, , , , ,

Tonight, Barack Obama continued the 44th US presidency, a second-term president; the first African-American to ever do so.

In one of the most contested elections in American history, a curiously rational voice stood above the punditry. Nate Silver of the New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog (which was drawing 20% of the New York Times’ total traffic during election night) tracked national polls, state polls, and numerous other mathematical markers throughout the election. With the aid of mathematical modeling based on demographics, averages, and voting records, Silver put the chances for election firmly in Obama’s corner (at one time reaching 92%).

Silver’s predictions were chided by conservatives all the way to the White House. They doubted his methods, his models, his math. They questioned his data. They decried his “bias.” But Nate Silver was right. Dead right. In 50 state-by-state predictions, Silver accurately predicted 50 of them.

Spencer Ackerman writes about the “nerdiest election” in Wired:

Nate Silver of The New York Times completely reshaped its coverage. Silver steadied the nerves of liberals and rattled the teeth of conservatives, all through a proprietary model of poll aggregation and weighting. Silver, who called the 2008 election with stunning accuracy, sought to do for politics what sabermetrics did for baseball: Factor out as many subjective judgments as possible, to determine who would win the race.

The pundits sensed their rapidly diminishing relevance. The Internet speculated that Silver’s techniques could be the result of witchcraft.

With social science, Silver demonstrated the predictive power of statistics. He almost single-handedly made pre-election punditry obsolete. And he did so with theories and methods sometimes hundreds of years old. He relegated the opinions that are often mistaken for something substantial on 24-hour news channels to a solitary confinement painted with superficiality.

The 2012 election woke people up to the idea that science could touch on politics. It was a surprise, but not to those who knew the basis for such a combination.


The media (and social media) has largely focused on Silver as a lone figure, as though the man alone holds the power to predict the next most powerful person on Earth. Tweets of Silver’s “wizardry” flooded feeds and emboldened Obama supporters. But Silver is just that, a man. What he represents is far more important.

Silver is not an oracle, he is merely a rigorous statistician with good models. He’s not a “wizard,” he is a conduit for an evidence-based method. Even in the most “fuzzy” seeming data environments, science can sort the signal from the noise. Silver introduced rational methodology into a sphere polluted with wishful thinking and faith. Math cut through the obscuring mist of spin and speculation.

As an aside, if you are stupefied by how statisticians like Silver deal with all that data and still accept their analyses, you have another bridge to cross. The models and math that Silver used to accurately predict the president are tremendously less sophisticated and theory-based than other models in science. If you trust Silver on politics, you should support climate-scientists on human-caused global warming, for example (a point echoed here and here). This is not to say that complexity begets truth. But if rigorous statistics and models are your bar to vault, climate science leaps far higher than Silver’s predictions.

A distrust of science and an amazement at the predictive power of Silver are contradictory. If nothing else, Silver’s statistical victory smashes science denial of all kinds against a wall infused with the mortar of reason.

The tight correlations between the 2012 election predictions of Silver and reality proves that science-based thinking has a place in our public discourse. I think I like how Sean Carroll put it best:

Science isn’t the cold, disconnected lab coat, floating alone near a few bubbling beakers. It illuminates our lives, if only we let it.

Further Reading: