Nate Silver slams 'alarmist' New York Times report

FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver sharply criticised The New York Times, his former employer, for publishing what he saw as a misleading and “alarmist” article about rising crime rates in major cities.

Silver, speaking at an event hosted by Columbia University’s student newspaper on Sunday, said a lengthy August piece was so “sensational” that the paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan — who acts as an in-house critic and ethicist — should investigate.

The cities “were cherry-picked,” Silver said. “That kind of made it more a sensational headline.”

“Why was that acceptable? That should be a controversy where Margaret Sullivan gets involved where you’re not really being as truthful as you could by knowingly suppressing data that kind of contradicts your hypothesis.”

Silver said that FiveThirtyEight examined The Times’ reporting and concluded that the paper was wildly off-base in its assertion that crime and murder rates were sharply rising across the country.

“We actually went and called all 60 departments and we got the data and we found that there is some uptick but not enough to justify the very alarmist tone and headline,” Silver said.

“That kind of thing I’m not very sympathetic toward.”

A spokesperson for The New York Times told Business Insider that Silver’s charge was “false,” citing the original piece’s acknowledgment that the rising crime rate only applied in certain cases.

“The charge that The Times in this story ‘knowingly suppressed data’ is a serious one and it’s false,” Eileen Murphy, the head of communications at The New York Times, said in an email.

“Our story discussed the rising murder rates in more than 30 cities and went into detail on some of them. The story also made clear that there are cities where the murder rate is not increasing.”

Despite Silver’s critique on Sunday, he has praised Sullivan’s work as public editor in the past. And he told the audience that he enjoyed The Upshot, The Times’ pseudo-replacement for FiveThirtyEight after his departure from the paper.

For his part, Silver told the audience at Columbia that FiveThirtyEight embraces corrections to articles that it believes do not include all of the facts.

Beyond his perch as a preeminent “data journalist” — a term that, curiously, Silver says is somewhat ill-fitting — the FiveThirtyEight founder is frequently critical of other media outlets for supposedly embracing conventional wisdom instead of taking more sceptical positions based in empiricism and hard data.

Last week, Silver raised eyebrows when he jabbed at Vox. He said the site has several posts a day that are “terrific,” but added that it too often publishes pieces he derogatorily referred to as a “take.”

“In some ways, we’re kind of quite opposite from from Vox, where, what I was kind of saying earlier, well, the idea of you read the Wikipedia page and you write, like, a take on it. That’s not our view exactly. I mean, we think that people should show their work,” Silver said, according to the Washington Post.

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