Nate Silver is good for political journalism; he’s good for ESPN; he’s good for Hollywood; he’s good for Wall Street; he’s good for consumers. He’s a nightmare for poker tables, at least in 2012, Republicans, and now The New York Times. And of course, this all means that he’s an important person to know and follow for nerds everywhere.
The FiveThirtyEight blogger and statistician made famous in the 2012 Presidential Elections has, at the very minimum, five key traits that make him so good:
He knows his shit (aka he’s really good at what he does).
He’s endlessly driven toward new intellectual stimulation.
He’s his own brand.
It’s not only that Silver is a great statistician, having been a math whiz from a young age, but also that he’s incredibly well versed in that which he analyzes. One need only read his recent article for FiveThirtyEight at The New York Times, “The White House is not a Metronome” to see how thorough his research and knowledge is. The article highlights some of the foundations for his political predictions in the 2012 elections, which have their base in political history, a thing Silver has seemed to have spent a fair amount of time studying. It is perhaps because of this, because of his deep knowledge of political history and of his skill as a statistician, that he was able to predict the outcomes of 49 of the 50 states in 2012.
But his stardom and skill is not just highlighted by an accuracy compounded by historical knowledge, it’s the direct product of a desire for fully informed data that goes against the grain of how other political statisticians have worked and continue to work. He wants to go further, not just to be truthful to the American public, but because he likes this stuff.
This is precisely what makes him so controversial. In an interview with FT magazine, Silver claims that many political journalists either rely on everyday observations—the number of Romney or Obama signs stuck in the ground in front of houses—or a desire to maintain neutrality to help support their “predictions” that the race (any race) is too close to call. He states that it saves them both from political slander (i.e. controversy) and accountability.
What makes Silver so good and important is that he stands behind his passion. He admits he doesn’t want friends (uh, nerd), rather that he wants accurate, high-quality results. So of course, in stating his prediction of Obama’s victory, Republicans called him biased, called him effeminate (Silver is homosexual), prompting The New York Times to call him “disruptive.” It’s as if Silver was the Snowden of statistical analysis.
To make it all better, in a move made in mid-July 2013, Silver, stating that political journalism no longer satisfied his intellectual appetite, opted to sign his blog over to ESPN rather than keep it in its place within The New York Times. This move does three things: it allows Silver to go back to his roots, to broaden his analytical pursuits, and to signify the official establishment of the Silver brand.
Prior to the 2012 Presidential Elections, Silver was working for Baseball Prospectus to which he sold PECOTA (Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm) that predicts the future performances of baseball players. So his move to ESPN, in some ways, is toward familiar territory—sports analysis that, probably, or at least, hopefully, gets him into any major sporting event for free.
In addition to sports analysis, FiveThirtyEight under ESPN will also be ripe with any other statistical ventures Silver fancies, be it economical, political, pertaining to climate change or life decisions (choosing, for example, a restaurant for Friday night or a college for the next four years).
This move and broadening of his horizon is proof that Silver has been able to capitalize on his passion, making both himself and his product desirable. He gets to play by his own rules. And by the looks of his past performance, it seems as if Silver’s out going to be a big hitter. I wonder if he predicted that.