What’s Wrong With Betting?

The forecasting model of Nate Silver, perhaps the best known pollster of the 2012 election cycle, predicts an Obama victory, and conservatives have been predictably upset by this fact. For example:

On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” today, Joe Scarborough took a more direct shot, effectively calling Silver an ideologue and “a joke.”

Scarborough rejected the validity of Silver’s model. Silver’s response to Scarborough was, essentially, put your money where your mouth is. He challenged Scarborough to a bet whereby the loser would have to donate $1000 to charity, if their predicted candidate did not win the election. If Obama won, Scarborough would pay, and Silver would pay in the event of a Romney victory.

Alex Tabarrok defends the bet:

Overall, I am for betting because I am against bullshit. Bullshit is polluting our discourse and drowning the facts. A bet costs the bullshitter more than the non-bullshitter so the willingness to bet signals honest belief. A bet is a tax on bullshit; and it is a just tax, tribute paid by the bullshitters to those with genuine knowledge.

However, the Public Editor of the New York Times, where Silver works, criticized Silver. Her statement is bewildering. Challenging people to a bet is “a bad idea – giving ammunition to the critics who want to paint Mr. Silver as a partisan who is trying to sway the outcome.” Why? She doesn’t elaborate.

Perhaps the intuition is that calling people on bullshit is generally rude? And Silver’s rudeness to a Republican partisan demonstrated that he was a Democratic partisan? Perhaps calling out a friend or acquaintance on bullshit is rude, but the same consideration should not apply between pundits, particularly when one pundit has essentially called the other a partisan hack. A bet would be a strong signal that Silver wasn’t trying to sway the election, that he actually had independent faith in his model’s predictive strength. That’s an entirely appropriate signal for a pundit to give, particularly when his objectivity has been called into question.

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