Great stuff here from The Weekly Standard’s Jonathan Last:
There are valid criticisms of black box statistical modeling. On the one hand, we’re asked to view the results credibly without knowing what the special sauce used to bake them is. You could mount that criticism of Silver as much as you could of any other modeler. Or pollster, for that matter. So at the end of the day you have to either make your peace with the black boxes, or write them off as value-less.
I happen to find some value in them. They aren’t predictive–but I’d argue they’re not really meant to be. They’re simply informative–just more data points from which we cobble together our understanding of a system (an election) which is so multi-variate that, as Scott Fitzgerald once wrote about Hollywood, is so complex that no more than a handful of men can keep the entire equation in their heads.
What’s more, Silver’s a very agile writer. Like Michael Lewis he has a gift for explaining complicated numerical concepts. (I would not agree with the charge that Silver often makes simple mathematical concepts sound grandiose and complex.) And finally, Silver hedges. Always and everywhere. Some people might take this to be weasely on his part, but it strikes me as just the opposite: It’s humility. Silver is in the numbers business, but he understands that the numbers don’t tell us everything. So you’ll never hear him say, “X has happened so Y must happen.” Just the opposite, actually. Silver understands the limits of his own models. He acknowledges those limits nearly every time he writes. I think this ought to be applauded.
I just picked up Nate Silver’s new book last week, and I’m looking forward to it. If you buy your copy by clicking here for hardcover or here for Kindle, you put a little money in my pocket at no cost to you.