@FiveThirtyEight says the Louisville Cardinals have a 15 percent chance of winning the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Florida? Fourteen percent. Creighton? Three percent? You say you are a North Dakota State Sioux fan? Your chances are a diminishing less-than 1 percent of winning it all. Find another team.
And who is FiveThirtyEight and how does he/she/it know this stuff to be true? The answers, in order, are a group of journalists and math.
It’s the brainchild of Nate Silver, the former New York Times savant who predicted how all 50 states would turn in the last presidential election. Now he’s working under the auspices of ESPN with a team of 20 data miners (or “minors,” considering that most of them are probably much younger than me…)
In his opening manifesto he makes a very persuasive argument for the need for a rigorous, quantitative approach to journalism. He is also clear that it doesn’t replace the kind of shoe leather approach I was taught in the Reagan era. Here’s Nate:
The point is that data journalism isn’t just about using numbers as opposed to words. To be clear, our approach at FiveThirtyEight will be quantitative — there will be plenty of numbers at this site. But using numbers is neither necessary nor sufficient to produce good works of journalism.
I very much recommend that you take a moment and read all 3,500 words of his explanation. It is really a must-read for journalism in the 21st century. …
Having said that, I’m a bit skeptical about the data craze. Why? Because I’m a damn skeptic, that’s why. Take, for instance, Silver’s basketball predictions. What happens if some team other than Louisville wins? Well, he’s sure to explain that his deductions meant there was an 85 percent chance some other team would win. No surprise there.
His approach, while incredibly fascinating, doesn’t necessarily answer the key questions. Why does he focus on the data that he does? Why doesn’t he consider, say, the temperature of climates from which players come? After all, couldn’t we conclude that a kid from Los Angeles has more opportunity to play hoops than one from Duluth, Minn.? How about factoring in height of players or grades? I’m just asking here.
It also doesn’t tell us the human story. Louisville has a storied basketball history, dating back to Coach Denny Crum. As an enthusiast, I want to read that history. In fact, the arc of the Louisville story is more important to me than picking a winner. There is only so far the numbers will take you and Silver is clear that he agrees.
Don’t get me wrong: this stuff is genius and the coming wave under which we are about to be buried. I get it. Data journalism is where we are headed and it’s largely a good thing. As Silver says at the end of his explanation: “It’s time for us to start making the news a little nerdier.”