The Trimph of (Almost) Certain Uncertainty

You’ve probably heard of Nate Silver. Maybe? If you are in the category of people that don’t know who Nate Silver is, there are 5 possible reasons you haven’t heard of him (not necessarily sorted in order of ridiculousness): you don’t use twitter; if you do, you probably didn’t check out your twitter trends days leading to the 2012 presidential election (or even during the election); you don’t read news that much; all the people on twitter that you follow either don’t care about the election that much or don’t read news that much; you aren’t a Republican pundit.

I’d call myself a news addict. I love reading news whenever I need to take a break. It’s a good way to get out of the flow of work but still learn stuff. But I didn’t know who Nate Silver was until few weeks before the election – specifically during Hurricane Sandy. During Sandy, I didn’t expect to see any thing that’s not related to the Superstorm trending on twitter. But there was Nate Silver’s. Maybe he’s the director of FEMA, I contemplated. So I researched him a little and found lots of information about him, mostly criticisms (at that moment).

I learned about the past successes of Nate Silver in almost accurately predicting the performances of baseball players in Major League, his perfect forecast of the outcome of the 2008 Presidential election. Nate, apparently, uses complex statistical models to predict elections. His models, I think, are mostly hinged on calculating weighted averages of polls appropriately. This, surprising, is a non-trivial task because of the volatility of election polls and the disparity between different election polls. You can’t give the same weight to all polls. Factors like method of polling, polling demographics, party affiliation, accuracy of past polls, and other factors must be considered. For example, during the election, some polls like Gallup and Rasmusseen stood out of all the others. Their results predicted that Romney will win the Presidential election by a comfortable margin. So determining the amount to weight the polls coming in can be hard sometimes. But Nate Silver is on top of his game. He correctly predicted the winner of 49 of the 50 states in the 2008 presidential election. This won him much fame and acclaim. Consequently, he was named one of the World’s 100 Most influential people by Time magazine. Wikipedia has some information on Nate Silver and his accomplishments. Also, Nate’s book, The Signal and the Noise, was published in September 2012.

But all the fuss about Nate Silver during Hurricane Sandy wasn’t because everyone loves and agrees with him. It was because Nate Silver was being heavily criticized for the apparent bias in his prediction models. Some notable political pundits (mostly republicans), including Karl Rove, criticized Nate Silver for trying to help Obama win the election (via the “Mehrabian Polling Snowball Effect”, I guess). On the eve of the election, Nate Silver said there was a >90% of Obama winning the election. Some Republicans called it “gobblygook.” Dean Chambers dismissed Nate Silver as a “thin and effeminate man with a soft-sounding voice” who skews polls in favor of Democrats. Nate, of course, disagreed (in fact, laughed it off). He knew he was going to have the last laugh.

And he’s the one laughing now. He correctly predicted the winner of all 50 states and the District of Colombia (for the Presidential election). What a boss! His profile as a renowned statistician has never been higher. His profile as a celebrity is equally high. Twitter is now commandeered by a ‘Drunk Nate Silver’ (@nateDRUNKsilver). And, apparently, Nate Silver’s a witch (or wizard, rather).

Yes, he predicted almost accurately the results of both the 2008 and 2012 Presidential elections. Yes, he seems to have a skill to identify and
differentiate the “Signal from the Noise”  (that’s Nate Silver’s book– at the time of writing, it’s the #2 Best Selling book on Amazon). But does this
mean that the result of his predictions made him stand out. I certainly don’t think so. Last Febraury, The Signal predicted that Obama would win
reelection. They predicted the outcomes of the Presidential election in 50 out of 51 states accurately. Why? Because the question of who’s going to win a Presidential election in a particular state is a 0-1 question. No one’s talking about these folks even though their predictions were almost accurate. Why? The more the hype/controversy about your prediction accuracy/magic, the more the hype about your prediction models, and consequently the more popular you are.
That’s why Nate’s popular right now: there’s too much hype about the accuracy of his predictions. 

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