Archive for the 'Interviews' Category

Nate Silver’s numbers game

Nate Silver: hard to believe this man is a statistician

For the second US election in a row, the winner is a guy called Nate Silver, who might be the future of intelligent journalism. He rescues us from the tyranny of columnists who simply write about the comments of their own heads.

Nate blogs at, which is, since 2010, a New York Times blog. He analyses opinion polls, but he does it very, very well. He is entertaining and readable, even if you don’t care who just won the election in the US.

I discovered Nate’s analysis by accident in 2008 when I was looking for some statistics to undermine one of the nuttier blog opinions by data-lite controversialist Melanie Phillips (which made it very nutty indeed). Fivethirtyeight has a rigour that journalism seems to have mislaid in the internet era in a search for sensation. He does a seemingly simple thing extremely well: when an opinion poll is released, he adds it to a model which creates an aggregate. If the model is well-constructed, this has smaller margins for error and less chance of systematic bias. It is more likely to reflect the true state of the world.

The clever part is that he doesn’t just produce an average. He weights the polls, depending on their sample size, the way the information was obtained, the historical accuracy of the polling company, when it was conducted, the exact question that was asked, and so on. He looks for statistical bias – a consistent under- or over-reporting of candidate’s popularity. He adjusts his own model if he finds evidence that it is biased. Importantly, he writes nerdy blog posts about what he is doing, explaining his reasoning, and pointing out possible flaws in his work.

The result is that “outliers” – polls that, through random sampling, produce a freak result – have little importance on Fivethirtyeight – while on the internet and the news channels they tend to dominate the agenda, albeit fleetingly. This means his reporting is less shouty, but it has proved to be stunningly accurate for two elections in a row: at the time of writing, his analysis has correctly predicted the result in every state for the 2012 US presidential election, and the electoral college vote too.

Having a model doesn’t necessarily mean you will be correct – there are plenty of other statistical models which predicted the election less accurately. Fivethirtyeight carefully spells out the steps in its analytical process (though not the precise parameters of the model), so we can make an informed judgement on the quality of the findings. Any model is open to criticism from other statisticians – but this means they can have an adult, public conversation about what might be improved, or what the impact of a flaw in the analysis might be. We can learn from this, too.

This wouldn’t be important if it was just a different way to present the same news; but this type of analysis creates fresh insight. By polling day 2012, the model predicted a greater than 90 per cent chance of an Obama victory; and yet organisations like the BBC and the FT were using lazy phrases like “too close to call” and “on a knife edge”. If newspapers are prepared to do this type of analysis routinely, I suggest, it offers huge potential for creating an open, analytical type of serious journalism led by numbers and observed reality, not opinions.

Old jokes department: “And what do you do?”

Not every journalist can be a stats geek, though I think they should have more compulsory education in how to interpret data, and would prefer that newspapers enforced an in-house ban on reporting surveys that are statistical nonsense – which, in my experience, is most of them (I’ve written those survey-based articles in the past, and reported lots of rubbish data as if it were spotless, which I regret).

Newspapers and magazines are cutting back on conventional journalism. Budgets are tight. It’s probably too much to hope that we can create a new type of data-journalist, or that newspapers will suddenly grow a statistical conscience. It needn’t be expensive: a laptop and some specialist software is perfectly adequate to do the statistical research that can validate the claims that powerful people make. It’s the job of the media to investigate these claims – not just talk to one person who agrees, and another who disagrees. On Radio 4, More or Less does an entertaining job of validating reported statistics (download the podcasts, they are excellent). Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science posts are also a model of this approach.

It’s patronising to assume that readers can’t cope with statistical analysis. Clearly, many don’t like it, and some misunderstand it; but that’s true of any type of journalism that goes beyond the obvious. The conclusions (especially those that go against gut feel or conventional wisdom) may be unpopular: just read the critical comments on Nate Silver’s blog. It’s also true that science isn’t the last word on a subject, just a powerful way of testing an assumption. Statistics involves making value judgements in how you treat the numbers, in the same way as a journalist makes a judgement about how much credibility to give any source. But in statistics there is the opportunity to be explicit about those judgements, and then go where the numbers take us.

