Thursday, November 01, 2012

How dare Nate Silver suggest that someone put his money where his mouth is

The public editor at the NY Times is aghast that Nate Silver proposed a $1000 bet for charity against Joe Scarborough over the election outcome.  Silver thinks the math and data shows a high likelihood of Obama victory, while Scarborough doesn't like math and think people that use it should be told to shut up.  Perhaps sensing that her pearl-clutching isn't too convincing, the editor suggests people think he's a journalist when he's clearly a columnist discussing his own view of things, and gets a news editor to suggest discomfort with a journalistic slippery slope.

I honestly don't get why people have problems with other people proposing bets.  My guess is they don't like betting themselves and therefore think nobody else should be allowed to bet, so they make statements like it's "classless" to bet with money going to charity.  I kind of like incentives, myself, but maybe I'm classless.

As for that scary slippery slope, I would gladly give a push and would love to see other columnists put their money where their mouths are, because it might rein them in a little bit, or their critics.  Kind of harder to do that on the straight news side where it's an institution that's reporting out, not just the names on the byline, but if the institution can figure out a way to do that, then more power to them.  What a wonderful world it would be.

A better critique, also noted by people in Silver's Twitter feed, is that if Scarborough believes the odds are 50-50, and all Silver is offering is an even odds bet, then there's no advantage to Scarborough in taking the bet.  No disadvantage either, but there's no incentive from Scarborough's perspective.  Silver should put up $1250 against $1000 to fix that.  Also the money shouldn't go to the same charity but ideally to different ones that the two sides rank differently in preference.  Part of betting is to make people think carefully about their claims, and if the same charity gets the money then you lose some of that incentive.

And while I'm on the subject - there are many many reasons why Mitt Romney would be terrible for the country, especially on climate change, but I don't think his $10,000 bet offer was one of them.  As a gotcha line in the debate it might have been kind of lame, the outcome might have been deceptive, and the cavalier attitude towards that kind of money is unfortunate, but the simple concept of betting someone over a false statement isn't wrong.  Bloomberg has much better reasons for voting for Obama instead of Romney.