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SXSW: Statistics guru Nate Silver talks Oscars, Manny Ramirez and President Obama

March 16, 2009 |  5:34 pm
Stats guru Nate Silver at South By Southwest
Stats guru Nate Silver at South by Southwest. Credit: Randy Stewart via Flickr.

Nate Silver hasn't exactly gone Hollywood. But for a geek, he sure was getting the rock-star treatment at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin.

Silver, 31, the brain whose poll-crunching website FiveThirtyEight.com was a surprise hit of last year's election season, drew a capacity crowd of 2,000 people at the conference. Among the comments on Twitter: “Ladies love Nate Silver (myself included).”

“The one time I felt like a star was when I was on "The Colbert Report," and actually got a green room, with a paper star and my name on the door,” Silver said. But his celebrity is actually limited, he said, to “political nerds and tech nerds.” “It’s not like you’re walking down the street and getting marriage proposals."

Silver tried going show-biz when he predicted 4 out of the 6 major Oscar winners last month. That's not quite the same as calling 49 out of 50 states in the presidential race. The two he missed: Best Actor Sean Penn and Best Supporting Actress Penelope Cruz.

“I knew Penelope Cruz was going to win but the [computer] model didn’t say so,” he said. “I broke my first rule: Never come out with a forecast you know is going to be wrong. If you know it’s going to be wrong, keep working on your ... model!”

Silver shrugged off missing Penn. “There are some predictions we get wrong that’s OK to get wrong,” he said. The model indicated that Penn’s Oscar in 2003 could ...

... keep him from bagging a second statuette. Not in the model: “The fact that Mickey Rourke was a jerk to a lot of people probably didn’t help,” he said. “And there was some politics involved. With Proposition 8 passing in California, there was more desire to award a film like 'Milk.' We made a mistake.”

In his talk, in which he was interviewed by author Stephen Baker, Silver also hit his other big themes, including baseball -– he first gained a cult following for developing new statistical formulas -– political polls and the economy, which is what his undergraduate degree is in. According to Silver:

  • The Dodgers paid Manny Ramirez about twice what he’s worth, considering what a defensive liability he is. “To their credit, they didn’t give him four years,” which Ramirez, 36, sought, but instead gave him a two-year, $45-million deal. “Age should be a factor.”
  • Things that caused the economy to crash –- “the over-leveraging of the banks, the housing bubble -– it seems like these things should be obvious,” Silver said. “They weren’t that mysterious. None us should be that shocked that there were these problems. But I’m not one of these people who said three years ago, ‘Things are going to suck.’ ”
  • How the economy will affect President Obama’s rating in the polls: “On the one hand, people are very pessimistic about the economy and the direction of the country. On the other hand, Obama has very high approval ratings, 66%. Usually those two things don’t go hand in hand,” he said. “The public is even more pessimistic about the economy than even the most bearish economists are. So Obama could benefit” if the economists are right and the economy turns around sooner than the public expects.

The technological world is moving increasingly into using mathematical models like Silver’s to anticipate events, but when Baker asked whether Silver could predict a terrorist attack, he said that it was still tremendously difficult. “That’s not like looking for a needle in haystack,” Silver said. “That’s like looking for one particular needle in a pile of needles.”

Silver is now at a crossroads, trying to decide what to do with his newfound fame. He’s about to leave Chicago, where he now lives, and move to New York, and he’ll spend the next few months working on a book on prediction markets. FiveThirtyEight still draws traffic, and he’s got an Internet firm selling ads on the site, but he hasn’t figured out where to take his business.

He and his partner Sean Quinn are “trying now to decide whether to pursue venture capital or not,” Silver said in an interview after his talk. “It would be nice to have more structure. The good thing about the site, since it’s just me and Sean, is there’s not a lot of expenses. It’s making money, which not a lot of websites are. Could we make a lot more money by investing a little more money? The answer is probably yes, but we haven’t figured that out yet.”

In the meantime, he’s enjoying the success but trying not to let it go to his head. “To be a very, very minor, eighth-tier celebrity, you realize, ‘Hey, celebrities are just like us,’ ” he said. “I’m still doing basically the same things. I have the same friends and the same bad habits. You still look at the world in the same way.”

“Success makes you less intimidated by things,” he said. “If you want to get anywhere, you can’t be intimidated by success. I’m not going to brag about it either. I’m also conscious of not wanting to be too much of a flash in the pan. You want to keep surprising people and being provocative.”

-- Dan Fost

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