March 2013

The Nation Reviewed

Quicksilver

By Michaela McGuire
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Nate Silver’s poker face

Nate Silver embodies a strange mix of stock characters: he’s the magician people hope to catch out crossed with the underdog for whom everyone cheers. The political forecaster, world-class poker player, famed baseball statistician and bestselling author reached international fame when he correctly predicted the results of the 2008 US presidential election in all states but one. Silver’s blog, FiveThirtyEight.com, was subsequently syndicated by the New York Times. On the morning of last year’s election, while media worldwide obstinately proclaimed the outcome to be too close to call, Silver forecast that Obama had a 90.9% chance of winning. Sales of his book The Signal and the Noise octupled overnight.

The 35-year-old has encountered more than his share of sour grapes, but that wouldn’t be anything he hadn’t seen coming. Days before I spoke to Silver in a plush bar at Melbourne’s Crown Casino, the New Yorker ran the triumphantly titled piece ‘What Nate Silver Gets Wrong’. The two academics who wrote the article claim that Silver incorrectly applies the term “Bayesian” to some of his predictions. Complaints of this nature aren’t uncommon, and when Silver isn’t being accused of inaccuracy, suspicion turns to whether he is too accurate. One website – IsNateSilverAWitch.com – posts daily updates as to the likelihood of Silver’s abilities being linked to the dark arts. At the time of filing this article, the verdict was “Probably”.

The Washington Post has dubbed Silver “the boyfriend of the chattering classes”, and the New Yorker recently ran a love letter by a fictional 11-year-old girl who, “for a million years” liked Justin Bieber because he was so cute, “but now I like you ... I keep imagining you saying to me, ‘Emma, I think that there’s a 93.7% chance of me falling in love with you.’” The openly gay data superstar doesn’t much look like anybody’s favourite new celebrity, but it seems that everyone from television hosts to the viewers at home have indeed fallen in love with him. When Silver shuffles onto a couch opposite me after a full day of interviews, he leaves his hands pressed against his knees, elbows crooked. I wonder if he might decamp before I can ask a single question.

Silver has been invited here to play in a poker championship, but he’s found himself being looked to as a political pundit rather than a high roller. When asked about the forthcoming Australian election, Silver responds with the air of a weary uncle who’s reluctantly agreed to one more retelling of his nieces and nephews’ favourite bedtime story.

“People have been trying to bait me all day,” he says. If he were to make a prediction, I ask him gingerly, how long might it take? Silver smiles and shakes his head.

“I should be really careful about anything I say about Australian politics,” he says. “If I do something, I’m usually pretty competitive about it and take it quite seriously, so if people want a quick opinion, then I’ll say, ‘OK, this is a quick opinion.’ But it won’t be a prediction.” He adds: “There’s an art to saying something without really saying anything at all.”

Despite adding caveats to almost all his opinions, quick or otherwise, Silver has never refrained from making a prediction for fear of being proven wrong. He trusts the art and science of prediction implicitly. “That’s the compromise that I think we as a society have to make, between ignorance and omniscience,” he says. “We have to phrase things in terms of probabilities.”

Although he has spent a significant portion of his time applying his abilities to baseball and poker, he is determined to do meaningful work: “I want to be concentrating on areas where I think I can actually contribute to society’s store of knowledge.” His efforts have been met with some criticism, however. The poll-prognosticator has been accused of favouring Obama and using a mathematical model that few people understand to dispense comfort to left-leaning Americans, while unsettling and infuriating those on the right.

Silver insists that he doesn’t enjoy the sport that is American political coverage. “I’m more interested in giving people an alternative,” he explains, “rather than being enamoured with how politics is conducted in the United States. A lot of political programs invite analysts who have a communications degree from some second-tier university, and they’re asked, ‘So … how about Syria?’ They’re pontificating on something that they’ve just made up on the spot. What is the value in doing that?”

Silver eventually offers one of his quick opinions on the government’s electoral chances. “It’s awfully early,” he says, “but one of the principles is that since the economy is doing pretty well here, that usually helps the incumbent party. Especially if you come from the US or Europe, you feel like this place is booming. You see growth happening everywhere.” Silver trails off for a moment and glances out the window at the cranes that dot Melbourne’s skyline. “I think the Western world has a tendency to ignore what’s happening in Australia, but maybe Australians should realise how well this country is doing compared to almost any other industrialised economy.”

Two days later, after Australia’s election date is announced, journalists begin calling his hotel room directly. Shortly thereafter, Silver stops granting interviews.

Michaela McGuire

Michaela McGuire is a journalist and the author of Last Bets: A True Story of Gambling, Morality and the Law and the Penguin Special A Story of Grief. Visit her blog, Twirling Towards Freedom.

@michaelamcguire

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