ONA13: Nate Silver Talks Stats with Journalists

Nate Silver coaches a crowd of journalists on stats at ONA in Atlanta.

Nate Silver coaches a crowd of journalists on stats at ONA in Atlanta.

Journalists can be better reporters by using statistics in a meaningful way, said Nate Silver, statistician and journalist, to a packed auditorium of journalists at the Online News Association Conference in Atlanta.

Silver became known for this accuracy in predicting the November 2008 presidential elections — he correctly predicted the outcomes in 49 of the 50 states — and also predicted 35 U.S. Senate seats the same year. He’s been writing and producing at his blog fivethirtyeight.com.

“My view is that journalists need to learn about statistics than the other way around,” Silver said.

Using slides with memes of cats and Ryan Gosling, Silver went through eight points of what journalist should know about numbers and data. From emphasizing that correlation is not causation to honing in that intuition is a poor judgement of probability, Silver went through the basics of his “Intro to Statistics” syllabus.

But Silver also criticized journalists and the media about using data poorly and in ways that are out of context. He said statistics sometimes shuts down the critical thinking of reporters.

“Some journalists are phobic to statistics,” he said.

Reporters should ask hard questions of the data just as they would with any other source, he said. Instead, some journalists can pick and choose data to fit into their stories, he said.

“Sometimes the desire of journalists to tell stories or narratives can make this especially acute in the field,” he said.

He pointed out the dangers of biases and “groupthink” when it came to using data in a smart, correct way.

“Journalists, like statisticians, ought to be concerned with truth rather appearances,” Silver said.

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