Nate Silver sees soaring Amazon book sales
The FiveThirtyEight blogger's confident and steadfast Obama forecast gets readers curious and critics furious.
While political pundits on various news networks brayed Tuesday night about momentum, the path to 270 electoral votes and their gut feelings about the presidential election, Nate Silver had just five words for them.
"On the wall. The writing," Silver tweeted at 9:29 p.m. ET. Silver, whose FiveThiryEight blog is hosted by The New York Times, has for months used his mathematical analysis of polling data to forecast a victory for President Obama. While his estimates often generated criticism from Republicans, in the end his electoral map correctly predicted the outcome in 49 states, with only the close but Obama-leaning vote count still unsettled in Florida.
At 12:13 a.m. Wednesday morning, Silver posted another tweet: "This is probably a good time to link to my book," with a link to the Amazon (AMZN) page for "The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail -- but Some Don't." The book's been around since late September, but after Silver's call last night, its sales on Amazon jumped 800% in 24 hours. Only the children's book "The Third Wheel (Diary Of A Wimpy Kid, Book 7)" sold more copies in that span.
For Americans weary of horse-race politics, breathless coverage and the parade of talking heads espousing their thoughts on the numbers without delving into any of that data, Silver is a big, red "off" button for the squawk box. His methodology strips away human emotion and interpretation and cuts right to the numbers and the math behind readily available and universally accessible data. It makes folks who don't want to do the legwork a little prickly, but has aroused intellectual curiosity among voters tired of seeing perhaps their most important civic duty reduced to a cyclical procedural drama.
It's vital work but, as with most pioneers, it's earned Silver as much scorn as praise. While working as an economic consultant with KPMG in Chicago in the early 2000s, Silver developed the Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm (PECOTA) for forecasting Major League Baseball player performance. It got him an executive position at the Baseball Prospectus website and, combined with Michael Lewis' book "Moneyball" and statistician Bill James' developing sabermetrics, ushered in the quantitative era of baseball management. It also caught him all sorts of flak from purists in baseball's announcing booths and press boxes who didn't like feeling dumb about a sport they'd followed their entire lives.
Political pundits got similarly irate in 2007, when Silver turned his attention to politics and started posting predictions about the 2008 presidential election on Daily Kos and elsewhere. A year later, he started FiveThirtyEight -- named for the number of presidential electors in the electoral college – and correctly predicted the winner in 49 out of 50 states (missing only Indiana, where Obama won by 1%) and sweeping all 35 Senate predictions.
He licensed the blog to the New York Times (NYT) in 2010 and has been an independent contractor for them ever since. It's been a mutually beneficial arrangement, as Web research firm Alexa found that “538” was the eighth most-searched term driving traffic to the New York Times site during this year's election, while the New Republic reported that 20% of visitors to the Times' site the day before the election went to Silver's blog.
There were a fair share of green-eyed political monsters tucked away in those visitor numbers prior to Tuesday night. Political scientists at the University of Colorado shunned Silver for their own, flawed, Romney-leaning model. MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, host of "Morning Joe," sharply criticized Silver's findings. Even Silver's New York Times colleague David Brooks threw shade at his polling data, noting that "experts with fancy computer models are terrible at predicting human behavior."
When critics couldn't match Silver on political or analytical ground, they just tried to bully him out of the way. Dean Chambers, the man behind the UnSkewed Polls site whose idea of "unskewing" was basically manipulating data until Mitt Romney came out ahead, posited that Silver was not only biased, but was biased because he was a "thin and effeminate man with a soft-sounding voice." For the record, Chambers' presidential forecast -- a 311-227 electoral vote victory for Romney -- fell somewhat short of Silver's.
Wednesday morning, the lazy political trolls crawled back under their bridges and Silver's star shone just a bit brighter.
"Nate Silver wins & data is vindicated. So who's an embarrassment to journalism now?" tweeted journalism think tank The Poytner Institute. "The next sound you hear will be Nate Silver negotiating a new contract," tweeted Politico's Roger Simon.
The subtext: Don't get made because Silver's doing the work you won't. Silver may not sit well with folks who need to fill hours and column inches during an election cycle. But if he gets more political journalists to look up the word "epistemology," sandwich his book between their copies of the AP Stylebook and Strunk and White's "Elements of Style" and stop calling him a witch, everyone will be better off and better informed during the next election cycle.
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