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

Cover: March 2013
View Edition

From the front page

Image of former industry minister Christian Porter in the House of Representatives, August 24, 2021. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Image

Protecting Porter

Why does the government keep doing this?

Cover image for Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘The Morning Star’

Hell’s kitchen: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘The Morning Star’

The ‘My Struggle’ author’s first novel in 17 years considers the mundanity of everyday acts amid apocalyptic events

Image of ‘Bewilderment’

‘Bewilderment’ by Richard Powers

The Pulitzer winner’s open-hearted reworking of Flowers for Algernon, updated for modern times

Image of ‘Scary Monsters’

‘Scary Monsters’ by Michelle de Kretser

Two satirical stories about fitting in, from the two-time Miles Franklin–winner


In This Issue

‘Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott’ by David Marr, Black Inc, 256pp; $19.95

Political Animal

The Making of Tony Abbott

Quarterly Essay 49, ‘Not Dead Yet: Labor's Post-Left Future’ by Mark Latham, Black Inc, 101pp; $19.95

The Rise of the New Right

Mawson’s expedition. Photo by Frank Hurley. Courtesy of the State Library of NSW.

From Cecil, with Loathing

‘Madigan’s Account: The Mawson Expedition’

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Bonfire of sole


More in The Nation Reviewed

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Close to home for Katy Gallagher

Life in quarantine as COVID-19 hits Senator Katy Gallagher’s family

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

A loss of character

Remembering some of Sydney’s well-known streetfolk

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

The agony and ecstasy

Clinical trials in Perth will study the use of MDMA to treat PTSD and addiction

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Return of the devil

Tasmanian devils may soon be returning to the wild on the mainland


Read on

Cover image for Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘The Morning Star’

Hell’s kitchen: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘The Morning Star’

The ‘My Struggle’ author’s first novel in 17 years considers the mundanity of everyday acts amid apocalyptic events

Image of Jeremy Strong as Kendall Roy in HBO’s Succession season 3. Photograph by David Russell/HBO

Ties that bind: ‘Succession’ season three

Jeremy Strong’s performance in the HBO drama’s third season is masterful

Image of a tampon and a sanitary pad viewed from above

A bloody shame: Paid period leave should be law

Australia’s workplace laws must better accommodate the reproductive body

Image of Gladys Berejiklian appearing before an ICAC hearing in October 2020. Image via ABC News

The cult of Gladys Berejiklian

What explains the hero-worship of the former NSW premier?