This type of insight is a fundamental tool, in an increasingly complex world, if we want to make informed decisions. The alternative is to just place trust in the conclusions of “experts”, of which there seem to be an ever-increasing number quoted on TV or in newspapers.

I’ll leave the conclusion to one of Nate’s commenters, who explains it better than I do:

Rather than cheer for Nate because we all like his Obama forecasts, how about cheering for him because he might believe in a world where numbers and rational analysis are vital to how we make decisions, even in those cases where we don’t like what the numbers imply?… It’s not about hoping you will win at Vegas. It’s about understanding how the Vegas game works.

For one day only

The budget cuts in local radio were starting to bite

6pm update: here’s a link to my interview on Ireland’s Newstalk. It starts about 35 minutes into this stream, but I thoroughly recommend the 10 minutes that precede my segment too: it’s an interview with the inventor of a special bag that you pee into when you can’t find a toilet. It was easily the most amusing discussion of urine that I’ve listened to before the watershed.

Today (Friday), any of you who are pretending to work from home might get the bonus of Talk Normal on your radio. That really is me! Or, if you’ve come here because you just heard me on the radio, that really was me!

Or, indeed, if you’re planning your Friday and are wondering what to do until happy hour, then residents of Coventry & Warwickshire, Leeds, Cumbria, Belfast, Antrim, Omagh, Kent, Stockport (and Congleton) and Norfolk (and some more) should tune in to local radio. During the day I’ll be chatting to all of you about a survey of jargon.

Here’s an article in the Mail online about the jargon survey. I’m quoted near the bottom. My quote about communicating in a way that people could understand was, when I checked, next to the headline “Precocious Honey Boo Boo stumbles over Spanish… and bursts into tears as ‘pageant good luck charm’ pet pig Glitzy is sent back”, which I can only assume was written by a duck pointing its bill at random words in an old copy of Hello!.

This is, of course, also how new copies of Hello! are written. It takes a lot of ducks but, crucially, not many journalists.

For first-time Talknormalists: now you’re here, have a look around. Find out my views about penguins on conference calls or discover my intimate connection to Katie Price’s breasts. Residents of South Ribble, I know your secrets. Then, most important, buy the Talk Normal book. There’s secret stuff in there that I never talk about on the radio.


The thoughts of chairman Tim (part 3)

In the final part of our guide to Talk Normal and Talknormalisation, how jargon has infected the media, why social media isn’t always a good thing, and tips for better writing. Ease yourself into the weekend, as local radio DJs say, by listening to it:

Again, if you’re a subscriber, you will need to visit the site. Hope you’ve enjoyed the podcasts. I’ve got another recorded interview for you next week, but someone else will be answering the questions. That, for some of you, might be a relief.

The thoughts of chairman Tim (part 2)

More from Talk Normal’s chief solutions advocate (that’s me): in this podcast we talk about HR jargon, CSR, thought leadership and other rubbish you hear at work. Stick in the headphones during your lunch hour and let us take you to a better place.

Eighteen minutes of joy. Note: subscribers – you’ll have to visit the site to listen, but it’s worth it.

The thoughts of chairman Tim (part 1)

All go at Talk Normal headquarters. My publisher has created three podcasts about Talknormalism, the problems that jargon causes, and what we can do to solve them. I’ll add the other two parts in the next few days. Here’s part one:

Maybe you can listen to it while you’re on mute in a conference call.

Cross with Crossrail

What a Crossrail station will look like. Memo to architects: if you leave your car there in East London, don't expect to see it when you get back

I’m having a bit of a Talknormalish to-do at the moment with Crossrail, or at least one of its contractors. The people I speak to tell me they are listening, though we all know they’re just tolerating me until I go away. If you’ve tried to complain to anyone with a complaints process recently, you know what I mean.

It’s about what we think consultation means, and what they know it means.

To recap: I live in a flat that’s facing the Olympic site for London 2012. As you can imagine, I’m accustomed to construction noise by now.

From time to time someone pushes a leaflet through the letterbox which tells me the builders are going to lower the street outside my door by two metres (this actually happened), or turn off the sun for the weekend, or put up a giant animatronic statue of Lord Coe.

The contractors are careful to phrase the leaflets in town planning jargon so you actually know less when you finished than when you began. They put a badly-drawn map on the back that looks like it was printed with a potato.

