Nate Silver, the young statistician who predicted the outcome of the 2012 U.S. presidential and Senate elections almost to the nose, hosted a Reddit AMA on Tuesday afternooon. (For those just tuning in, AMA means "Ask Me Anything.")
Silver, the author of "The Signal and The Noise," gained widespread recognition in the 2008 election via the statistical predictions on his blog, FiveThirtyEight.com, which is now hosted by the New York Times. By aggregating the results of multiple voter polls, Silver accurately predicted the electoral college results in 49 states.
In the days leading up to the decision between incumbent President Barack Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney, when Silver put Obama's odds for re-election at more than 90 percent, the prognosticator became one of the hottest preelection buzz topics -- largely due to criticism from some rival prognosticators who felt Silver's predictions were reckless and off the mark. According to a November AdAge story, one in five visitors to the New York Times website the day before the 2012 presidential election were there to view Silver's blog.
More than 5,000 Reddit users turned out for the AMA, which was open to question submisions two hours before the 2 p.m. EST start time. Based on those submissions, it appeared that a good portion of participants work or study in the statistics field, and Silver's first few selections were concerned with statistical software and analysis methods. (*Yawn.*) Fortunately, he moved on to more general interest questions.
Silver on Political Media Coverage
In an answer to a user question about the range of topics at FiveThirtyEight.com, Silver said it was "something of a mistake" to let it become a "quantitatively flavored politics blog." Perhaps taking a dig at some of the same political news outlets who dimissed him before the election, Silver said the blog cannot provide meaningful context when "the lead political story is just gossipy and stupid and isn't really newsworthy at all. So on a day like today, when the Chuck Hagel nomination is the major political story and that doesn't really play into our strengths, I'd rather write about something like baseball instead."
Asked if he thought cable news outlets intentionally overlooked the prognostic election data in order to hype up the election, Silver pretty much said yes: "News organizations tend to have incentives to 'root for the story.' Part of what were were saying for much of the campaign ... is that the outcome had become fairly certain. So that creates a bit of a culture clash."
... On The Odds Of A Viable Third-Party Presidential Candidate
"Historically, periods of greater polarization are associated with better performance for third-party candidates, so the chances of a successful independent campaign are probably higher than average. However, that still might mean there's 3 or 5 percent chance ... as opposed to a 1 or 2 percent chance. You might need a perfect storm where (i) Obama is perceived as really having screwed up and (ii) the Republicans nominate someone terrible and (iii) someone VERY talented runs and takes his campaign very seriously and (iv) then gets a few breaks in the Electoral College, etc."
... On Why Politics Are More Frustrating To Analyze Than Sports
"Between the pundits and the partisans, you're dealing with a lot of very delusional people. And sports provides for much more frequent reality checks. ... In politics, you can go on being delusional for years at a time."
... On Gun Control
Silver's response to a question about gun control laws could be seen as controversial, depending on what side of the debate you're on. Asked if he could "prove" whether stricter gun control laws would make the country safer, Silver was circumspect. "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," he wrote, adding, "I'm not saying that the issue is intrinsically inscrutable," just that it was a topic that required a more complex investigation.
... On Celebrity
"When I was in Mexico last week, I got recognized at the top of the Sun Pyramid at Teotihuacan, which I'm pretty sure really is a sign of the Apocalypse."
... On Cats
"I do not own (or rent) a cat."