Nate Silver Needs To Check Himself Before He Wrecks Advanced Metrics For Everyone

If you’re even a moderately in-the-know sports fan (or you paid attention during Moneyball), you’re at least aware of the advanced metrics movement.

Maybe you can even speak some of the language. Maybe you know that Larry Sanders is the best interior defender in the NBA (sorry Hibbert) based on opponent field goal percentage or that Chris Paul helps team chemistry more than Deron Williams:

Either way, you probably have a STRONG, ADAMANT OPINION on your team’s use of advanced metrics when evaluating talent (like SportVU, a camera-tracking system that records every movement on the court and “delivers a report within 90 seconds of a play” which teams have used to make visualizations like this).

But even if you don’t follow sports at all, you know who Nate Silver is.

He’s the swami whose remarkably accurate predictions of presidential and senatorial elections helped make advanced data the sexy new thing. But you might not know that he is worshipped by sports stats geeks because he developed PECOTA, a system for forecasting the performance and career development of baseball players (that Baseball Prospectus jumped at eagerly) and early in his career helped spearhead the advanced metrics in sports movement.

Nate Silver has been in some at least relatively lukewarm water lately though, as many are claiming that his new data-themed site FiveThirty Eight is lacking in both “context and meaning.” Most recently, a feud with New York Times‘ Paul Krugman had Silver posting an article that graphed the sentiment of Krugmans’s references to Silver over time and which took over the 24-hour news cycle.

Most sane people saw this is a pretty petty way for Silver to respond to Krugman’s criticisms, and sadly, as Chez put it in this week’s mailbag,“Silver’s always felt like he’s somewhere on the spectrum: he’s great with numbers and seems to distill everything down to that while eschewing ‘human’ traits like instinct and heart.”

And while normally watching the air get let out of someone a bit over-swollen is a nice bit of comeuppance for our secret spiteful side to enjoy, there are some innocent bystanders who are going to feel side effects from all this blowback.

Including fans of advanced metrics.

Unfortunately, Nate Silver is so intimately associated with the pro-data movement that as his brand begins to lose value, so does the brand of advanced metrics, something that’s just in the past few years really begun to claw its way into relevancy.

Humans have always been the problem behind the new numbers movement.

MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, stats geeks’ mecca, has grown exponentially each year because slowly but surely people are tasting the proof in the pudding. “This started as 100 people seven years ago, it’s become mainstream because it works,” Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey said to the 2013 Sloan attendees.

And while that confident declaration seems to be the sentiment of the pro-numbers crowd, SB Nation-turned-Grantland’s Andrew Sharp covered the event and noted, “All weekend long at this sports conference, we hear the same vague messages that keep the crowds nodding knowingly: We need to find the signal in the noise, a reference to Nate Silver’s best-selling book about finding meaningful signs in an ocean of data.”

Silver, while maybe not THE face of data anymore, is at least on its Mount Rushmore. So when he and his site start manipulating data to tell incomplete stories like his Krugman piece, it helps give those naysayers another reason not to believe in it entirely.

And if you care enough to read about a confrontation Bill Simmons had with Colts’ President Bill Pollian and Patriots’ President Jonathan Kraft at the 2010 Sloan Conference about Bill Bellichek’s play calling during that season, you’ll see that some very important people are making sure data-lovers still have more of the mountain to climb.

That’s why some data geeks are doing everything they can to garner support for their cause, whether it be Kirk Goldsberry’s perception-altering shot charts (Goldsberry compared them to the Periodic Table, which “has made a huge set of chemical elements understandable in new ways”) to just trying to explain the whole concept in easier to understand terms; Ben Gulker has said, “One of the things I encourage skeptics of statistical analysis of sports to consider is the relationship between music and mathematics…There is an incredibly complex relationship between the two, and learning about that relationship can enhance one’s appreciation for both.”

Yet there’s still a disconnect.

As Alok Pattani, an analytics producer at ESPN, said, “What you hear at [the Sloan] conference…People talking about, ‘How do I communicate it to a decision-maker on a team?” There is a natural resistance to any new technology, and when its something as exponentially advanced as what some analysts are presenting, it’s daunting to even listen to, let alone decide if it’s relevant.

Because data, as Silver is slowly (re)learning, isn’t all that sexy on its own.

“People who make decisions or own things want to hire experts. They want to hire experts who are sure about their answers. Whereas what we’re saying is, ‘Boy all we can do is shift the odds.’ It’s sort of like conservative talk radio vs. liberal talk radio,” Daryl Morrey told Sloan attendants. And while that conservative talk radio analogy is a great tee-up into another diatribe, it’s a fitting analogy.

Because sensationalism is easier — it gets views — but it doesn’t get respect, something the stat community is still fighting for, as many view them as “an analytical community that may not be equipped to translate robust surveillance into reliable intelligence” (see: “I don’t think we’re any more resistant to analytics stuff than a lot of the analytics people are to the viewpoints we have. A lot of you analytics people think that the game is a video game.” — Stan Van Gundy)

So when Silver’s role in the media landscape, “at least in its crudest form, represents the kind of autodidactism that Krugman rose to fame decrying,” and countless others love to condemn, he’s hurting more than just himself.

Now, to paraphrase an old basketball saying, he needs to check himself before he wrecks this for everyone.

Bill Simmons told the 2010 Sloan conference that the analytics industry doesn’t make this consumer-friendly enough, but as Barking Carnival wrote for Bleacher Report, “When it comes to applied analysis, human psychology is always the final barrier.”

 

Originally posted on The Daily Banter on March 28, 2014.