Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878

Nate Silver talks politics to filled Graham Chapel

Matt Mitgang | Student Life

New York Times blogger Nate Silver speaks to a packed Graham Chapel about his blog and politics. In his talk, Silver alluded to potentially quitting if his analysis started to affect political outcomes.

New York Times writer and statistician Nate Silver told a full Graham Chapel audience that he might stop writing his renowned blog should his analyses ever start affecting election results.

Silver spent an hour minimizing his achievements as an auspicious combination of decent blogging and statistical analysis in his Monday night lecture sponsored by the Washington University Political Review. Silver, who began his career doing statistics for Major League Baseball, gained wider fame when his FiveThirtyEight political blog hosted by the Times correctly predicted the 2012 presidential election results in every state.

He said that his statistics are not intended to affect results, which shouldn’t be an issue in most general elections. But he conceded that in races such as last year’s Republican presidential primary, analysis can make a difference.

“The polls can certainly affect elections at times,” Silver said. “I hope people don’t take the forecasts too seriously. You’d rather have an experiment where you record it off from the actual voters, in a sense, but we’ll see. If it gets really weird in 2014, in 2016, then maybe I’ll stop doing it. I don’t want to influence the democratic process in a negative way.”

“I’m [hoping to make] people more informed, I don’t want to affect their motive because they trust the forecasters,” he added.

Without going into any mathematical specifics, Silver said that the key to doing what he does is accounting for margins of error and directing energy in efficient ways. He said that obsessing over a set of data hoping for big results is a waste of time.

“You have to get comfortable thinking in terms of uncertainty,” Silver said. “Don’t take a lot of things for granted; there’s a lot of groupthink in a lot of problems.”

“The basic lesson here—and I guess there are a couple different lessons—is not to expect miracles when you’re looking at big data,” he added.

Silver also spoke from personal experience when he talked about how even people who ask the right questions will often direct their energy inefficiently.

“I have a friend who’s from St. Louis, he’s the kind of guy who, we’ll go out to dinner and he’s trying to figure out what to order, and it will be like a 15 minute ordeal where he’ll have a complex negotiation with the waiter or waitress about what options are available, and it’s very, very painful to go out with him,” Silver said. “[This is] a guy who’s been miserable at his job for a year and a half. I ask him, ‘Why don’t you look for a new job?’ He’s like, ‘Uh, I don’t know, I’m tired.’”

Silver added that it’s similarly important not to overestimate the complexity of things. He referenced the 1997 chess match between Garry Kasparov and the computer nicknamed “Deep Blue.” Kasparov lost the match after the struggling computer made a random move that the grandmaster erroneously interpreted as a sign of some superior knowledge.

“It turned out that what looked like a bug actually was a bug,” Silver said.

After his lecture, Silver answered student-asked questions and spoke about how he thinks what he does can be applied to other research-fueled fields.

“A lot of academic journals should really be blogs instead, where you say, ‘Well I conducted an experiment in the lab today, and here’s what I found.’ One good thing about FiveThirtyEight, for example, is you can do a…study and we can give the audience, the reader, clues about how seriously they should take it. A lot of the time you might be kind of playing around in the data sandbox and you come across something interesting and it’s worth pointing out, but you don’t have to write a whole thesis about it,” Silver said.

Students present at the discussion said they found the speech interesting and relevant despite the fact that he didn’t go into many specifics.

“It gave some good insights and showed that he applied his method to more than just politics,” freshman Eli Horowitz said.

“Since Nate Silver was a mathematician, it seemed like an interesting application of mathematics,” freshman Anthony Grebe, who plans to double major in math and physics, said. “I had seen a little bit about him before the election, and obviously I’m impressed because he predicted it so well.”

Others were impressed with the New York Times blogger’s humility.

“He really spoke to a lot of Wash. U. students in terms of where their interests lie,” senior and WUPR co-editor-in-chief Anna Applebaum said. “He talked about sports, talked about poker, talked about math. I thought it was a great speech, and I had a great time attending.”

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  • Bill Moody says:

    It would be a gift from the gods if we could get all the gasbags and pundits to stop their bloviating their “gut calls” about the election long before we asked Silver to stop his analysis.

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Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878