Truthiness in numbers

When I first met Nate Silver for a July–Aug Magazine article, he asserted strong opinions about Barack Obama’s ability to transform the red-state/blue-state divide in the general election. “If you look at the electoral map,” he said back in April, “Obama’s coalition could help him pick up Colorado and Virginia.”

One month earlier, under the pseudonym Poblano, Silver had started the political blog, named for the 538 Electoral College members. The site features a forecasting system that weights polls based on a pollster’s track record, the survey’s sample size, and the poll’s age. But Silver wasn’t yet “out” to the public as a political forecaster. To the people who knew his name, he was the stats nerd who created PECOTA—a system that projects baseball players’ career arcs by comparing them to similar players from the past—and the man in charge of Baseball Prospectus, the Rolls-Royce of the sport’s numbers analysis.

But since unmasking himself in the June 1 New York Post, Silver's techniques have challenged the way pundits parse political polls. He’s been hailed as the “rookie of the year in this year's presidential campaign coverage” by Time’s Joe Klein and called "indispensable" by the Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne. And it looks as though his April prediction is holding up—he suggests Obama holds 10 and 8 percent leads in Colorado and Virginia, respectively. But he hadn’t truly arrived until last week, when he was grilled by Stephen Colbert, the purveyor of “truthiness” and leader of the Colbert Nation. After hearing Silver compare Obama’s emergence to the startlingly successful Tampa Bay Rays, I'll stay tuned to see where Silver appears next.


Video courtesy Comedy Central.

October 13, 2008