Nate Silver: Big ideas for the guru
This is the second of a two-part series on Nate Silver. Read Part One HERE.
Nate Silver is right: Data and facts really do need to drive analysis. But he needs to realize that Sigmund Freud was right too. Psychology is the true queen of sciences because all intelligent life is subjective and filled with cultural and emotional limitations and preconceptions. Until we learn what our prejudices and limitations are, and that they exist at all, we remain blind to all the big opportunities and dangers that really matter.
Even you, Mr. Silver.
So here are some really, really big ideas for Silver to throw his new legions of statisticians and analysts to cover.
Big Idea Number One: There are 7 billion human beings alive on this one planetary ball of mud today, when 50 years ago there were only 3 billion, and 2 billion in 1930, well within the life span of millions of people still alive today.
That is an enormous datum. It means there will be shortages, there will be wars. It means there will be more climate warming and extinction of species.
Can we get population growth under control? Can we face down the institutionalized prejudices of the world against birth control? Can the birth reduction trends of Europe and Japan over the past half century be successfully applied across India, southern Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East?
Big Idea Number Two: Seven billion human beings means competition for scarce resources among organized human political systems and societies. It means the inevitability of more wars all around the world. So why doesn’t FiveThirtyEight.com have its own separate “war” section? Is “war” too “old” an idea? Is it not fresh enough or precise enough? Wars are as variable and diverse as diseases. The broad spectrum of them needs to be identified, defined, catalogued and tracked.
Big Idea Number Three: “Nation building: and “exporting democracy” are insane policies. Can Silver get a team of his statistical wizards to look at the well-established well-known metrics generated by our trillion dollar policy fiascoes in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 13 years and present some clear lessons for policymakers from them?
Big Idea Number Four: You will never know it all. Not all facts and important deductions to be drawn from them can be reduced to statistical data.
I realize that idea is anathema to all of Silver’s mathematical mastery of American politics and baseball, but not all human reality and experience can be produced to statistical analysis. And much of what is so produced then turns out to be wrong. Why?
Therefore question your own assumptions. Recruit a B-Team.
In order to make your data-driven analytical model of rigorously generated paradigms effective, need to have people who will challenge and question their assumptions and conclusions. You need a team to draw warning red lines on the many situations where reliable mathematical data is insufficient to reach precise solutions. Of all the gifts that Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg taught us, the greatest was, or should have been, humility.
Big Idea Number Five: Is the growing risk of thermonuclear war a big enough idea for FiveThirtyEight.com to cover? The Doomsday Clock of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has been down to five minutes to midnight for the past two years. That’s the closest to the risk of total nuclear destruction it’s been since 1983-1984 when it stood at 3 minutes.
The crises between Russia and the West over Ukraine and China and its neighbors over the South China suggest that figure be ratcheted down to two minutes, its setting in 1953.
Big Idea Number Six: Even if we can eliminate oil completely as a fuel for transportation and energy, we are going to need it more than ever for the huge fixes of nitrate fertilizer that are necessary to feed around 2.5 billion to 3 billion of the human beings alive today. So how fast can we get away from our dependence on nitrate fertilizers produced in chemical plants without starving billions of human beings to death?
Are those ideas big enough for FiveThirtyEight? Or is FiveThirtyEight just too small, conventional and old fashioned to cover these Big Ideas?
Martin Sieff is a former senior foreign correspondent for The Washington Times and former Managing Editor, International Affairs for United Press International. Mr. Sieff is the author of “That Should Still Be Us: How Thomas Friedman’s Flat World Myths Are Keeping Us Flat on Our Backs” (Wiley 2012) and “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East” (Regnery, 2008). He has received three Pulitzer Prize nominations for international reporting.