I’m really not biased against FiveThirtyEight, I promise. I don’t intend to mimic a bitter, grumpy grandpa who complains about everything. (In my defense, I wrote an article explaining how the site was improving.) However, FiveThirtyEight’s struggles are a hot topic in the industry and worth addressing.
In all honesty, I don’t criticize FiveThirtyEight with the goal of embarrassing it. (It’s pretty hard for a twenty-year old to embarrass one of ESPN’s flagship sites anyway.) I do it because I believe FiveThirtyEight has tremendous potential – not just in writing interesting articles but in educating the public (and younger generations) about statistics.
Yes, I’ve already voiced several of my opinions of mine before. (I wrote this a couple months ago and I’ve gone on occasional Twitter rants.) And yes, many others have also vented about the site’s troubles. The statistical modeling is suspect. The sample sizes are small or unrepresentative. The assumptions are illogical.
But the site’s biggest problem has been around since FiveThirtyEight launched and has rarely (if ever) been discussed.
FiveThirtyEight’s biggest problem is its philosophy, represented by its logo – the fox.
In “What the Fox Knows”, as part of FiveThirtyEight’s early Manifesto, Nate Silver explains the meaning of the fox.
Our logo depicts a fox (we call him Fox No. 9) as an allusion to a phrase originally attributed to the Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” We take a pluralistic approach and we hope to contribute to your understanding of the news in a variety of ways. –Nate Silver in “What the Fox Knows”
In the choice between being a hedgehog or a fox, Silver chose the fox. The fox is fast, the hedgehog is slow. The fox is visually appealing to the eye, the hedgehog is visually repelling.
Silver chose wrong, however.
The hedgehog always beats the fox.
Good, Not Great
Tim Collins’ best-seller Good to Great is widely considered one of the premiere books on business and leadership. The book explains how some companies “make the leap” from good to great and outperform the competition, while others lag behind. Among other things, Collins addresses the fox and hedgehog metaphor.
“The fox is a cunning creature, able to devise a myriad of complex strategies for sneak attacks upon the hedgehog. Day in and day out, the fox circles around the hedgehog’s den, waiting for the perfect moment to pounce. Fast, sleek, beautiful, fleet of foot, and crafty – the fox looks like the sure winner. The hedgehog, on the other hand, is a dowdier creature, looking like a genetic mix-up between a porcupine and a small armadillo. He waddles along, going about his simple day, searching for lunch and taking care of his home.
Whenever the fox tries to attack the hedgehog, however, he loses – despite all of its apparent advantages.
“[The fox] leaps out, bounding across the ground, lightning fast. The little hedgehog, sensing danger, looks up and thinks, “Here we go again. Will he ever learn?” Rolling up into a perfect little ball, the hedgehog becomes a sphere of sharp spikes, pointing outward in all directions. The fox, bounding toward his prey, sees the hedgehog defense and calls of the attack. Retreating back to the forest, the fox begins to calculate a new line of attack. Each day, some version of this battle between the hedgehog and the fox takes place, and despite the greater cunning of the fox, the hedgehog always wins.”
While the fox is “good” at being fast and cunning and visually appealing, the hedgehog is “great” at one simple thing – defending itself. The quality of the hedgehog’s defense overcomes the quantity of the fox’s abilities.
As Collins explains, the leaders of the companies that went from “good” to “great” were “to one degree or another, hedgehogs.” FiveThirtyEight, however, operates as a fox. As a unit, they can be generally described as a group of writers with some knowledge of statistics and some knowledge of sports. Collectively, they are impressively good at a variety of items.
What they need, however, is people who are experts on a subject – whether it be writing or data or sports. They need a great writer to convey a story to the public. This writer should work with a great data scientist or statistician who can analyze and interpret the data. Collectively, they should consult with someone who understands the sport, inside and out.
Consider this piece, for example. Silver, in attempting to portray Tim Howard’s brilliance against Belgium, assumed that all shots result in the same probability of being a goal. But they don’t. Farther shots have less of a chance of being a goal than a shot from five feet away. There’s been substantial research on this concept of “expected goals” within the soccer community.
While Silver is “good” at understanding soccer, he needed someone “great”. He needed a hedgehog.
It’s not too late
FiveThirtyEight is a self-proclaimed fox. They have a variety of talents that they apply to a variety of industries – sports, life, politics, economics, science, and even burritos. Though they’re good at many things, they’re not great at the only thing they should be concerned with. They’re not great at data journalism.
To be great at data journalism, FiveThirtyEight needs to be a hedgehog. They need hedgehogs for data and hedgehogs for writing. For basketball and for soccer.
In sports, the final result of a game isn’t known until the end – when it’s too late. Fortunately for Silver and Co., it’s not too late. While this game isn’t over, the end result is already known. The hedgehog wins.
If FiveThirtyEight wants to win, it needs to be a hedgehog. Silver and his staff have an abundance of problems in need of addressing. The solution, however, is rather simple.
Ditch the logo and everything it represents. Stop being a fox.