November 10, 2012

Predicting the election: The man who 'made statistics sexy'

The 34-year-old statistician predicted the results of the presidential race with uncanny accuracy.

By Jocelyn Noveck / The Associated Press

 

Nate Silver
click image to enlarge

Nate Silver, seen at the Allegro hotel in Chicago on Friday, raised the bar Tuesday for accuracy in election forecasting. The 34-year-old statistician and creator of the much-read FiveThirtyEight blog, correctly predicted the presidential winner in all 50 states.

The Associated Press

NEW YORK – The other night, Nate Silver got a little taste of what things are going to be like for him, post-Election 2012.

The 34-year-old statistician, unabashed numbers geek, author and creator of the much-read FiveThirtyEight blog at The New York Times had gone out for a drink with friends on Manhattan's Lower East Side. But he couldn't stay incognito; immediately, he says, people sitting at the bar recognized him.

He was surprised, but probably shouldn't have been. After all, for 24 hours, ever since his election forecasts had proved uncannily successful – he correctly predicted the presidential winner in all 50 states, and almost all the Senate races – he'd been hailed as the election's "other winner," who'd silenced doubters and proved the value of a cool-headed, math-based approach.

That very night, he'd appeared on Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" for the second time in three weeks. "Don't you want to stand up and say, 'I am Nate Silver, bow down to me!'" Stewart roared, as the bespectacled Silver sat and chuckled. His name was trending on Twitter and he was the subject of a satirical Twitter hashtag, "Drunk Nate Silver." The Hollywood Reporter said he'd "made statistics sexy again." Many called his story a real-life "Revenge of the Nerds" tale.

And, oh, his new book had soared to No. 2 on Amazon, after he linked to it on Twitter an hour after the first network call for President Obama. ("This is probably a good time to link to my book," he'd tweeted at 12:13 a.m. – the closest he came to gloating.)

Even so, Silver says he wasn't quite prepared for that incident in the bar.

"It's odd," he said Thursday in a telephone interview from his Brooklyn home. "Is this going to happen every day, as opposed to once a month? I still have to get accustomed to this."

Silver, who uses computer models that he runs on a beat-up laptop at home, is quick to acknowledge the accomplishments of others using similar methods. "It's a little strange to become a kind of symbol of a whole type of analysis," he said. And he noted that similar work was being done with, for example, weather, all the time. "You have to give those forecasters way more credit," he said. "Their forecasts have real life-and-death consequences."

In politics, too, others have used similar computer models to predict races. What Silver has done, though, is not only arrive at a formula that uses aggregated polls and other weighted factors to achieve his predictions, but to write about them in an accessible and engaging way.

His father, political science professor Brian Silver, attributes his son's success to a two-pronged drive: "He's driven by a need to get the answers to a problem, but he also is very concerned with the narrative, with telling the story," said the elder Silver, who teaches at Michigan State University.

The father recalls his son at 2 years old, already revealing himself as a prodigy with numbers -- his mother asked him to count to three, and he went to 20. By four, he understood negative numbers, and could multiply in his head.

Needless to say he was a math whiz, but he also was a debating champion, winning competitions in high school. "On the debate team, it was OK to be a geek," Brian Silver explained. Nate then went off to the University of Chicago, where he earned a degree in economics.

A few years in consulting followed. It bored him, but it was during those years that Silver turned his love of baseball into a sophisticated forecasting system of player performance. That became his new career; he sold the system to Baseball Prospectus, and wrote a weekly column there on baseball research.

(Continued on page 2)

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