our own reality’. Sometimes reality is so uncooperative.

  6. Mike Spindell says:

    This is great news. I always followed the old 538, but stopped when he joined the Times. I’m going to bookmark it now.

  7. Blouise says:

    Thanks Gene.

  8. Oky1 says:

    I bookmarked it Gene.

    I bet I know what they need that I can help them with on their new site, they probable need me post a bunch of Infowars/Alex Jones on their site.

    And since my time is limited I will not have as much time to post Jones stuff here. 🙂

    You like win/wins don’tcha?

    Seriously, here’s a good site I like that goes great with your weather sites. Let it load & click around on it for your location.

  9. I love the wind map. Another guy, Cameron Beccario, liked it so much he developed one that uses data from the Global Forecast System. The GFS updates every three hours. You can use your mouse to tip, twirl and use the scroll to zoom in on the globe, just as you can do with Google Earth. It is slower loading because there are so much data in the image.,3.46,104

  10. Yeah, the site is full of neat stuff. In fact, I started a column on a major (and I do mean major) physics discovery this morning, but I spent most of my spare (read: writing) time dorking around at 538. 😈 :mrgreen:

  11. My friend is a physicist. She wrote this piece on Daily Kos yesterday. She got her PhD from Rutgers. She is also married to a theoretical physicist. She says writing for a general interest publication is really hard…she explains that in the comments.

  12. BTW, her initials are “RB.” She has coughing fits of laughter over the 137….she thinks it is one of the funniest things in physics. She knew Feynman.

  13. I’ll check that out, Chuck.

    It really is a big deal. Max Tegmark wrote a nice bit over at HuffPo on it. It not only is spectacular evidence of inflation, but of quantum gravity, M-theory and Everett’s Many-worlds interpretation of QM. Considering I’m predisposed to like M-theory and have been enamored of Everett’s work since I read it as a teen, I’m thrilled. They only made the announcement of the BICEP2 findings on Monday. I’m going to finish my column on it tomorrow (damn you and your distracting infographics, Nate Silver!).

    • bigfatmike says:

      A little checking shows it is not the first time Silver has been criticized regarding global warming.

      And the criticism seems to go to fundamentals – Silver’s understanding of basic facts – not just his opinions.

      Here is a review of Silver’s book by Micheal Mann, Director of Penn State Earth System Science Center, who seems to have a lot of respect for Silver, but also a lot of disappointment:

      And Krugman in his on blog makes some pretty reasonable criticisms of Casselman, Silver’s economics expert, and his use of data in “The Piles of Cash That Never Existed ”

      I suppose the lesson is that it is easy to get off track when you go too far beyond your area of understanding – even when you try to respect the data. And that every blog has some rough spots starting out.

      But I thought Silver was really good cutting through the nonsense regarding the last election.

  14. Elaine M. says:

    FiveThirtyEight Apologizes On Behalf Of Controversial Climate Science Writer
    By Michael Calderone
    Posted: 03/28/2014

    NEW YORK — Two prominent climate scientists say Roger Pielke Jr., a controversial writer at Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight site, sent emails threatening possible legal action in response to their criticism of his findings for the data-driven news site.

    Pielke says it’s “ridiculous” to characterize the emails as threats against Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, and Dr. Kevin Trenberth, a distinguished senior climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. FiveThirtyEight, however, apologized to both men.

    “Roger is a freelance contributor and his private communications do not represent FiveThirtyEight,” Silver said in a statement to HuffPost. “We had candid conversations with Michael Mann and Kevin Trenberth. We made clear that Roger’s conversations with them did not reflect FiveThirtyEight’s editorial values.”

    Revelations of the private correspondence are particularly poorly timed for FiveThirtyEight, which has been dogged online throughout most of its 11-day existence by the climate change dispute. The controversy was given increased exposure Thursday night on “The Daily Show.”

    It began with Pielke’s March 19 article, “Disasters Cost More Than Ever — But Not Because of Climate Change.” Pielke’s claim that the cost from natural disasters has risen because of increased wealth, and not because climate change is making weather events more extreme, was quickly challenged by several scientists and experts, including Professor John P. Abraham on The Huffington Post.

    Pielke, a political scientist at the University of Colorado, has been called a climate change skeptic, a label he doesn’t apply to himself. And Pielke’s no stranger to controversy within the scientific community. Typically, though, such disagreements over data and methodology are confined to academia and science press.

    But Pielke’s piece was published on day three of the FiveThirtyEight relaunch, and media watchers had been anxiously waiting to see if Silver’s revamped site, which had been in development for eight months, would live up to the hype.

