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MIT student blogger Michael C. '16

Nate Silver visits MIT (or, do witches exist in real life?) by Michael C. '16

No, he can't predict the outcome of your admissions decision. Probably.

does this even need a caption?

I am what one might call a “professional blogger”, or what a liberal arts graduate might call an artiste, or what reality might call “an unemployed college freshman.”  And the best part of being a prufesssional riter – besides the multi-dozen dollar salary, and the luxurious corner office dorm room, and the stubborn ExpressionEngine blogging platform with which I am currently wrestling – is the freedom to work in my underpants.

I’m living the high life, man.

But despite the fact that I am totally in denial about blogging not being a real job, some people are professional bloggers.  And famed statistician Nate Silver is one of them.

Nate Silver needs no introduction, unless of course you’ve never heard of him before, in which case I’ll attempt to do him justice in a few lines.  He is:

  • a prediction wizard and the creator of FiveThirtyEight, the stunningly accurate statistical model that correctly called all 50 states in the 2012 presidential election.  In 2008, he got 49 right.  (and, of course, there’s the other measure of his success on Election Day)
  • the guy behind possibly the most important political blog in the world (his FiveThirtyEight model has been so influential that he’s said he might actually have to stop blogging in the future, for fear of skewing election results)
  • a statistician who moved from consulting to poker to baseball to politics
  • a sassy Twitter fiend not afraid to feud with political pundits who are full of hot air (*cough* Joe Scarborough)
  • somewhat of an Internet phenomenon, with Nate Silver jokes sprouting all over the place (When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, he had 3 missed calls from Nate Silver.  Nate Silver’s samples have only a median and a mode; because no number would be mean to Nate Silver. Nate Silver doesn’t call the election wrong; the wrong election was held.).  Even Obama got in on the fun.

But it’s not just that FiveThirtyEight was so accurate; after all, other models during the election also did very well, within 2-3 points of Silver’s.  It’s that throughout his whole career, from baseball to Washington, he has stood strong in the face of not just criticism but also increasingly ridiculous homophobic attacks (he is gay).  It’s that one unassuming man and his mathematical model predicting a 90.1% chance of an Obama victory beat the entire established political news media that clung to its storyline of the race being a “tossup.”  And by beating them in such an emphatic way, it wasn’t just a triumph for Nate Silver; it was a public victory for scientific rationalism in a world that could use a lot more of it.

Oh, and he might be a witch [source: IsNateSilverAWitch.com]

All of this is a very long-winded way to say that Nate Silver is as close to a rock star as you can get in the world of statistics and politics, and he visited MIT today, and it was awesome.  It was also packed.  There were so many people that not only was the auditorium filled, but the overflow room where people watched the livestream of the event was also standing room only.

Someone noted that more people showed up for this political statistician than for a movie star a few months ago.  Which, as my friend Isaac quipped, is totally MIT.

this isn't even counting the overflow room

Luckily, I was able to snag a seat near the front, right behind the “real” press.

Some of my favorite lines of the night:

  • His reaction to Obama winning: “I didn’t f— this up!  Now I get to troll Politico!”
  • “Empiricism. It’s a lot better than trying to count yard signs.”
  • “I’m very sympathetic to the academic viewpoint that it should be open source. But I don’t have a tenure track position.” (on why he hasn’t open-sourced FiveThirtyEight)
  • “It’s easy to compete with stupid.” (on why he’s been able to beat the pundits so easily at their own game)
  • “Romney was an interesting experiment in what happens if you have no long term consistency at all in your policies.”
  • Q: Did your parents think you were insane when you quit your consulting job to go analyze baseball? A: “Well, most of my income at the time anyways came from playing poker during work, so I don’t think they were too worried.”
  • “The New York Times is like the Yankees.  Lots of people hate them, but everyone pays attention to what they do.”
  • “Someone already registered FiveThirtyNine, so I’m really against Puerto Rico getting electoral votes.”
  • “I’ve been flying a lot lately, and I’m really excited that tomorrow’s March 1st.  New in-flight magazines!”
  • “All politicians bullsh– from scant evidence. The professionalisation of politics means the average tenure of a senator is 18 years or something, on average. So you get people who are more sophisticated at manipulating public opinion. To some extent politics has become too efficient for its own good, and long term problems are getting neglected.” (on the problems facing politics today)
  • “You get more vitriol from political people. People in sports don’t take themselves quite as seriously. People have a sense of humour. There’s not much sense in political news coverage about whether a story is important. There’s too much play by play. When you only have an election every four years, it’s difficult.” (answering my question about what the transition from baseball to politics was like)
  • “If you’re making a true prediction, you’re putting your opinion on the line.  You’re testing if your perceptions have a correlation to reality.” (on why pundits’ opinions aren’t worth very much)

Also, I noticed that Nate likes to wave his arms a lot.  Either that, or he was casting a witch spell on the audience:

repeat after me: you WILL love Bayes' Theorem

So, the main takeaways from the event:

  • If you want to be like Nate, you should probably play a lot of hooky during your day job and win money at online poker.
  • Trust statistical analysis over gut feeling, and you’ll win a lot of bets.
  • Don’t listen to the pundits.
  • Really, don’t listen to them.

bonus points to you if you can figure out what those numbers are

To all the applicants awaiting decisions: May the odds be ever in your favor, if Nate Silver says they are.