This is what is known in the construction business as consultation. Originally from the word consult: to seek advice, or consider, in this context it means telling us what they’ve already decided to do, and have often already started. It’s like going for a consultation with the doctor and discovering that he already sawed your leg off in the waiting room.

It’s all change in Stratford because, as well as the Olympics, we’re getting Crossrail – a new railway to take some Londoners left to right, and others right to left. It will be finished in 2017, but the contractors need to put this bit of Crossrail in now or else they’ll have to dig the Olympics up again as soon as it’s finished; and by that time they’ll have planted flowers for the tourists.

Crossrail has decided to extend its work to the evening: between the hours of 0800 and 2200 Monday to Friday, and on Saturdays too. They’re do this with a machine that the leaflet calls a piling rig, which is a giant BANG BANG BANG hammer which BANG BANG BANG thumps metal things BANG BANG BANG repeatedly until your KABOOM head explodes. I know this, because they started doing the work the week before they consulted us about it.

I can’t wait to spend the long summer evenings relaxing while I listen to it in action, mixed only with the background noise of tired babies crying.

So, I complained to the consultation number on the letter, and a liaison person called me back. It went like this:

Me: Why weren’t any of us consulted about the extended hours?

Her: We got permission from the Newham Borough Council. We have the obligation to consult you by sending out the letter to say whats happening.

Me: That’s not a consultation then.

Her: We’re just the contractor.

Me: Still not a consultation though.

Her: Crossrail organised the consultation.

Me: When?

Her: Before the Crossrail bill went through parliament*.

Me: But your leaflet doesn’t even explain what’s happening.

Her: What do you mean?

Me: It’s in jargon. Half the people in Newham have English as a second language**. They don’t know what bored piling to form the abutments for the bridge is, so they can’t understand what you’re telling them.

Her: We don’t write the final leaflet. We’re just the contractor.

Me: (overexcited) And you wrote that the work would start at 0800 and finish at 2200, but then that there are one hour startup and shutdown periods, so that means the work will actually take place between 0700 and 2300.

Her: (bored now) I see.

Me: (frothing) And you say that you will keep noisy work to a minimum on Saturdays and in the evenings.

Her: (frosty) Yes.

Me: (triumphant) Ha! But that just means that you will be doing noisy work on Saturdays and in the evenings. This is supposed to be information, you’re not meant to be twisting the truth to make yourselves sound nice.

At this point she offered to ask the director of jargon dissemination (not his real job title) to call me so I can give him the benefit of my irritating advice on his choice of words. I’ll keep you in touch, but I won’t hold my breath.

* To be fair, this consultation did take place. Eight years ago.

** I’m exaggerating here. It’s 47 per cent.

This is the world social media made

I had hoped my introductory remarks from the Market Research Society’s Social Media Conference last Thursday would have been the highlight, but I was wrong. I thought people would be retweeting my rousing speech about the path to the fire exits and the location of lunch, but I was mistaken.

Instead the delegates were talking about a ripping speech by internet Eeyore Andrew Keen, the author of The Cult of the Amateur.

The Cult of the Amateur was an angry book about how the internet is destroying culture by creating a world in which everyone’s contribution to a debate is equal, whether or not they know anything worth contributing; a world in which a CEO blog is more “authentic” than a press release, even though they are both written by the same person (a clue for anyone who isn’t in the copywriting business: that’s not the CEO).

It’s a book that is easy to hate (two stars on Amazon from reviewers), but I loved it. This is not to say I agreed with all of it.

Now he’s worrying about the effect that pervasive social media is having on the way we live, and that’s what he was talking about at the conference. A clip here:

The way that social media changes our behaviour worries me, for personal and professional reasons. Personally, as Keen points out (though not in this clip), the ease with which data about us can be collected may mean that privacy becomes something that only rich people pay for, rather than a right. Professionally I note that, when I’m doing editing jobs, increasingly better communication is confused with frantically saying more things.

Most of us spend hours a week hoovering up thousands of pointless status messages, tedious posts, updates and tweets, just in case. It’s like stuffing yourself with the entire menu in a crap restaurant, in the hope you will find something worth eating.

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