Silver Scrutinizes Stats

Robert F Worley

Nate Silver, the man behind The New York Times' FiveThirtyEight blog, discusses different aspects of prediction in politics and baseball.

It was an eclectic crowd—political junkies, fantasy baseball aficionados, and statistics wonks—that jammed the Kirkland junior common room Wednesday night. But Nate R. Silver, prominent statistician and political blogger for The New York Times, is an eclectic guy.

Silver, who began blogging on politics after writing on sabermetrics in baseball, cautioned against the extant “noise” in current polling information about the U.S. elections, quick volatilities that can often distract voters and media pundits, at an event co-hosted Wednesday by the Institute of Politics and Conversations with Kirkland.

During his talk, Silver said that the current presidential election has been trickier to track than the 2008 race. “If you were a non-idiot, then you should have gotten 47 out of the 50 states right [in 2008],” said Silver, who accurately predicted 49 of 50 himself. “It wasn’t that close of an election at the end of the day, and it turned out that most of the swing states went with Obama. And the others you could have tossed a coin, and you hoped to get lucky.”

But in this year’s go-round, Silver said it will be harder to predict the results. “It’s both an art and a science,” he said.

According to Silver, recent polls that have shown Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney very close behind Democratic incumbent Barack Obama are too close to make any conclusions. But when polls tilt 3 or 4 points toward one side in the race, Silver said, pundits and voters might misconstrue the shift as a signal that the candidate is pulling ahead. “The polls are often very noisy,” Silver cautioned.

Moderators Michael Shayan ’14 and Sonal Shah, former director of the White House Office of Social Innovation, shifted the topic to baseball at the end of Silver’s discussion, asking for his predictions on the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles for this season.

Silver said he was going to stick to his original pick of the Nationals winning but admitted he has not been following them too religiously. “Because of this stupid election, I haven’t been able to watch much,” Silver said.

But Shayan was not disappointed. “Silver is the godfather of political statistics, and we were very fortunate to bring him to speak to the Harvard community, especially considering all that’s going on right now in the field,” he said.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:


Due to an editing error, the byline on an earlier version of this article was incorrect. The article was written by contributing writer Zohra D. Yaqhubi, not Marco J. Barber Grossi.