  15. Elaine M. says:

    Statistics and Climate Science: Roger Pielke Missed the Mark
    By John P. Abraham, Ph.D.
    Professor, University of St. Thomas
    Posted: 03/27/2014

    Did Roger Pielke fumble, trip, or score an own-goal?

    In his inaugural post on Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight website, Roger Pielke Jr. put forth a number of arguments suggesting that many changes to extreme weather are not occurring as our climate changes. Pielke offers:

    “When you read that the cost of disasters is increasing, it’s tempting to think that it must be because more storms are happening. They’re not. All the apocalyptic ‘climate porn’ in your Facebook feed is solely a function of perception.”

    A review of the evidence shows that his view is not supported by much of the scientific literature.

    The Pielke post has received a very large and negative reaction from scientists here and here for example, and from comments at the FiveThirtyEight blog. I wrote to Nate Silver last week. Mr. Silver responded by kindly inviting me to write a response to be posted on the FiveThirtyEight website. I submitted this piece which went through editing with the FiveThirtyEight staff. Unfortunately, late in the game, they decided not to run my post. Therefore, I’m publishing it here. I will also state the editorial staff at FiveThirtyEight took great pains with my article and I believe they are committed to appropriately responding to the criticisms of Roger Pielke.

    Why has there been such a buzz about FiveThirtyEight and Roger Pielke Jr.? Likely because Pielke has a history of climate claims which have been criticized by scientists — not the type of hire many of us expected by the FiveThirtyEight team. Dr. Pielke, a political scientist (not a climate scientist), was recently called out by Dr. John Holdren for statements he made to congress on droughts.

    The central theme to Pielke’s post is that extreme weather costs are increasing but not because of climate change. They are increasing because we are wealthier; we have more to lose. He also writes that increasing storms are not occurring and the extreme weather which is attributable to climate change is not a significant cause of damage. Unfortunately, Roger Pielke’s views are at odds with many peer-reviewed studies that look at this, and they are at odds with some of the studies he cites in his article.

  16. Elaine M. says:


    I had read that. One has to wonder why Silver would select Pielke to be the individual to write about climate change for his new blog. The man is a political scientist.


    Obama Science Advisor John Holdren Schools Political Scientist Roger Pielke On Climate And Drought
    By Joe Romm
    March 3, 2014

    In an unprecedented move, the President’s Science Advisor, Dr. John P. Holdren, has published a devastating 6-page debunking of one of the country’s leading climate confusionists, Roger Pielke Jr.

    I’ll excerpt Holdren’s comprehensive critique, “Drought and Global Climate Change,” below. Worsening drought may be the climate impact that affects the most people in the coming decades, as I discussed in my 2011 literature review in the journal Nature. It is valuable to see the the subject laid out so clearly by the nation’s top scientist.

    Our understanding of drought and climate change is evolving pretty rapidly, so even the latest IPCC reports are already out of date. Having read much of the recent drought literature and interviewed many of the leading drought experts in the last few years, I can say that Holdren’s views are right in the mainstream of climatologists’ view of drought. I can think of no climate scientists who share Pielke’s startling assessment of Holdren’s views as “zombie science.”

    In fact, some drought experts believe the situation is considerably worse than is widely understood. As one top researcher on the climate-drought link confirmed with me recently, “The U.S. may never again return to the relatively wet conditions experienced from 1977 to 1999.”

    John Holdren is one of the most distinguished scientists in America. He is a past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Author of over 200 articles and papers, Holdren is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and a foreign member of the U.K.’s Royal Society.

    I have known Holdren for more than two decades, and not only does he have more breadth of knowledge on all things climate than most, he is very judicious in his choice of words.

    Roger Pielke Jr. is a political scientist who has publicly questioned the scientific integrity of more climate scientists than just about anyone else on the planet. He has smeared literally hundreds of scientists (as I document here).

    That is no doubt a key reason Pielke was included on Foreign Policy‘s “Guide to Climate Skeptics.” No doubt that’s why the websites that most prominently feature or reprint Pielke’s attacks are climate denial sites like WattsUpWithThat and ClimateDepot. It is also why he is probably the single most disputed and debunked person in the science blogosphere, especially on the subject of extreme weather and climate change (see here and here). Typical are:

  17. Elaine M. says:

    FiveThirtyEight’s disappointing science section
    Science journalism could use an infusion of analysis, but FiveThirtyEight isn’t yet doing it rigorously or objectively
    By Alexis Sobel Fitts

    The rest of the science section follows the same patterns. A piece assessing the freezing weather this winter as compared to historic temperatures isn’t wrong, but it’s a confusing version of a story published by other outlets during polar vortex hype in January. Other stories, like this one, on calories burned during sex, for example, have been covered well enough by other publications—if they needed to be covered at all.

