Nate Silver: Cold Demon of Knowledge

Why are people fascinated by Nate Silver? The answer is obviously “because he got the US election right.” And now you see on the internet, obviously people joking but of course when people joke they are not exactly saying something they don’t also think, people assigning, as it were, supernatural powers of prediction to Nate Silver. Or, the joke that just because Nate Silver has predicted something, it will come true.

This interests me, because what Silver did hardly suggests remarkable powers of judgment. Rather, as far as I understand the situation, he simply looked at the polls carefully, and always picked what was the most likely thing to happen. He thus made judgments that were totally objective in a scientific sense: disinterested readings of a cold reality basically beyond his grasp, something that he could not effect. He does not transform or control the election results: he is simply able to describe them. A cold demon of knowledge.

Why should this seem remarkable to us? Put like this, of course, it doesn’t, but I mean why on the surface should it seem remarkable to some average observer? (I don’t find it fascinating at all, but basically all of my philosophical interests stem from an intrinsic early failure to be impressed by science or science-like things) I want to suggest that it is precisely in his ability to make these cold judgments of the most-likely-thing-to-happen, Nate Silver in his blank objectivity, the judge only of bland truisms that would and continue to exist anyway, seems god-like in comparison to the idiotic figures of in particular Republican politicians, who thrash and splutter about in a babble of subjectivity so warped that it fails to touch objective reality at all.

These politicians, unlike Silver, manage to make a genuine call about reality, in that sense a genuine judgment in comparison to Silver’s mere goings-along-with, but they are so corrupted in their faculties of judgment that when they set themselves up as judges they seem merely angry, or stupid, or maliciously misleading, and thus are unable to persuade anyone that their ‘subjective’ calls about reality have any sort of objective rightness, except of course those listening to them who are already equally psychotic (in the Freudian sense that in psychosis the patient denies reality and sets up a different reality in its place). It is these people who cannot believe that Romney can have, fairly, lost, who believed he was definitely going to win the election and was shocked when he did not, despite the fact he was of course never in a position to win the election and by polling day simply could not, and it is in comparison to these people, who cannot purge themselves of their own psychotic interest in the events, that Silver seems remarkable.

But not all judgment needs to be like this. We can be more than the blank man of science content merely to describe reality; we can salvage the ability to interact with reality in a transformative way, to set ourselves up as a judge and say, not merely: “it is thus and so” but also, “and it should be thus.” But this of course requires us to be sufficiently in touch with reality to get going as a process at all. If there is, as seems to be apparent in the Silver-Republican dichotomy, a sharp division between those prepared to set themselves up as judges, and those able to describe or think about reality at all, then we will continue to wither as human beings. Silver’s dull sanity might seem wonderfully refreshing in comparison to a Sarah Palin or a Rush Limbaugh, but do not be seduced by him into silence.

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