Feb 15, 2013 · 6 minutes

I’m not going to take a position on who is “right” in the Elon Musk vs John Broder battle over whether or not the New York Times reporter fudged facts in his controversial review of the Tesla Model S. It seems to me that not all the facts are in, and that each man is right on some things and wrong on others. Welcome to being human, guys.

But I do think it’s important to point out in the current era of Nate Silver-induced data euphoria that not everything that parades as data-driven analysis is actually data-driven analysis. This, I think, is true of Elon Musk’s emotive response to Broder’s review. While he refers frequently to data from the car’s logs, and illustrates his argument with graphs, no-one should be fooled into thinking that Musk’s rebuttal is data-driven. It is, in fact, the other way around.

Musk’s argument, perhaps understandably given his stakes in the debate, is driven by emotion, and he has turned to the data to support his pre-emptive conclusions. That much is clear in the language he uses in his letter to the Times, and the assumptions it implies. As Rebecca Greenfield at the Atlantic Wire has pointed out, it’s certainly possible to draw the opposite conclusions from the data Musk cites.

Let’s take a look at Musk’s language in the letter. I have emphasized the emotive elements in the following excerpts. Keep in mind that I make no claims for this analysis to be data driven. I am consciously using emotive language, just like Musk – except I’m dialing it up a couple of notches to make the point clear.

Yet, somehow John Broder “discovered” a problem and was unavoidably left stranded on the road. Or was he?
Musk uses quotation marks to suggest dishonesty, and adds a rhetorical question to increase the intrigue.
The logs show again that our Model S never had a chance with John Broder.
Poor little Model S suffering at the hands of evil John Broder. It never stood a chance!
In his article, Broder claims that “the car fell short of its projected range on the final leg.” Then he bizarrely states that the screen showed “Est. remaining range: 32 miles” and the car traveled “51 miles," contradicting his own statement (see images below). The car actually did an admirable job exceeding its projected range. Had he not insisted on doing a nonstop 61-mile trip while staring at a screen that estimated half that range, all would have been well. He constructed a no-win scenario for any vehicle, electric or gasoline.
So, the car is admirable, Broder’s behavior is bizarre, and he “insisted” (a term often used by writers to imply obstinacy in the face of logic) on driving while “staring” (which, as opposed to, say, “monitoring,” is something someone who is slightly unhinged might do) at the screen.
Had Broder not deliberately turned off the Supercharger at 47 mins and actually spent 58 mins Supercharging, it would have been virtually impossible to run out of energy for the remainder of his stated journey.
Deliberately! He set this thing up!
During the second Supercharge, despite almost running out of energy on the prior leg, he deliberately stopped charging at 72%... Despite narrowly making each leg, he charged less and less each time. Why would anyone do that?
Deliberately! Why would he do that? He set this thing up!
The above helps explain a unique peculiarity at the end of the second leg of Broder’s trip. When he first reached our Milford, Connecticut Supercharger, having driven the car hard and after taking an unplanned detour through downtown Manhattan to give his brother a ride, the display said "0 miles remaining." Instead of plugging in the car, he drove in circles for over half a mile in a tiny, 100-space parking lot. When the Model S valiantly refused to die, he eventually plugged it in. On the later legs, it is clear Broder was determined not to be foiled again.
Musk associates Broder, now accused of mishandling the car and gallivanting off on tangents, with peculiarity. Also, what kind of an idiot drives round and round in a tiny parking lot? (Broder says it was dark and he was just trying to find the low-profile and unlit charging station.) Despite not being able to defeat the valiant, heroic motor vehicle on that occasion, however, the conniving Broder eventually had his way.
When Tesla first approached The New York Times about doing this story, it was supposed to be focused on future advancements in our Supercharger technology. There was no need to write a story about existing Superchargers on the East Coast, as that had already been done by Consumer Reports with no problems!
Ah, John Broder doesn’t realize that Elon Musk is actually his editor.
As a result, we did not think to read his past articles and were unaware of his outright disdain for electric cars. We were played for a fool and as a result, let down the cause of electric vehicles. For that, I am deeply sorry.
So, according to Musk, John Broder duped Tesla, which approached the Times for the story. He has expressed skepticism about electric cars in the past, so this is obviously consistent with a pattern of behavior. No need to mention that Broder has 16 years of experience at the Times and, as well as being Washington bureau reporter for energy, environment, and climate change, has variously served as White House correspondent, Washington editor, Los Angeles bureau chief, and political correspondent.
When I first heard about what could at best be described as irregularities in Broder’s behavior during the test drive, I called to apologize for any inconvenience...
Irregular behavior. That goes in the psych report.
When the facts didn’t suit his opinion, he simply changed the facts.
Read: John Broder is a liar.

It might turn out that Musk is more right than Broder. Or, perhaps, as Broder’s rebuttal to the rebuttal claims, the reporter is more right than the Tesla CEO. I don’t know. The New York Times public editor, whose job it is to be an impartial referee on such matters, is so far playing it straight down the middle, adding only that she rejects the contention that Broder’s review was faked to sabotage the Model S or electric-car industry.

Musk could have been equally as circumspect, letting his data speak for itself. Had he lined up the data for readers without adding his own commentary, he may well have found other people were willing to make his arguments for him. Certainly, there’s a friendly crowd over at Reddit who seem more than willing to take up that role.

Musk’s data is strong enough to throw up legitimate questions about some of Broder’s claims, but the CEO didn’t interpret it as might a mathematician or scientist, soberly relaying the findings without any assist from accusatory language. Instead he feeds the conspiracy theory trolls, pushing forward the idea that somehow the New York Times, for reasons we can't divine, has it in for electric cars.

Musk’s combative approach is invigorating and entertaining, but he has also set himself up for a fall. He needs to be wrong on only one of his emotively made points to be undermined.

Ultimately, Musk's approach in trumpeting data as supreme while spinning it to suit his extreme argument – that Broder is a liar who set this whole thing up – is a disservice to the data-driven philosophy. Musk ought to have asked himself: What would Nate Silver do? 

But what the hell – it’s fun to watch.

Disclosure: I own a small stake in Tesla (27 shares, baby), and I have gone on the record to express my admiration for Musk, saying he “will surely one day be remembered as far more important than Steve Jobs.”