Beyond 538 — Can Nate Silver Save the World?


Will Nate Silver’s new book reinvigorate intellectual journalism and push us forward on climate change data science?

Nate Silver of political number crunching, fivethirtyeight fame has published a book that could be “one of the more momentous books of the decade”, taking on climate change data, even if it’s not the “geek-conquers-world tell-all in the vein of Moneyball and Freakonomicsreviewer Noam Scheiber was looking for.

Nate Silver has lived a preposterously interesting life. In 2002, while toiling away as a lowly consultant for the accounting firm KPMG, he hatched a revolutionary method for predicting the performance of baseball players, which the Web site Baseball Prospectus subsequently acquired. The following year, he took up poker in his spare time and quit his job after winning $15,000 in six months. (His annual poker winnings soon ran into the six-figures.) Then, in early 2008, Silver noticed that most political prognostication was bunk. Silver promptly reinvented that field, too. His predictive powers were such that at one point the Obama campaign turned to him for guidance.

From baseball to politics, Silver was able to cut through “enormous amounts of data on questions that lend themselves to pious blather.” For example, while pundits have long liked to claim that the winner of the Iowa caucuses enjoys a big bounce in the New Hampshire primary, Silver looked at data from the 1970s onwards and discovered that the so-called bounce comes from exceeding expectations in Iowa, more than winning.

While ‘The Signal and the Noise’ is mostly about what we can’t do, like predicting earthquakes or killer epidemics, Scheiber argues that the book is an important milestone in the making of Nate Silver and the reinvigoration of intellectual journalism.

Journalism is in a strange place these days. Cable and the Internet crippled the old media establishment; political polarization dealt it a death blow. In the meantime, no new establishment has risen up to take its place. What we have is a growing sense of intellectual nihilism. The right-wing media speak only to true believers. Liberal journalists are often more fact-conscious but equally partisan, while mainstream outlets have a rapidly dwindling audience. Few media institutions command widespread credibility.

Will Silver, or “Silver-ism” fill the void?

“Until now, he took aim mostly at sports pundits and political handicappers.” Now it looks like he’s taking on climate change. Silver is “playing the role of public statistician — bringing simple but powerful empirical methods to bear on a controversial policy question, and making the results accessible to anyone with a high-school level of numeracy.”

“Sorting through the numbers on climate change is a much more daunting challenge than figuring out which shortstops will hit for power or which candidate will carry Ohio,” and yes, “Genuine understanding, as even Silver knows, is more than a numbers game,” but we say good luck Nate Silver. The world needs you.

About Charley Moore

Charley is the Publisher of Article 3, as well as Founder and CEO of Rocket Lawyer Incorporated. Prior to founding Rocket Lawyer, Charley advised early stage companies, large enterprises and their investors on strategic partnering and corporate development strategy. Charley has been at the forefront of Internet corporate development since beginning his career as an attorney at Venture Law Group in Menlo Park, California in 1996. He represented Yahoo! (IPO), WebTV Networks (acquired by Microsoft) and Cerent Corporation (acquired by Cisco Systems) at critical early stages of their success and was the founder of Onstation Corporation. Charley graduated from the United States Naval Academy (BS), San Francisco State University (MS) and the University of California at Berkeley (Juris Doctorate). He served as a U.S. Naval officer and is a Gulf War veteran.
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  • EE

    Numbers don’t lie, people do. I hope that Nate Silver shifts the national conversation towards facts and data, and away from rhetoric and half truths. Partisan hacks on the left and the right will try to discredit Silver when his models point to probable results that aren’t favorable to their respective side. The folks with some common sense will understand that Silver’s credibility depends just as much on being agnostic as it does producing accurate models. The biggest problem that Silver faces is that most people won’t understand that even if Romney wins, it doesn’t necessarilty mean that his model is broken. That’s a tough sell to the Fox News / MSNBC crowd.

    • http://n/a bill beres

      To “save” the world, or even the US, factual agnosticism has to become more visible and more respected to achieve some value in the discussions. Agree, there is no “middle” pundit or group that has the high ground, which leaves the millions of the citizens unsure of what to believe and who to turn to. Too early to tell the outcome for the country, but that by itself is a major issue. We are stalled. Who is going to give us a “push?”