SXSW Interactive Conference Quick Cuts

Statistician Nate Silver on more data, more problems

Nate Silver
Nate Silver (Photo by Sandy Carson)

The Signal & the Noise

Sunday, March 10, Austin Convention Center

In the days and weeks after Obama won the 2012 Presidential election, Nate Silver was called a witch (see and taunted with a Twitter hashtag, #DrunkNateSilver, recounting all the ways the statistician, drunk with power after predicting all 50 states in the election, was wreaking havoc on our predictable world.

Before his Q&A on Sunday, he remarked that the media fanaticism over his election sweep was a bit silly, and that what he did was not revolutionary: He was just using public data to make a very educated guess. Still, at one point in late 2012, Google search trends showed Nate Silver was more popular than Joe Biden, a fun fact illustrated via a colorful PowerPoint presentation.

On his New York Times blog, FiveThirtyEight, and in his 2012 book, The Signal and the Noise, Silver makes a case for data as a valuable intuitive tool, one that can predict everything from elections to flu epidemics. (FiveThirtyEight's March 1 post pondered whether Texas could become a blue state by 2016.) Silver noted which events are hardest to predict (the Oscars) and explained why the Cubs are cursed (their fans show up no matter what, therefore ensuring they won't ever get better).

He also addressed the downside of too much information. To paraphrase Biggie: more data, more problems. There was an interesting anecdote about the 1997 match between Garry Kasparov and IBM's computer program, Deep Blue. Kasparov, known for thinking 15 moves ahead of an opponent, was flummoxed by a Deep Blue move and took this as a sign of superior intelligence. In fact, the program had a bug; Kasparov simply gave his competitor too much credit. Silver also explained how GPS can mislead us with a false signal, making a case for intuition versus technology. Sometimes intuition is right.

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