By Jeremy Manier and Hannah Hayes
Photo by Lloyd DeGrane
It seemed the most unlikely of celebrity headlines: “Nate Silver, Pop Culture Star.”
But in the wake of the 2012 presidential election, that’s how a lot of the political world sees Silver, a 2000 Economics graduate of the College who wields polling data the way Bono wields a microphone.
His statistical models were a mainstay of political discussions during the campaign—on the day before the election, 20 percent of visitors to The New York Times website went to Silver’s blog, FiveThirtyEight. And his success in predicting the outcomes for all 50 states in the presidential election has brought new attention to his techniques, steeped in his UChicago training and an affinity for baseball statistics.
"It's a little strange to become a kind of symbol of a whole type of analysis," Silver told the Associated Press in a post-election interview.
The acclaim also meant a spike in interest for Silver’s recent book, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail–But Some Don’t. That volume shows just how far Silver wants to apply his ideas beyond the domain of politics. He describes the difficulty and potential in making predictions for an array of fields, ranging from weather forecasting to financial markets. A review in The New York Times hailed Silver as a “public statistician,” calling his method “so empowering that it’s intoxicating—as if there’s no question he couldn’t answer with a big enough spreadsheet.”
Idea quickly takes flight
Silver told the University of Chicago News Office in 2009 that he was stranded in a New Orleans airport when the idea of starting his blog FiveThirtyEight came to him. “I was just frustrated with the analysis,” says Silver. “I saw a lot of discussion about strategy that was not all that sophisticated, especially when it came to quantitative things like polls and demographics.”
At the time, Silver was a managing partner at Baseball Prospectus, an independent think tank devoted to statistical analysis and research in baseball. Silver revolutionized the discussion when he developed the Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm (PECOTA), a system that predicts the success of a player or team in any given season.
Baseball preoccupied Silver—while he was studying economics at UChicago, he had written about sports for the Chicago Maroon. He also contributed as a student to BaseballHQ.com, a site catering to fantasy baseball aficionados trying to forecast how individual players will perform.
Although talking baseball may seem a far cry from presidential politics, Silver didn’t see it that way. “It reminded me of baseball, when you see the same recycled clichés and conventional wisdoms over and over again, some of which isn’t very wise.”
A political junkie, Silver was blogging on the popular political site The Daily Kos under the pseudonym “Poblano,” a name he used while blogging on the best Mexican restaurants in Wicker Park. Two months after the launch of FiveThirtyEight, Silver delighted political junkies when he unveiled his true identity as baseball’s whiz kid.
“It’s kind of a small world when you’re talking about political bloggers,” says Silver. “There are about a dozen political blogs that drive things.”
While predicting baseball games is slightly different than predicting elections (more players and games give more data points), Silver “borrowed a few tricks” from sabremetrics, a term coined from the acronym for the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). His method involved tracking the accuracy and past successes of major pollsters while looking for variables that might explain discrepancies.
“I get frustrated when I can’t find the variable to explain something,” he says.
Still grounded in data
Following Election Day 2012, Silver’s fame has shot to sometimes ridiculous heights. His book soared to No. 2 on Amazon. Talk show host Jon Stewart dubbed him “Lord and God of the Algorithm.” Multiple Nate Silver memes erupted on Twitter, including the hashtag #NateSilverFacts, which put a mythic spin on his abilities. “Results ask Nate Silver if they’re significant,” one fan claimed.
The Hollywood Reporter cited entertainment industry interest in landing Silver, whose blogging contract with the Times runs through the middle of 2013. But he stressed that his big goals include branching out to subjects beyond politics while staying focused on the potential of statistical prediction. One possibility could be a TV program to look at “how statistics are shaping society and how they can solve problems,” Silver told the Reporter.
Through it all, Silver never left behind the subject that first ignited his passion for prediction: baseball. One week after the election, he posted an extended analysis at FiveThirtyEight on “The Statistical Case Against Cabrera for M.V.P.” The post uses a tide of data to build a powerful critique of conventional wisdom—which is, in a nutshell, Silver’s approach to baseball, politics, and points beyond.