Monday, April 07, 2014
Strained Analogies Between Recently Released Films and Current Events: Noah and Nate Silver
by Matt McKenna
As the wicked, soon-to-be-drowned warriors surround Noah and his famous ark in Darren Aronofsky's rendition of the well known, but well modified Bible story, one gets the sense that the ornery mob isn't just ornery because they're about to get super damp and dead in the biggest do-over the planet has ever experienced. These men would prefer to survive, of course, but what really sticks in their craw is how smug Noah is about the whole ordeal. As he stands before the mass of doomed humans, Noah (Russell Crowe) passionlessly explains how God has had it up to here with them and has decided to fill the planet with water until everyone is sufficiently dead. As you can imagine, these violence-prone, weapon-wielding gentlemen are quite displeased by Noah's dismissive indifference to their imminent demise and react the way any panic-stricken group of amoral marauders would react--by attempting to kill Noah and his family so they themselves may utilize the boat for their own seafaring, end-of-the-world adventure.
How appropriate it is then that in the very same month that Aronofsky released Noah, Nate Silver relaunched FiveThirtyEight, his data journalism blog and digital ark designed to survive the deluge of data raining upon the news world and threatening to submerge the partisan blogs, the cable news programs, and the opinion columns that have heretofore blighted journalism. Like Noah, Silver has come under fire from those who don't have a seat on the ark. These incensed media personalities and politicians, these rabble-rousing kerfuffle-mongers don't appreciate being judged by Mr. Silver and have attacked him for being too sensitive, untimely, and otherwise missing the point of journalism.
But just as Noah's biggest struggle isn't against the bloodthirsty horde, Silver's biggest struggle isn't against the usual menagerie of integrity-deficient talking heads. In Aronofsky's version of the story, Noah loses the trust of his family as he becomes pathologically single-minded in his quest to fulfill his interpretation of God's will. Likewise, the most painful rebukes in response to Silver's attempt to build a sea-worthy vessel of data-driven journalism come from once friendly media personalities such as Paul Krugman and Tyler Cowen--writers occupying the same limb on the journalism family tree as Mr. Silver himself, rendering their disapproval of the new FiveThirtyEight all the more troubling.
In the film, Noah commits to unpopular decisions in order to comply with his understanding of God's demands. For example, in one of most brutal moments in the movie, Noah's son Ham (Logan Lerman) risks his life to bring aboard a seemingly nice lady whose only crime was being born into the wrong family. Noah requires not even a moment to come to his decision and leaves the young woman behind to suffer a horrendous fate. Even worse, towards the climax of the film, Noah prepares to perform such a heinous act that his terrified family attempts to escape the ark and take their chances on the endless seas. Noah's family, once so trusting and confident in him as a bastion of righteous leadership, now find themselves despising him for his irreconcilably broken moral compass.
While not despised, Silver has similarly disappointed those who previously backed him. Paul Krugman, New York Times columnist and winner of the Nobel prize in economics, referred to FiveThrityEight's relaunch a "disappointment and a disaster." Tyler Cowen, number seventy-two on The Economist's 2011 list of "global thinkers," writes that the site's current articles are "too superficial for smart and informed readers, yet on topics which are too abstruse for the more casual readers." Noah Smith, an econ-blogger who lists Silver on his "Heroes of Blogging" page, condemns the new FiveThirtyEight by proclaiming it to be "barely data-driven at all." These are not the typical barbs directed at Silver by the standard array of overheated windbags hyperventilating on cable news programs for the entertainment of incurious nodding sycophants. These are the laments of a letdown family. They're not angry, as the saying goes; they're just disappointed.
Noah's family and Silver's recent critics are not incorrect in the individual complaints directed at their respective heroes--Noah could stand to familiarize himself with the concept of mercy, and Silver perhaps shouldn't have run that climate change piece that appears not to be up to scientific snuff. However, their disappointment reveals a fundamental misunderstanding as to why the Noahs and Nate Silvers of the world hold their esteemed positions. Noah was not chosen to build the ark because of his moral acuity--he was chosen because of his resolute conviction. And Nate Silver did not become a media phenomenon because he is the world's best statistician--he became a media phenomenon because he built a website that covered politics by deferring to charts at a time when the predominant method of discussing politics was to yell at increasingly high volume levels until the next commercial break.
Aronofsky's point is that even a man with a direct communication channel to God cannot possibly possess perfectly nuanced moral convictions. Moreover, perhaps God only spoke to Noah in the first place because he knew Noah was willing to ignore his own moral inclinations in order to finish the task to which he was charged. Is Silver different? Like Noah, his ambition appears unbounded and his purpose single-minded. Silver has no mercy for opinionators who derive from their opinions from their own predispositions, and there is no room on his ship for those who do not understand math well enough to understand why they should understand it. But in his quest to build his website with such lofty ideals, has Silver strayed so far from his wheelhouse of polling analysis so as to compromise his status as arbiter of sound data journalism?
Aronofsky mercifully spares Noah's viewers of a scene in which the people of ancient Earth doubt Noah's prescience. Indeed, every character in the film appears accustomed to witnessing strange prophecies borne out in reality. When Noah mentions to Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone) and his followers that he's building this big boat so he and his family can ride out the storm while God murders everyone, the reaction from Tubal-cain's army is desperate rage rather than the eye-rolling skepticism with which a screenwriter might have characterized a society being told a pretty crazy story. In 2014, Americans have also become accustomed to accurate prognostications. After all, Nate Silver did famously predict the outcomes of all fifty states during the 2012 Presidential election, the Republican's rout in the House in 2010, and Obama's first Presidential victory in 2008. Silver's success in predicting elections has set high expectations for FiveThirtyEight's other data journalism endeavors just as Noah's success in preserving life during the flood set high expectations for his own wisdom and morality. Unfortunately for Silver and Noah, these high expectations leave copious room for disappointment.
But when the ark finally did strike dry land, it was Noah and his family staggering out onto the soggy ground to repopulate the world. Therefore, one would expect that by the time the "data" part of "data journalism" becomes redundant, the news world will have been scrubbed clean of the charlatans and repopulated with little Nate Silvers doing their best to analyze events and opinions through a scientific, data-driven lens. Presuming no loss in cognitive ability due to generations of journalists having been sprung solely of Nate Silver's metaphorical loins, this seems like a positive development. Time will tell, of course, and I look forward to seeing a chart depicting the increasing frequency and accuracy of charts in the news stories that warrant them.
Posted by Matt McKenna at 12:25 AM | Permalink