The British Nate Silver
Yesterday I glibly tweeted that I had trademarked the term “The British Nate Silver”.
Not for myself, you understand, but in recognition of the fact that his data analysis has played such a pivotal role in debate around the US election that it is inevitable that someone will get dubbed with that title in the run-up to the next General Election in the UK.
It will be very tempting for media organisations over here to attempt to set up something similar. The Telegraph and The Guardian, with their existing talented sets of data journalists, resources, and political ideologies, look the best bets.
Of course, as a few people have pointed out, when Nate Silver himself tried his hand at the UK elections, his first attempt at a model was way off. He himself said “it is experimental and should be regarded as such”, and I’m not sure if that shows that a similar approach wouldn’t work in the UK, or just indicates that Nate wasn’t steeped enough in our political culture to refine the model accordingly.
Paul Bradshaw has written the best blog post I’ve seen on the topic of what it means for journalists. Essentially, once you’ve got someone in the market applying statistical rigour, it makes everybody else relying on their old-fashioned approach, “hunches” and off the record briefings about how the campaign is going look data illiterate.
It isn’t just politics that could benefit from a bit more maths though. I’ve blogged before on here how about how Michael Blastland and Conrad Quilty-Harper have spoken passionately about the media’s failure to grasp numbers, or to present crime data in meaningful ways.
Let’s hope that there isn’t one British Nate Silver.
Let’s hope that this is a wake-up call for our media to apply more statistical thinking to their reporting.
Maths and statistics aren’t super-powers. You just need to care enough to use them properly when reporting.
If you want to get started, the Royal Statistical Society has resources for journalists, the media and public relations professionals.