AUSTIN, Texas--If there was one name that stood out on the agenda of speakers at the South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) festival here this week, it was famed FiveThirtyEight.com blogger Nate Silver.
Known as a statistical wunderkind, his models predicted the final outcome of the 2008 presidential election to within .4 percent of the final popular vote. But more important to many Democrats who had their hopes for electoral victory dashed by George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, FiveThirtyEight.com--which got its name from the total number of electoral votes available--was able to provide daily affirmation that Barack Obama was really winning, even when many were tempted to believe he would be overcome by Sen. John McCain.
Silver was SXSWi's keynote speaker on Sunday, and he and interviewer Stephen Baker of Business Week went onstage in front of an audience of about 2,000 fans, most of whom were there to hear Silver talk about the secret sauce behind his hugely popular blog.
What many might not know is that Silver first came to prominence not in the political realm, but in baseball, where he authored Baseball Prospectus, a well-regarded baseball statistics site. Many might see the connection between baseball and politics as far-fetched, but to people like Silver, it's a very direct path.
Still, before starting FiveThirtyEight.com, he wasn't entirely a political neophyte. Silver had already begun to make a name for himself in the liberal political blogosphere with a series of data-rich posts on DailyKos. When he began to recognize some significant holes in the national polling establishment, he decided to step in to fill the void.
After his keynote interview, Silver sat down with CNET News and talked about the election, how his site got started, and more about the philosophical similarities between baseball and politics.
Q: Many Democrats were emotionally tied to what you were doing, in the sense that your data kept them calm during the election. Did your own numbers keep you calm? Nate Silver: Yeah, I think so. I'm just one of those people that likes to try and dissect a problem and once you started to dissect, some days you feel better about it. If I ever get cancer, the first thing I'll probably do is go on the Web and collect a bunch of data about different survival rates. I just feel better about things when I do them that way. It's a nerdy kind of thing to do.
Q: We were able to get up every day and look at the data and see what was going on. And this is not something you could do because it was your own data. How your own data affect how you felt about what was going on? Silver: I wouldn't be frustrated by it if McCain or Obama picked up points on a particular day. Sometimes you get frustrated if you know that something you did reveals something about your model. When something doesn't feel right, and you go and make changes. And we made a lot of changes over the course of the campaign where, even as recently as two weeks before the election, we were tweaking little parameters, and what started out as a pretty simple system--taking weighted averages of polls--became much more complex over time. But, yeah, we were never saying we had the perfect answer. We were always trying to improve things as we went along.
Q: The blog had an overt liberal position, but you always said the statistics were objective. What kind of feedback, if any, did you get from conservatives? Silver: We had a pretty good balance. We had probably about a 2-1 ratio in terms of liberal versus conservative readers, based on the comment threads. Now that we're not in an election, I think it's swung more toward the liberal side, both in terms of my writing and what people are reading about.
We try and be fair. That's the main thing, we try and be forthright. There's so much commentary from conservatives, also from liberals, that is just entirely disingenuous about certain things. It's a lot of cheerleading and cherry-picking of data. We're trying to present a case that by and large is a liberal's case, because it's my case. It's how I see the world. But we're trying to use data to do it where a lot of people just make bad arguments. … Read more