Posts Tagged ‘Nate Silver’

A new podcast about the election! You bet!

We discuss:

  • Why pundits hate Nate Silver
  • Why issues don’t end up mattering
  • Ballot initiatives
  • What will happen if/when Obama wins
  • Our picks
[audio http://dl.dropbox.com/u/14175885/Podcast9.mp3]

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For me, anyway. I’ve mostly resisted paying super-close attention to the Presidential election so far. We’re too far out, most voters aren’t paying close enough attention, and the blustery daily outrage stories are sure to fade long before November.

But, I have to admit I got excited when I saw that Nate Silver revealed his model for the election and posted the first update with it. Silver, as readers of this blog surely recall, earned his math chops as the inventor of baseball performance predictor PECOTA, and later used those same skills to absolutely nail the 2008 election (49 out of 50 states correct, only missing razor-thin Indiana). But just saying he went 49/50 fails to appreciate what Silver offers. He has a keen sense for numbers in general and polling intricacies in particular, and he takes care to explain how his model will have states like Minnesota and Wisconsin move together, as opposed to bordering states that are more dissimilar, like Utah and Nevada. He’s basically the only predictor I will rely on between now and November.

And in his first update, he gives Obama a 61.8% chance of winning. The key states are likely to be Virginia, Ohio, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada and Pennsylvania. There’s a ton of other good stuff in that update.

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Before the age of Silver, articles like the one on the front page of the New York Times today would stand as inarguable truths — Obama can’t win with high unemployment.

But thanks to the glory of Silver, we get actual statistically-based analysis of the problem. Silver’s conclusion: high unemployment is obviously worse than lower unemployment, but there’s no strong correlation (or any correlation really) between presidential elections and unemployment rate.


The problem is that whatever signal [unemployment rate sends] gets filtered through an awful lot of noise. Consider:

  • The unemployment rate itself is subject to fairly significant measurement error.
  • Voters will interpret the unemployment rate in different ways, and assign the president varying amounts of credit or blame for it.
  • The unemployment rate is but one of a number of salient economic indicators.
  • Economic performance is but one of the ways that voters evaluate a president.
  • Voters’ evaluation of a president is important, but they also consider the strength of a president’s opponents, including third-party alternatives in some elections.

If you could hold each of these other factors constant, you could come to a more confident conclusion about how much each tick in the unemployment rate affects Mr. Obama’s re-election odds. But the real world is not set up with these sorts of experiments in mind, and since presidential elections are infrequent, the likelihood that truly comparable cases will exist in the historical data is relatively low.

Economic conditions may be the foundation of the dynamics in any electoral race, but Silver rightly shows that many factors play into the actual outcome of elections. Employment rate on its own is probably a big one, but its effect is basically an unknown quantity.

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I have never said this before, but I must: Nate Silver is wrong.

First, some background. (Non-sports fans, you are warned)

Carmelo Anthony is either an elite player in the NBA, or he isn’t. This year, Carmelo Anthony is paid $16 million — that’s elite player pay.

Advanced NBA stats, such as David Berri’s Wins Produced metric, generally rate Anthony much lower, however. These wins, when added together, correlate with team wins. In the Wins Produced system, an elite player generates >0.300 Wins Produced per 48 minutes. (Lebron James, for instance, has 10.9 WP with 0.345 WP48.) Carmelo Anthony has 3.5 WP and a 0.151 WP48. Thus, Carmelo is not worth his contract. (See Berri’s post for more)

Nate Silver, a god among men, disagrees. He notes that other players, when playing with Carmelo, improve their shooting efficiency. That is to say, Carmelo makes his teammates better.

The problem, of course, is that if Carmelo is inefficient enough, the improved efficiency of his teammates is not enough to make up for the possessions-shot-attempts hole of Carmelo.

The reason I’m bringing all this up at all, however, is the link with the increasing use of “value-added” teaching statistics, as well as the increasingly quantitative approach to occupational statistics. Organizations are depending on numbers to help clear things up for them, to help identify the “good” teachers and the “bad” teachers.

Worse, unlike sports, teaching (or lawyering, for that matter) is not easily quantified with winners, losers, and points. And even in a sport like basketball, with its copious data-taking and constant reassessment on every sports radio station across the country, cannot come to a consensus on the productivity of its best players when each win is worth about $1.6 million. And let’s be clear, just because a statistic is advanced — that is to say, it amalgamates a bunch of other individually observed statistics — doesn’t mean it’s any good for predicting next year’s performance.

This is not to say that we should not use advanced stats. We should use them and they are important. But we should not be so blind as to believe that statistics will tell us everything about the employee productivity. Generally, stats may get the story right, but overvaluation and undervaluation will come out of any statistical system.

Carmelo is still not that good, though.

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Pollster and math genius Nate Silver of http://www.fivethirtyeight.com has declared war on a polling firm called Strategic Vision, LLC. You can read up on his posts on it here, here, here, here, and here. The crux of it is that they refuse to release one iota on their polling methodology (which is standard practice, apparently), and the numbers they release exhibit suspicious non-random distributions.

I’m not qualified to evaluate these claims, but what really caught my attention was the content of that fourth post, which is about a Strategic Vision poll on Oklahoma high school students failing general civics knowledge. The phone poll consisted of 10 basic questions about our government. For example, who was the first President of the US? The shocking part is that only 23% answered George Washington. Actually, what’s more shocking is that the highest number of questions anyone answered was 7 out of 10, and only 0.6% of the 1,000 participants got that many. Check out the results after the jump:


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Nate Silver is an Unpersons favorite. He first became notable to some baseball fans – including the two who run this blog – for inventing an algorithm called PECOTA. Predicting future performances in baseball is notoriously difficult, due to the high degree of variability from year to year. What Silver did with PECOTA was to invent a calculator that compares a player’s performance to that of every player in history, finds the closest comparisons, and then uses those players numbers to predict future stats. It is generally acknowledged as the best baseball stat predictor around.

Next, Silver became notable in the political pundit world for predicting the results of the 2008 Presidential primaries. He first posted under the name “poblano” at Daily Kos, and later made his own website, www.fivethirtyeight.com, where he predicted the results of the election better than anyone else. Before the election, he revealed his identity as Nate Silver, and continues to post political commentary.

What baseball and polling have in common is that they become more malleable and predictable when you are a math genius, which Nate Silver is. These skills also help at poker, so I am not surprised to learn that he is now trying his hand at that. The most famous poker event in the world is the “Main Event” at the World Series of Poker, a No-Limit Texas Hold Em elimination match. The buy-in is $10,000, and this year there were about 6500 entrants, with a top prize of $8.5 million. It is difficult to get updates on this event while it happens, but I’ve been trying to pay some attention. Silver posted an update on his site yesterday, saying that he was ranked #441 and doing decently well. Today, I can see at the WSOP website that there are fewer than 2900 players remaining, and this chip leader page shows him with 110,000, which puts him within striking distance of the current top chip leaders. I used to watch a fair amount of this stuff on ESPN, and I recognize a lot of the names of top pros with around the same number of chips as Silver has. Obviously there is a lot of poker left to play, and it is a mentally draining event, and luck can always swing at any moment, but the fact that he is still around and doing this well is already astonishing. If he makes the final table, or let alone wins, it will further establish his credentials as someone who is excellent at basically everything.


Silver has taken a hit lately, and is down to 68,000, which is under the average amount of those left. But there are also only 1724 left as I write this, and roughly the top 10%, or 648, end up winning prize money.

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