    One of the dangerous things about purporting objectivity because your journalism uses data is that even data can be conveyed with prejudice. “In a perfect world the data would just speak for itself, but that’s never the case,” the economist Allison Schranger wrote at Quartz following FiveThirtyEight’s launch. “Interpreting and presenting data requires making judgments and possibly mistakes.” That’s why so many writers have been concerned about FiveThirtyEight’s climate writer, Roger Pielke, Jr, a University of Colorado professor, who ThinkProgress once called “the most debunked person in the science blogosphere, possibly the entire Web.”

    Though Pielke has a deep pool of knowledge about climate change, as The Week has chronicled, he also has strong personal opinions and a history of using data to back them up against the larger scientific community. President Obama’s science adviser, John Holdren, has “accused [Pielke] of selective quotation and obfuscation,” and though Pielke claims to believe in climate change, Foreign Policy has included him on its list of climate skeptics. (He also has a shaky history with data, having once included the results of the filmmaker Michael Mann when analyzing the inflation of news coverage of a study by the scientist Michael Mann.)

    Pielke’s first post for the site covers the link between climate change and extreme weather—or lack thereof: “Disasters Cost More Than Ever—But Not Because of Climate Change.” In the post, he first shows the rising rate of global disaster losses, then adjusts the figure for the rise in global GDP—showing that global disaster losses have actually flatlined. “We’re seeing ever-larger losses simply because we have more to lose—when an earthquake or flood occurs, more stuff gets damaged,” writes Pielke. Which is an interesting point, but not relevant to climate change.

    The shame is, there are plenty of subjects that could use a parsing from FiveThirtyEight: Silver could suss out the actual climate impact of shipping oil by rail, or give hard numbers on how decreased public research dollars effects disease funding—a subject the The New York Times specifically said was missing “[comprehensive] tracking [of] the magnitude and impact of private science.” Even a rigorous look at how to parse out acceptable health coverage would be welcome.

    FiveThirtyEight has ample opportunity to burst into this space and produce what Silver promised all along: an improvement in the level of analysis required by the general press. But you can’t take down journalism without first abiding by its best practices.

  18. Elaine M. says:

    FiveThirtyEight: The Number of Things Nate Silver Gets Wrong About Climate Change
    By Michael E. Mann, Director of Penn State Earth System Science Center; Author of ‘Dire Predictions’ and ‘The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars’
    Posted: 09/24/2012

    If you’re a science or math geek like me, you can’t help but like Nate Silver. He’s the fellow nerd who made good. His site is a must for any serious polling buff, and he regularly graces the leading talk shows with his insightful if wonky commentary. So you can imagine how excited I was a year ago when Nate’s assistant contacted me, indicating that he wanted to come to State College, PA — the “happy valley” — to interview me for his new book on “forecasting and prediction.”

    Nate, I was told, was working on a chapter about global warming. He sought me out because he felt my expertise would make me an “excellent guide to the history of climate modeling”. He also expressed interest in my own upcoming (since published) book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars which details my experiences at the center of the climate change debate. Needless to say, I was very much looking forward to the meeting.

    And so it was on a crisp early November day that Nate arrived at my office in the Walker Building of the Penn State campus. We exchanged pleasantries and proceeded to engage in a vigorous, in-depth discussion of everything from climate models and global warming to the role of scientific uncertainty, and the campaign by industry front groups to discredit climate science (something that is the focus of my own book). As I saw Nate off, I insisted he sample the Penn State Creamery’s famous ice cream before leaving town. I tweeted excitedly about my meeting with him, and by the end of the day Nate had even added me to his relatively short list of twitter followees. Certain our discussion had been productive and informative, I awaited Nate’s book with great anticipation.

    And so I was rather crestfallen earlier this summer when I finally got a peek at a review copy of The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don’t. It’s not that Nate revealed himself to be a climate change denier; He accepts that human-caused climate change is real, and that it represents a challenge and potential threat. But he falls victim to a fallacy that has become all too common among those who view the issue through the prism of economics rather than science. Nate conflates problems of prediction in the realm of human behavior — where there are no fundamental governing ‘laws’ and any “predictions” are potentially laden with subjective and untestable assumptions — with problems such as climate change, which are governed by laws of physics, like the greenhouse effect, that are true whether or not you choose to believe them.

