This is the part of The Show where I put in a plug for my intellectual hero, Nate Silver, and his project FiveThirtyEight.com. Silver came to prominence in the early 2000s as a baseball analyst, at the forefront of knowledge in sabermetrics, the quantitative analysis of baseball. He created a series of statistical models to evaluate professional baseball prospects by comparing their playing statistics to past players at the equivalent points in their careers.
As a result, Silver became well-known among baseball fans, but still virtually unknown among the general public. That changed in late 2007 when he saw an opportunity: baseball had long since embraced performance-based metrics, what passed for prediction in politics was still laughable. A famous study, quoted in Silver’s book, found that predictions issued on a famous TV roundtable show were worse than random – a coin flip was literally a better predictor of outcomes than a panel of “experts.”
Silver jumped at the opportunity to improve political prediction, first publishing anonymously on Daily Kos, then starting his own blog called FiveThirtyEight – named for the number of electoral votes up for grabs in a U.S. Presidential election. He issued regular predictions for the result of the 2008 U.S. Presidential election – and ultimately nailed it, correctly predicting the winner of 49 out of 50 states (missing only North Carolina). In 2012, he did himself one better, correctly predicting the winner of 50 out of 50 states.
Then, of course, 2016 happened. Silver’s model assigned Hillary Clinton a 70% chance of winning the Presidential election… and Donald Trump won. Silver was criticized and even laughed at, even though he had been appropriately cautious all the way through. If the weather forecast says there’s only a 30% chance of rain, and it rains, the prediction wasn’t wrong. That’s just the nature of probability – sometimes, unlikely events really do happen.
FiveThirtyEight.com is continuing to issue its reality-based predictions. Here is their latest prediction for the 2018 House of Representatives election: