Nate Silver on the Election, Pundits, and His Drunk Alter Ego

The New York Times statistician talked to Chicago while promoting his new book, The Signal and the Noise

Nate Silver

It’s been a busy week for Nate Silver. On the heels of correctly predicting the presidential election in all 50 states, Silver flew into Chicago—where he lived following his graduation from the University of Chicago until 2009—to give a talk for the Humanities Festival while also promoting his bestselling book, The Signal and the Noise. Chicago magazine caught up with Silver Saturday afternoon at his hotel to talk about his post-election life, run-ins with political pundits, and of course, what drunk Nate Silver is really like.

So what has life been like since Tuesday?
It’s been really strange. I was going to CVS to get toothpaste and stuff, and people stopped me in line. It’s just a little hard to get used to. I assume that’ll wear off to some extent but, yeah, there are multiple “Are you Nate Silver?” sightings every day now.

How does that compare to 2008?
If that’s the metric, having someone interrupt you on the street—you might get, 2008 was happening maybe once per week, right? Now it’s like six times per day.

You’ve been characterized as a wizard or a witch—what’s your reaction to that?
I’m trying to maintain some form of detachment from it, almost like it’s happening to another person or another character. But it’s weird, and goes to show you what can happen in the Internet age, where things can take off really, really fast.

In your book—and on your blog—you try to make the distinction between accuracy and honesty, but one of the major criticisms against you has been that your methodology favors Democrat-leaning polls. How do you separate your personal biases from the data?
If you actually look at our track record, you’ll see that we really don’t have any bias. When we’ve missed, we’ve tended to call races for Republicans mistakenly instead of Democrats. First of all, I think it’s odd that people who cover politics wouldn’t have any political views. The analogy I make sometimes is the O.J. Simpson or Michael Jackson trial. You know, you’re supposed to find the 12 people, for a jury, who have no impression of Michael Jackson? How can you be a normal person and not have some view of Michael Jackson? How can you cover politics and not have any sense for where you think the truth lies in the problem? That disturbs me. A lot of journalism wants to have what they call objectivity without them having a commitment to pursuing the truth, but that doesn’t work. Objectivity requires belief in and a commitment toward pursuing the truth—having an object outside of our personal point of view. But with that said, look, I might have different types of rooting interests here, one being the public policy outcomes I might like. But there are also the kinds of biases in terms of rooting for your forecast. If we had had Romney ahead, then I would be rooting for Romney to win on Tuesday night because that’s my much bigger priority in terms of my career…. You get some conservative critiques that just aren’t actually even bothering to look at what we do and saying, “He voluntarily rates the polls.” No, I’m not going through thousands of polls a day weighting every poll to the fifth decimal place.

You’ve heard Dean Chambers’s comment that you were too “effeminate” and “small of stature” to be trustworthy. How do you deal with being put under a quickly increasing amount of personal scrutiny?
It just went to show how deluded people can be—having an emotional reaction to the data they don’t like and not really a rational reaction. Also, it kind of went to show how this guy just has fantastical views of, “Oh, it’s a conspiracy. They’re rigging the polls against Romney.” He thought even the Fox News poll was rigged for President Obama. And yet there were some news reporters who were treating him seriously. You know, “He said, she said, here’s what some people say.” So he demonstrated, I think, with those comments, that he’s not someone who deserved a lot of attention, I suppose.

Why has the data-driven approach to predictions received so much attention recently, and what role have you and your team played in that?
I think people like those types of stories because—Moneyball is a part of it, right? And I think we have so much information now, we have so much data. We need better practices, strategies, techniques, to make better use of it. I think people are hungry for it. I think people do—appropriately—not trust the messenger so much. They don’t necessarily trust the reporter or the pundit to relay all the facts to them when they have so much information at their disposal, for free, basically. So it plays into that curiosity for what we do with all that information.

