What Else Should Nate Silver Predict?

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 5 2012 11:21 PM

The Silver Fox

Nate Silver has made a career out of predicting things better than other people. How?

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 To a perhaps surprising extent, then, one key to successful prediction turns out to be knowing what you’re talking about. From his perch at the Times, Silver stands out among political writers as unusually quantitatively adept. But he’s hardly the greatest mathematical genius in America. His journey from consulting to baseball analytics to professional poker to political prognosticating is very much that of a restless and curious mind. And this, more than number-crunching, is where real forecasting prowess comes from.

Author Nate Silver.
Author Nate Silver.

Courtesy of the author.

In 2008, Silver’s general election forecast, while perfectly sound, was only a marginal improvement on crudely averaging a bunch of opinion polls. Where he really stood out was in the Clinton-Obama primaries where the unprecedented contours of the race were ruining pollsters’ models. Silver was able to see that in this case, state-level demographic information about race, age structure, and educational attainment could drastically improve forecasts. Putting it together took math, but this was fundamentally a substantive conjecture—and a good one—about the underlying structure of American politics.

These days FiveThirtyEight’s predictive content—essentially a daily reassurance to liberals that, yes, Obama is winning—is interspersed with little essays on the political geography of different states. Yet The Signal and the Noise is also a reminder that in a sense Silver’s skills are wasted on election forecasting. That epic primary battle aside, the conventional pollsters’ methods are pretty darn good at telling you who’s winning. But plenty of fields aren’t that good at predicting anything. Silver probably can’t crack the underlying science of earthquakes, but mainstream economic forecasting is an embarrassing mess despite a wealth of relevant data. A clever fox like Silver might be able to more greatly improve our understanding if he turned his attention to the problem in a more sustained way.

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Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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