My Take: I've got my money on the Church of Nate Silver
Nate Silver's blog at The New York Times has consistently predicted President Barack Obama will likely be re-elected.
November 2nd, 2012
12:01 PM ET

My Take: I've got my money on the Church of Nate Silver

Editor's note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

(CNN) - Nearly three centuries ago, in Colonial New England in the midst of a religious revival now remembered as the Great Awakening, settled ministers in local congregations complained bitterly about itinerant revivalists sweeping into town and whipping their parishioners into a frenzy.

They had reason to be worried.

Most ministers at the time wrote their endless sermons in Latinate language and read them from the pulpit in monotone, with little effort to entertain their congregations (which they did not regard as audiences). Revivalists such as the “Grand Itinerant” George Whitefield, by contrast, often preached extemporaneously, in the open air, and in the salty language of everyday affairs.

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The First Great Awakening was a classic moment of what economist Joseph Schumpeter referred to as “creative destruction.” In this case, however, what was being laid to rest was not an old economic order but an old religious one.

Itinerant revivalists were threatening not only the income of the settled ministers (who relied economically on pew sales, for example) but also their exclusive authority to interpret the word of God. And guess who won?

Something similar is happening today in American politics. The revivalists in this case are “quants,” who, by introducing statistics into an arena previously ruled by hunches have already changed the way that baseball is played and stocks are traded.

And the new George Whitefield is Nate Silver, whose FiveThirtyEight blog at The New York Times has consistently predicted that President Barack Obama will likely be elected to a second term.

Over the past week, the punditocracy has pushed back, with what some are calling “the war on Nate Silver.”

Politico’s Dylan Byers, for example, called Silver a possible “one-term celebrity.” Sure, he correctly predicted how 49 of 50 states would go in the 2008 presidential election. But if he swings and misses in 2012, he may be sent back to the minor leagues.

David Brooks devoted a whole column to defending the proposition that “experts with fancy computer models are terrible at predicting human behavior.”

In the latest turn of the screw, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough went on an extended rant against Silver, arguing that both sides think it is a coin toss, adding that “anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue, they should be kept away from typewriters, computers, laptops and microphones for the next 10 days, because they're jokes."

This prompted Silver to challenge Scarborough to put his money where his mouth is. “If you think it’s a toss-up, let’s bet,” he tweeted to Scarborough. “If Obama wins, you donate $1,000 to the American Red Cross. If Romney wins, I do. Deal?”

Scarborough demurred, tweeting back, “Why don’t we both agree to donate $1,000 to the Red Cross right now? Americans need our help now.”

What is going on here?

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

What we are witnessing is in my view a major shift in American political life not unlike the shift in American religious life brought on by the First Great Awakening.

In this case, the lofty perch of pundits, who for generations have taken to radio, television and the Internet to prognosticate about politics, are being displaced by “quants” who claim to have a better mousetrap.

How this plays out will depend of course on the result of this election. It shouldn't, since even Silver admits that Mitt Romney now has a 1-in-4 chance of winning. But if Romney wins, "gut" will have won a major victory over "data." If Obama wins, well, score one for the new revivalists.

As for me, I believe in math. I also believe, to paraphrase Brooks, that television pundits “are terrible at predicting human behavior.” So I rather like the idea of the Church of Joe Scarborough bending its knee to the Church of Nate Silver.

I also know a good bet when I see one. But Silver's $1,000 wager doesn't seem sufficiently presidential to me. How about a more Romneyesque number? To quote a former Massachusetts governor, “10,000 bucks? $10,000 bet?”

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: 2012 Election • Barack Obama • Media • Mitt Romney • Obama • Politics • Polls • United States

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soundoff (164 Responses)
  1. Rummy Pirate Times-Dispatch

    "In Greed We Trust"

    In 1994, Bain invested $27 million as part of a deal with other firms to acquire Dade International, a medical-diagnostics-equipment firm, from its parent company, Baxter International. Bain ultimately made nearly 10 times its money, getting back $230 million. But Dade wound up laying off more than 1,600 people and filed for bankruptcy protection in 2002, amid crushing debt and rising interest rates. The company, with Bain in charge, had borrowed heavily to do acquisitions, accumulating $1.6 billion in debt by 2000. The company cut benefits for some workers at the acquired firms and laid off others. When it merged with Behring Diagnostics, a German company, Dade shut down three U.S. plants. At the same time, Dade paid out $421 million to Bain Capital’s investors and investing partners.

    For 15 years, Romney had been in the business of creative destruction and wealth creation. But what about his claims of job creation? The layoffs and closures at other firms would lead Romney’s political opponents to say that he had amassed a fortune in part by putting people out of work. The lucrative deals that made Romney wealthy could exact a cost. Maximizing financial return to investors could mean slashing jobs, closing plants, moving production overseas and loading up already struggling companies with debt.

    Marc Wolpow, a former Bain partner who worked with Romney on many deals, said the discussion at buyout companies typically does not focus on whether jobs will be created. “It’s the opposite—what jobs we can cut,” Wolpow said. “Because you had to document how you were going to create value. Eliminating redundancy, or the elimination of people, is a very valid way."

    Example: Bain closed GST Steel plant in 2001 laying off 750 workers.

    Example: Controlling share owner Bain Capital closes BRP plant (Southern Illinois) so the 340 jobs there could be outsourced to Mexico.


    November 5, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
    • Reality

      Layoffs on November 2 , 2012

      Kratos Defense Security Solutions – 125 Layoffs Possible

      Penske Logistics Kansas City – 50

      Update: Shaws Supermarket- 700 at 169 Locations

      Supervalu Unit SHAW's – 700

      Emanuel Medical Center – 24

      Update: Exide Technologies Bristol Tenn. – 167

      St. Jude Medical – 500

      ATI Career Training Centers FL- Warns of 184 Job Cuts

      November 6, 2012 at 12:11 am |
    • Reality

      " Obama's Layoff Bomb "

      By Michelle Malkin

      Published: Sunday, November 4, 2012, 8:52 p.m.
      Updated: Sunday, November 4, 2012

      In June, a self-deluded President Obama claimed that “the private sector is doing fine.” Speak for yourself, buster.

      The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that employers issued 1,316 “mass layoff actions” (affecting 50 workers or more) in September; more than 122,000 workers were affected overall.

      USA Today financial reporter Matt Krantz wrote that “much of the recent layoff activity is connected to what’s been the slowest period of earnings growth since the third quarter of 2009.” More and more U.S. businesses are putting the blame — bravely and squarely — right where it belongs: on the obstructionist policies and regulatory. "

      Read more: http://triblive.com/home/2870482-74/obama-layoff-workers-obamacare-corp-employees-energy-layoffs-malkin-michelle#ixzz2BPt68nNw

      November 6, 2012 at 12:16 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.