What does the growing popularity of this approach mean for the future of journalism and punditry in particular?
I think punditry serves no purpose. I don’t care if it has a future. For journalism though, there are two ways to do it. You can go and take your traditional journalist—and many of them are fantastically good reporters, very good writers, certainly The New York Times—and try to train them more in some math and probability and statistics. Or you can hire people who come from that background, where maybe now some papers are going to hire economics majors and math majors, fields that you wouldn’t typically enter if you want to go into journalism. But I would think—I guess I would predict—you’ll see more data-driven analysts or reporters. I think at some places, there are questions about where do these journalists fit in and what do you call them? Because the term reporter is now in context, but what is it, right? The New York Times, by hiring me, took a step to do that. The Washington Post has done that with Ezra Klein, but the Times, some of the best journalists are those who make their interactive graphics. And they really do consider themselves journalists, in terms of, “We’re trying to present complex information in a way that helps elucidate the truth to people.”

Based on the way your model has predicted this year’s election, do you think Republicans will—in the future—have an aversion to the statistical approach?
I think people knew that Obama would have a better method-driven operation for voter turnout and so forth, but now you hear some of the stories from volunteers on the Romney campaign. You know, “The election’s over now, fuck it. We’re going to say it. These systems were badly designed, were not functioning properly on Election Day itself.” And that’s surprising. Look, in 2000, Bush and Rove had taken the lead in voter targeting and data-driven stuff. In 2004, they were still very good, and Kerry caught up a little bit. Then in 2008, Obama sort of kicked McCain’s butt as far as data-driven stuff goes, and you would think that Romney would have heeded that lesson. There were a lot of other factors, obviously, but why not go with the Bush/Rove/Obama model, right? That’s what really won the last three elections. But Romney seems to have replicated the same errors, and I’m not sure why. There are some theories that because, I guess, the people who populate these offices tend to be younger and more tech-savvy and more urban, and those are Democrat-leaning demographics. It’s hard to find good people, who are Republicans, who would be optimal employees in that respect. But it could be a certain amount of stubbornness I think, a certain amount of ideology at play, where you think, “Our message is so powerful that once America hears our message, and how much of a failure Obama has been, then we won’t need to turn out extra voters in Roanoke or whatever.” It’s a variety of things, I think, but I would think that the next Republican candidate would be less likely to make that mistake, but who knows?

What—theoretically, in your mind—would have happened if Romney had won? Would stats have taken a hit?
I think they would have. In part because—and we did say there’s a nine percent chance he was going to win. It’s tough to flesh that out sometimes. It’s too abstract for people. But I’ll say, for example, we had a Democrat in North Dakota who only had a nine percent chance of winning her race, and she did. Over enough cases, you’re going to get some of those nine percent chances coming up, and had that happened in the presidential race rather than a senate race in North Dakota, I don’t know what would’ve happened. It would’ve been bad.

Would your career have been on the line?
I’m not sure it would have totally been on the line, but frankly, I’m not sure I would have kept doing politics after that, just because I don’t really like politics very much. If it’s something that informs people, and which people really like, then that’s fine. But it’s not a good career move, over the long run, to be banking on this once-every-four-years bet. If you’re doing stuff in baseball or poker, you play a hand badly or you get lucky—it’s hard to separate those two sometimes—and you re-buy and make the best decision next hand. But having so much on the line every four years is a little nerve-wracking.

Why do election predictions if you don’t like politics to begin with?
I was frustrated with—I guess I don’t like—the “politics” part of politics. I think the elections are a fascinating thing, both in terms of how they function in our democracy and in terms of problems you can study with numbers and metrics. I guess I don’t like the people in politics very much, to be blunt. But also, I used to work for Baseball Prospectus, and I’d seen how the analytics in that domain had improved so much and the media coverage had improved so much, and I felt like politics was still in the Stone Age, at least in the way it was covered by pundits and by the press.

