Nate Silver and the triumph of fact

One of the big winners in the 2012 national election is Nate Silver, a statistician-blogger who predicted President Obama’s election victory.  He called every state correctly and predicted the margin of the popular vote correctly, while better-known pundits, especially on the Republican side, were embarrassingly wrong.   He was subject to personal abuse as well as accusations of left-wing bias from readers who forgot that he predicted the Republican comeback in Congress correctly in 2010.

natesilverforecast2012He was lucky as well as right.  Based on the odds that Silver himself quoted, it wouldn’t have been surprising or discrediting if one of the swing states had gone otherwise than as he predicted.  But he certainly deserves his success and acclaim, for basing his conclusions on fact and logic rather than intuition and wishful thinking.

I’m not surprised that Silver got his start as an analyst of baseball statistics.  I think that on the average daily newspaper, sports writers and their readers have a more sophisticated understanding of statistics than political and business writers do.

Click on Nate Silver wiki for his biography, including his background as a baseball statistician and how during one period of his life he supported himself playing on-line poker.   If you read it, you’ll better appreciate the following comments by Bob Lefsetz on The Big Picture web log on the lessons of Nate Silver’s career success.

1. Breakout Star Of The Election Season

You don’t have to be running to win.  You don’t have to be number one.  Concentrate on being a member of the scene and surviving.

2. Paid His Dues

We’re so used to here today, gone tomorrow. Young people thrust into the spotlight who then disappear.  Rebecca Black left high school to be home-schooled.  College is seen as anathema to success.  But those who last tend to have paid dues far from the spotlight for a long time.  It’s what they did when no one was paying attention that counts.  The seasoning.  Whether it be reading books, listening to music, studying economics… If you’ve got no background, you’ll be exposed as being two-dimensional very soon.

3. Transferable Skills

My inbox is littered with the career questions of those who can no longer work in the music business.  They say they’re stuck, there’s nothing else they can do.  I always point them to the wisdom of “What Color Is Your Parachute,” the career bible.  Richard Bolles speaks of transferable skills.  Nate Silver started off in baseball statistics.  It was an easy, but unforeseeable to most, switch to polling.

4.  Established Players Hate Newcomers

If you think kissing the ass of established players is the road to success, you’re sorely mistaken.  You know you’re on the right path when those in power are excoriating you, as so many did to Mr. Silver.  It’s almost impossible to get the attention of bigwigs.  If they’re coming down off their roost to confront you…you know you’re winning.  If you’re just a sailor, taking orders, you’re going to go down with the ship.

5.  Opportunity

It doesn’t come from marketing, but getting it right. Nothing markets you better than excellence.

6.  Nerdom

silver.nate.mathThere’s been a war on intelligence in the U.S. Education too.  But to watch Nate Silver in action is to love him.  Because he doesn’t primp for the camera, he was on Bill Maher with a bad shave.  He wasn’t media-trained.  He was like that guy next door you grew up with, maybe played with when you were in single digits, but were never best friends with.  But you’re on board with him as an adult, because you know he paid his dues, that this is really who he is.

7.  Methodology

There’s an outcry that “Billboard” has changed its charts. By hewing to the old model, you’re just ripe to be overrun by he who develops the new. People criticized Silver’s methodology incessantly. But it was he who turned out to be most right.

8.  Track Record

Republicans forget that it was Silver who said they were going to triumph in 2010.  People like those who are beholden only to themselves, who call it as they see it as opposed to playing team ball.  Today’s media superstars, the ones we’re enraptured by, are not team players, they’re loners, outliers.  To the degree people are angry with them, it’s because these winners did not follow the safe path, did not do what was expedient, like the haters.

9. Publicity

Nate Silver’s reputation was built online, surfer by surfer, year by year.  You think it’s all about the big time media performance.  Getting on late night TV, on the radio.  Mainstream media opportunities mean less than ever before.  Furthermore, the audience is sophisticated, people know they’re being manipulated.  I heard about Silver from my friend who follows politics religiously for years before I started paying attention.  We take our cues from those who are deeply invested in a topic, like my friend.  The information may sit there for years, until a trigger comes along and we too get on the bandwagon.  I kept hearing about the “FiveThirtyEight” blog.  And when I saw the link on the homepage of the “New York Times,” the bell went off.  I read Mr. Silver and became a convert.  I respect the nerds, they’re going to inherit the earth.

10.  Selling Out

Yes, Mr. Silver is now aligned with the “New York Times.”  But he paid his dues solo, and the news outlet came to him.  Stop pitching and start fielding.  If you’re excellent, people will find you.  Furthermore, Mr. Silver has become bigger than the “Times” itself.  Last week, 71 percent of visits to political sites at the “Times” included a stop at Silver’s blog. Furthermore, 13 percent of all visits to the “Times” last week, the number six news site in the U.S., were to Silver’s blog.  The day before the election, it was 20%.  (  Talent has power.  Individuals can rise to the top seemingly instantly.  The corporation is not king in this world where everybody can start themselves online.  If you’re not making it, you haven’t paid your dues and/or you’re just not good enough.

11.  Gay

Mr. Silver is. It’s rarely trumpeted.  We now live in a post-gay era.  As Chris Rock says, everybody’s got a relative who swings the other way.  If you’re a hater, get over it.  Just like Ms. replaced Miss, the tide has turned, gays have a seat at the table.  Not that there isn’t work to be done educating the naysayers.

12. You Can Win

But you’ve got to want it.  You’ve got to be willing to follow the road less traveled.  You can’t take what you read at face value.  You’ve got to be unique.  You’ve got to be so outside they won’t let you on the reality TV show.  You’ve got to be everything great about America – self-motivated, with a winning attitude, willing to do the hard work.

via The Big Picture.

Now that Nate Silver’s methods have proven successful, he will have lots of competitors who try to imitate his methods.  I think of the old shipbuilder in Kipling’s poem, The Wreck of the Mary Gloster, reflecting on his business competitors.

They copied all they could follow,

but they couldn’t copy my mind.

So I left ’em sweating and stealing,

a year and a half behind.

While I admire Nate Silver, I think the use of social science in political campaigns is at best a mixed blessing.  The more effectively candidates are able to use polling data to assess how the public responds, the better they are able to use polling data to sift and sort the voters and target their messages to particular groups, the less sure I am that a candidate’s message reflects what he or she actually thinks.

I think newspapers and broadcasters spend too much space and time in reporting on which candidate is winning, and too little in providing information to enable voters to intelligently decide who should win.  I think pollsters’ forecasts can become self-fulfilling prophecies if taken too seriously.  Forecasts such as Nate Silver’s are like the odds given on horse races.  The favorite usually wins, but not always.  That’s why we have to have an actual vote.  The best way to determine the winner of an election is the Wait Until the Voters Are Counted Algorithm.

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