Nate Silver, the New York Times writer and statistician who accurately predicted Barack Obama’s reelection using math when all the pundits labeled the race “too close to call,” went on social media network Reddit to answer questions from readers.
While Reddit rules state people can ask him anything, Silver said he would like to discuss “our forecasts of the 2012 election, how polling is changing, America's budgetary politics and sports.”
However, he did answer one question about his sexuality, a subject he said wasn’t appropriate for Reddit. The 34-year-old, who came out to his parents after a trip to London to study economics, recently told Out Magazine he wasn’t “excessively” bullied during his high school years, and maintained a low profile by immersing himself in fantasy baseball leagues or the debate program.
Here’s a selection from Silver’s AMA:
Q. At what point did you feel the 2012 Presidential Election ceased being a ‘close race’? And do you think other media entities who maintained it was until the end were simply not in agreement with you, or kept towing that line to keep ratings up? Also, what did you view as the biggest missteps during the election? — DragonPup
A. 2012 was a reasonably close election. Not 2000 close, obviously, but closer than average.
The distinction that got lost a bit was between closeness and uncertainty. If a baseball game is 3-2 in the bottom of the 9th inning and you've got Papelbon on the mound or whatever, it has definitely been a "close" game but not one in which the outcome is in all that much doubt.
Less abstractly: when it became clear (i) Romney's "momentum" from Denver had begun to recede and (ii) that the final major news event of the campaign (Hurricane Sandy) was working to Obama's benefit, some of the uncertainty was removed.
On his sexuality:
Q. In a recent profile, you stated you wished not to be known as a “gay statistician” but as a statistician who happens to be gay. Isn’t that a bit naive in today’s political and social climate? Don’t you think that whether you like it or not, people will treat you differently because you are gay and that your identity as a gay man cannot be limited to your private sexuality? As someone so ubiquitous now in the public sphere, should you be addressing issues in your writing that are related to gay rights as much as baseball? — snsiegel
A. It's a complicated issue that maybe doesn't lend itself so well to the reddit treatment.
My quick-and-dirty view is that people are too quick to affiliate themselves with identity groups of all kinds, as opposed to carving out their own path in life.
Obviously, there is also the issue of how one is perceived by others. Living in New York in 2013 provides one with much a much greater ability to exercise his independence than living in Uganda — or for that matter living in New York forty years ago. So perhaps there's a bit of a "you didn't build that" quality in terms of taking for granted some of the freedoms that I have now.
And/but/also, one of the broader lessons in the history of how gay people have been treated is that perhaps we should empower people to make their own choices and live their own lives, and that we should be somewhat distrustful about the whims and tastes and legal constraints imposed by society.
On gun control:
Q. Can you prove whether gun control would make America safer? — grecojc
A. It's a tricky problem, statistically. The issue is that while gun ownership rates could plausibly be a cause of fatal crimes and accidents, it can also be a reaction to it, i.e. people purchase guns because they feel unsafe.
I'm not saying that the issue is intrinsically inscrutable. But it's something that more requires a PhD-thesis-level treatment than a blog post to really add much insight, I think.
On his predictions and calculations:
Q. Could you please address some of the biggest misconceptions of what it is you do and **can** do? A lot of “Silver is a wizard who can calculate everything” jokes have emerged, as you have grown in popularity, but often so at the cost of understanding what statistics are actually about. — kskxt
A. More often than not, people overrate the reliability of predictions in systems with a lot of complexity. There are certainly exceptions, and presidential elections are almost certainly one of them, but it's a bit weird/ironic that I'm known for one of the exceptional cases.
Q. Is it correct to assume that sabermetrics will never work in football and basketball like they do in baseball? And if so, is that because baseball is much more of an individual sport, or are there other reasons as well?
(Edit: By an individual sport, I mean that for the most part it’s pitcher vs. batter, with anything happening after that only a result of the initial matchup. This is not like football, where even a simple five yard run only happens because of many moving parts, i.e. blocking, and thus makes it much harder to grade anyone on a completely individual level.) — AllDaveAllDay
A. Well, I guess I'd put it like this: statistical analysis may not get you as far in basketball* or (especially) football as it does in baseball. But it still probably gets you much further than in most industries.
- A lot of NBA teams (especially the ones that win a lot) have become VERY sophisticated about their decision making. Basketball may be closer to the baseball than the football end of the spectrum, both in theory and practice.
Want to keep on reading? Here’s the full thread.