Leon Wieseltier of ‘The New Republic’ Trashes Nate Silver’s Neo-Postivism

There’s been some buzz after Nate Silver criticized some opinion-makers and pundits as being essentially non-empirical and, therefore, no better than bullshitters. Leon Wieseltier, of The New Republic, seems offended:

[Silver] does not recognize the calling of, or grasp the need for, public reason; or rather, he cannot conceive of public reason except as an exercise in statistical analysis and data visualization.

Many of the issues that we debate are not issues of fact but issues of value. There is no numerical answer to the question of whether men should be allowed to marry men, and the question of whether the government should help the weak, and the question of whether we should intervene against genocide. And so the intimidation by quantification practiced by Silver and the other data mullahs must be resisted.

We say the following in philosophy a lot: “this is a philosophical question and not an empirical question.” Indeed, it is hard to see how some empirical fact (whatever it is) could on its own justify a normative claim. Just because things are a certain way does not mean that they ought to be that way or ought not to be that way. On the other hand, philosophico-ethico questions are answered in a form that essentially involves rationality and inference and what propositions follow from what other propositions.

Silver proclaimed in the interview that “we’re not trying to do advocacy here. We’re trying to just do analysis. We’re not trying to sway public opinion on anything except trying to make them more numerate.” His distinction between analysis and advocacy is a little innocent. (Like the insistence of the man who went from the Times to ESPN that he is an “outsider.”) Is numeracy really what American public discourse most urgently lacks? And why would one boast of having no interest in the great disputations about injustice and inequality?