Pop Culture’s Unlikely Star :: Nate Silver
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 proven 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 Barack 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.
In 2007, Silver started writing about politics - at first under a pseudonym, "Poblano." He quickly gained an audience for his forecasts during the presidential primaries. In March of 2008, he began his FiveThirtyEight blog, and a few months later revealed his name.
"People had been thinking Poblano was a major pollster," said his father. "He was just a kid with a B.A. in economics."
With his success in the 2008 race - he got every state right except for Indiana - Silver was already a big name. In 2009 he was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People. In 2010, he licensed his blog to The New York Times.
But the 2012 election brought a new level of pressure. While Democrats flocked to his blog and took daily solace in his consistent prediction that Obama would win - though not by a lot - commentators on the right were critical, and he was accused of weighting his forecasts too heavily toward Democrats.
MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, called him a "joke." Silver responded by betting him that Obama would win, a bet that Scarborough didn’t take him up on and that was later criticized by the Times ombudsman. (That bet was the poker player in him, Silver says now; he spent a couple years playing serious online poker.)
Much more disturbing, said Silver, were what he called the homophobic comments that some resorted to on the Web. "That was a little shocking," he said. Added his father: "It got very personal."
But Silver says he always felt confident in his projections. "I didn’t see any particular reason for the polls to be off the mark," he said. "Republicans said Democrats were oversampled, but without much justification. I felt pretty confident personally." Silver predicted 90.9 percent certainty that Obama would win, and forecast him getting 313 electoral college votes; he has 303 without Florida, which is still counting and could take him to 332.
On Election Day itself, Silver felt nervous, but only because there was nothing left to do. Once the early results started coming in, he relaxed. And then, of course, came vindication. "You know who won the election tonight? Nate Silver," said Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. Even Bret Baier on Fox gave credit on air to Silver. On "The Daily Show," Stewart basically credited Silver with saving the reputation of arithmetic - and more. "Like, gravity would have been up for grabs," Stewart quipped, if Silver had been wrong.
There have been some gripes that Silver doesn’t reveal his actual formula. "He has very carefully explained how he does things," his father answers. "But he’s not giving away his code. He shouldn’t be expected to do that."
Nate Silver does say, however, that in the future, "Maybe we’ll have to be clearer." He also voices concern that precise forecasting could have the frightening effect of influencing voter behavior - something that obviously doesn’t happen in areas like weather. "You don’t want to influence the same system you are trying to forecast," he said.
Silver also says he doesn’t necessarily expect the same results forever. "I know we’re going to have some misses sooner or later," he said, adding that an incorrect forecast on the Senate race in North Dakota is "proof that we can be wrong - and polls can be wrong." Others have pointed out that Silver’s forecasting is, of course, only as good as the polls he is using, since he’s not a pollster himself.
For now, though, he’s trying to enjoy it all as much as he can.
"When you get into statistical analysis, you don’t really expect to achieve fame," he observed wryly. "Or to become an Internet meme. Or be parodied by The Onion - or be the subject of a cartoon in The New Yorker. I guess I’m kind of an outlier there."
What’s ahead for Silver? Turns out, forecasting his own future feels much more difficult than forecasting an election.
"It can be a fulltime job, figuring out what your job is going to be," he quipped.
For now, he has a second book to write, part of a two-book deal. And FiveThirtyEight is set to remain at the Times until mid-2013. After that, he doesn’t know yet, though he noted, with understatement: "I know I’ll have more opportunities now." But he added: "I’m sure there will be a FiveThirtyEight forecast in 2016."
For now, he prefers to look at life, and life choices, as a poker player, since he loves the game.
"You get steely nerves playing poker," he said. "It’s part skill and part luck. You hope you win enough bets to make a living on, right?"