Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Silver Standard

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It’s never easy to predict the future, and on this particular blog, I try to avoid such prognostications, but just this once, I’m going to go out on a limb: I think there’s a good chance that Nate Silver will be Time‘s Man of the Year. Silver wasn’t the only talented analyst tracking the statistical side of the presidential race, but he’s by far the most visible, and he serves as the public face for the single most important story of this election: the triumph of information. Ultimately, the polls, at least in the aggregate, were right. Silver predicted the results correctly in all fifty states, and although he admits that his call in Florida could have gone either way, it’s still impressive—especially when you consider that his forecasts of the vote in individual swing states were startlingly accurate, differing from the final tally overall by less than 1.5%. At the moment, Silver is in an enviable position: he’s a public intellectual whose word, at least for now, carries immense weight among countless informed readers, regardless of the subject. And the real question is what he intends to do with this power.

I’ve been reading Silver for years, but after seeing him deliver a talk last week at the Chicago Humanities Festival, I emerged feeling even more encouraged by his newfound public stature. Silver isn’t a great public speaker: his presentation consisted mostly of slides drawn from his new book, The Signal and the Noise, and he sometimes comes across as a guy who spent the last six months alone in a darkened room, only to be thrust suddenly, blinking, into the light. Yet there’s something oddly reassuring about his nerdy, somewhat awkward presence. This isn’t someone like Jonah Lehrer, whose polished presentations at TED tend to obscure the fact that he doesn’t have many original ideas of his own, as was recently made distressingly clear. Silver is the real thing, a creature of statistics and spreadsheets who claims, convincingly, that if Excel were an Olympic sport, he’d be competing on the U.S. team. In person, he’s more candid and profane than in his lucid, often technical blog posts, but the impression one gets is of a man who has far more ideas in his head than he’s able to express in a short talk.

And his example is an instructive one, even to those of us who pay attention to politics only every couple of years, and who don’t have much of an interest in poker or baseball, his two other great obsessions. Silver is a heroic figure in an age of information. In his talk, he pointed out that ninety percent of the information in the world was created over the last two years, which makes it all the more important to find ways of navigating it effectively. With all the data at our disposal, it’s easy to find evidence for any argument we want to make: as the presidential debates made clear, there’s always a favorable poll or study to cite in our favor. Silver may have found his niche in politics, but he’s really an exemplar of how to intelligently read any body of publicly available information. We all have access to the same numbers: the question is how to interpret them, and, even more crucially, how to deal with information that doesn’t support our own beliefs. (Silver admits that he’s generally left of center in his own politics, but I almost wish that he were a closet conservative who was simply reporting the numbers as objectively as he could.)

But the most important thing about Silver is that he isn’t a witch. He predicted the election results better than almost anyone else, but he wasn’t alone: all of the major poll aggregators called the presidential race correctly, often using nothing more complicated than a simple average of polls, which implies that what Silver did was relatively simple, once you’ve made the decision to follow the data wherever it goes. And unlike most pundits, Silver has an enormous incentive to be painstaking in his methods. He knows that his reputation is based entirely on his accuracy, which made the conservative accusation that he was skewing the results seem ludicrous even at the time: he had much more to lose, over the long term, by being wrong. And it makes me very curious about his next move. At his talk, Silver pointed out that politics, unlike finance, was an easy target for statistical rigor: “You can look smart just by being pretty good.” Whether he can move beyond the polls into other fields remains to be seen, but I suspect that he’ll be both smart and cautious. And I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Written by nevalalee

November 12, 2012 at 10:18 am

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