FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver talks political predictions to Chicago audience

Sophia Bollag, Copy Chief

CHICAGO — Nate Silver, the much-discussed journalist behind The New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog, revealed at a Sunday talk topics for a potential new book and made predictions about the 2016 presidential race.

Silver addressed an audience of about 400 organized at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, talking about his recent book “The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don’t,” and the importance of probability in life.

“A lot of things that look great on paper, in a statistical model or in a PowerPoint presentation fail fairly miserably in the real world,” he said. “Thinking in terms of probability is the way to bridge the gap between omniscience, which none of us except God would have, and ignorance. Probability is the halfway point in between.”

In his talk, Silver discussed the importance of probability and statistics in the real world, from natural disaster prediction to the impact tweets have on the daily fluctuations of the stock market. He gave examples of situations in which misinterpretations of data had disastrous consequences, such as when statisticians inaccurately predicted the magnitude of the 2011 earthquake in Japan.

During the question-and-answer session, several audience members asked about the real-world topic Silver has become famous for making predictions about: politics.

In response to a question about how he thought the 2016 presidential race would turn out, he said he anticipates former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be voted the Democratic nominee if she decides to run. Still, Silver said he questions whether she will continue to be as popular among independents as the polls currently indicate.

Silver also spoke about the role probability plays in the way grade schools and universities operate, saying he would like to write a book on the subject in the future.

“It’s a tricky subject … how data has been used in academia,” he said. “I think it’s something that requires a book-length treatment to address properly.”

He specifically cited college rankings, which use “fairly arbitrary formulas” but dramatically shape the policies and goals of universities that aspire to move up in standing.

Steve Edwards, deputy programming director at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, remarked on the University of Chicago alumnus’ popularity among students when introducing Silver.

“There is no hotter alumnus, no more fascinating, more interesting, more inspiring figure to the university community and specifically undergraduates right now than Nate Silver,” Edwards said, eliciting laughter from the audience. “He is the megawatt star in Hyde Park.