    Nate devotes far too much space to the highly questionable claims of a University of Pennsylvania marketing Professor named J. Scott Armstrong. Armstrong made a name for himself in denialist circles back in 2007 by denouncing climate models as having no predictive value at all. Armstrong’s arguments were fundamentally flawed, belied by a large body of primary scientific literature — with which Armstrong was apparently unfamiliar — demonstrating that climate model projections clearly do in fact out-perform naive predictions which ignore the effect of increasing greenhouse gas concentrations. As discussed in detail by my co-founder, NASA scientist Gavin Schmidt, Armstrong simply didn’t understand the science well enough to properly interpret, let alone, assess, the predictive skill of climate model predictions.

    That Nate would parrot Armstrong’s flawed arguments is a major disappointment, especially because there are some obvious red flags that even the most cursory research should have turned up. A simple check of either SourceWatch or fossil fuel industry watchdog ExxonSecrets, reveals that Armstrong is a well-known climate change denier with close ties to fossil fuel industry front groups like the Heartland Institute, which earlier this year campaigned to compare people who accept the reality of climate change to the Unabomber, and secretly planned to infiltrate elementary schools across the country with industry-funded climate change denial propaganda. I suspect that Nate’s failing here arises from a sort of cultural bias. There is a whole community of pundits with origins in economics and marketing who seem more than happy to dismiss the laws of physics when they conflict with their philosophy of an unregulated market. Nate may not share that philosophy, but he was educated by those who do.

    Nate Silver was trained in the Chicago school of Economics, famously characterized by its philosophy of free market fundamentalism. In addition to courses from Milton Friedman, Nate might very well have taken a course from University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt, known largely for his provocative 2005 book Freakonomics and its even more audacious 2009 sequel Super Freakonomics — a book that, perhaps better than any other, serves as a cautionary tale of the dangers that lurk when academics attempt to draw sweeping conclusions in fields well outside their area of training. In Super Freakonomics as you might guess, Levitt drew questionable conclusions about climate change and related energy issues based on an extrapolation of principles of economics way, way, way, outside their domain of applicability. Even some very basic physics calculations, for example, reveal that his dismissal of solar energy as a viable alternative to fossil fuel energy in combating climate change because of possible waste heat is total nonsense. Ray Pierrehumbert, a chaired professor himself at the University of Chicago, in the Department of Geosciences, pointed this and other serious errors out to Levitt in an open letter that concluded with a campus map showing how easy it would have been for Levitt to walk over to his office to discuss his ideas and, presumably, avoid the serious pitfalls that ended up undermining much of what he ended up saying in his book about climate change and energy policy.

    Unlike Levitt, Nate did talk to the scientists (I know. I’m one of them!). But he didn’t listen quite as carefully as he should have. When it came to areas like climate change well outside his own expertise, he to some extent fell into the same “one trick pony” trap that was the downfall of Levitt (and arguably others like Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point). That is, he repeatedly invokes the alluring, but fundamentally unsound, principle that simple ideas about forecasting and prediction from one field, like economics, can readily be appropriated and applied to completely different fields, without a solid grounding in the principles, assumptions, and methods of those fields. It just doesn’t work that way (though Nate, to his credit, does at least allude to that in his discussion of Armstrong’s evaluation of climate forecasts).

    As a result, Nate’s chapter on climate change (Chapter 12: “A Climate of Healthy Skepticism”) is marred by straw man claims that don’t stand up to scrutiny. These include the assertion that (a) climate scientist James Hansen’s famous 1988 predictions overestimated global warming (they didn’t), that (b) “the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) settles on just one forecast that is endorsed by the entire group” (pure nonsense — even the most casual reading of the IPCC reports reveals that great care taken to emphasize the non-trivial spread among model predictions, and to denote regions where there is substantial disagreement between the projections from different models) and that (c) “relatively little is understood” about the El Nino cycle (here I imagine that Nate might have misinterpreted our own discussion about the matter; I explained in our discussion that there are still open questions about how climate change will influence the El Nino phenomenon — but that hardly means that we know “relatively little” about the phenomenon itself! In fact, we know quite a bit about it). Finally, and perhaps most troubling (d) while Nate’s chapter title explicitly acknowledges the importance of distinguishing “signal” from “noise”, and Nate does gives this topic some lip service, he repeatedly falls victim to the fallacy that tracking year-to-year fluctuations in temperature (the noise) can tell us something about predictions of global warming trends (the signal). They can’t — they really can’t.

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