Do you see yourself staying in journalism, or moving into private consulting or public policy?
I don’t know. I have a lot of choices to make right now, and I’m trying not to rush into it too much. There are a lot of different career paths, and I have to, frankly, avoid the tendency to spread myself too thin. There’s the weird analogy now between myself and a celebrity chef. You’re probably very good at running your one restaurant. You get some notoriety and it’s deserved. But someone will put their name on 12 different properties that become really average restaurants in the end and lose what made them special. So I want to be careful about spreading my brand too thin. There are different routes. I could start a consulting company. I could do public policy. I could do Hollywood-related stuff. I could just keep doing what I’m doing. They’re all interesting options. I just have to weigh them.

I’m sure you’ve heard of the Twitter trend #DrunkNateSilver. What does drunk Nate Silver actually do?
I do what everyone else does, which is argue about stupid things with my friends. I don’t become dark and ironically evil.

Walking into maternity wards and predicting the 53rd president of the United States?
No, no, no. But that could be a good TV show. It’s a character named Nate Silver, but it’s not actually me. So you have a public image that I kind of call your public brand, but there’s something that just kind of took hold beyond that, and it’s kind of weird. I’m hoping that it calms down a little bit, and I’m sure it will.

Back when you were living in Chicago, one of your first blogs was the Burrito Bracket, in which you attempted—via statistics—to find the best burrito in Wicker Park.
Yes. I would just go and eat tacos and burritos for lunch a lot and compare those, get the same food item, like a steak burrito, for consecutive days at different locations. And then try to have quasi-scientific criteria for judging those, just thinking about all the different characteristics for a good burrito or taco.

Meat-to-cheese ratio.
Meat-to-cheese ratio. It’s funny. I think it’s always helpful when you’re trying to evaluate something to have a disciplined set of criteria. For a while, I was trying to rate every restaurant that I went to in New York. I would find that I would rate a place four stars and go back a few months later and have a very different view of it. You realize it’s because the food quality can change, but your mood changes so much, where you’ve had a really stressful day at work, and you’re out with a friend who’s in a bad mood, and the service is slow, and the food kind of tastes worse. Whereas, if you’re in a good mood, and you’ve had a couple cocktails, and you’re not feeling stressed, then everything seems wonderful. That exercise taught me that when we go by our gut or our mood—“Oh, our gut will tell us everything we need to know”—believe me, it’s very useful for a lot of things, but it can also fool us.

Did you ever figure out the best burrito?
No, I never finished. Even I managed to get a little sick of Mexican food eating it basically every day for a month in row. I should finish it. The problem is there are all these places that have opened or closed. I went to this place called Big Star, and it was pretty good, so that might be the winner, maybe.

Where do you draw the line, as far as quantifying variables in your day-to-day life?
I wouldn’t say I’m going by a formula for day-to-day life decisions.

Like I have a 50 percent chance of getting hit by a car when I cross the street.
I’m good at—something I calculate is when can I leave for the airport so I’m not going to be late. Little things like that, where I’m trying to have some idea of how much can I afford to be late for the airport. I hate being early to the airport.

Before your book was released, you said it was a risk, since book sales follow a non-linear model and only a few become runaway hits. Now you’re at number two on Amazon.com. I guess you weren’t expecting this?
Yeah, I thought it would get a little bounce. But now I’ve gotten an 800 percent sales boost, so it’s good. My publisher is very happy, I should say. But yes, books do have this sort of viral quality—even in the most traditional form—where word of mouth matters some, and you start to see them on prominent displays in airports, and people start to write about them, and it sort of snowballs. I think the fact that—I do think it’s a serious and substantive book, so the fact that people can pick it up and say, “Hey, this kid’s not just a flash in the pan. He’s making serious arguments about how we look at information.” If people are actually reading the book, then I’m happy. I hope people are able to get something out of it.

 

RELATED: Journalism in the age of Nate Silver and big data | Obama victory party photos | More election night coverage

 

Photograph: Robert Gauldin

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