Nate Silver: Person of the Year

12.18.2012

By Aaron Hicklin

His forecasts for the 2012 election became the talk of the chattering classes. Now that he's vanquished his critics, what's next for the brainiac?

Photography by Mike McGregor

Nate Silver wants to know if I’ve seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the much-praised documentary about Japanese sushi legend Jiro Ono. “It’s about this guy in Japan who makes the best sushi, probably in the world, and you’re, like, What’s the secret?” Silver says. “And the secret is dedication to every little aspect, from the rice to the fish to the way the customers are seated to the order in which the meal is presented.” He pauses. “Just dedication to every little aspect of every little thing.”

We are in a small restaurant in Brooklyn one Sunday shortly after the election that returned Barack Obama to the White House, and Silver is enjoying the rare prospect of an afternoon watching college football and drinking beer with his friends. “I can’t believe it’s a Sunday when I actually go and do nothing and not feel guilty about it,” he says as a waiter takes his order for a Michelle, a cocktail involving jalapeƱo-infused tequila, beer, lime, and tomato juice (Silver liked it so much, he had two of them).

Silver’s admiration for Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a movie about attention to detail, is of course exactly the kind of metaphor a writer hopes for—an almost too-perfect reveal of Silver’s psychology. Fish or numbers, it all comes down to an obsession with method and perfectionism. There is also, of course, the way in which Ono, now in his late eighties, has resisted what, in marketing speak, is described as diluting your brand, an important consideration for Silver, who has been enjoying an unprecedented career high since the election.

“He could have sold out, right?” Silver says. “He could have opened a chain of restaurants and then become a celebrity chef, and he chose not to. He just chose to keep making really good sushi. That’s my personality: to really enjoy the work you are doing and not cheapen yourself.”

Silver, in other words, has no intention of becoming the Guy Fieri of nerdville. Or, for that matter, to be seduced by the career arc of Malcolm Gladwell, who leveraged his position at The New Yorker into a best-selling franchise of popular science books. (And let’s not get started on Jonah Lehrer, another New Yorker writer who stretched himself so thin that he started plagiarizing in order to keep up.) In the highly pressurized world of contemporary media, it’s all too easy to see how the demand to produce hits can undermine integrity and discipline.

“It’s a bit of a cautionary tale: the bright young intellectual who either gets sloppy or people stop scrutinizing them when they should be critical of everyone and everything,” says Silver. “That’s why I need to take some time just to relax—between the election and the book, I spilled out a lot of my creative output. Hopefully it’s a renewable resource, but you need time to generate thoughts and ideas.”

For months in the run-up to the election, Silver, editor of FiveThirtyEight, a blog hosted by The New York Times, had been analyzing the polling data and calmly explaining, to the contempt of pundits on Fox and the gratitude of viewers of MSNBC, why Obama had the election sewn up. His quiet confidence—he bet Joe Scarborough $2,000 that the president would win re-election— attracted fans and haters alike.

On the eve of the big day, one in five people going to the Times site were going to his blog. But even as the flood broke over their heads, political veterans continued to resist his analysis. There was Karl Rove on polling night, sputtering and spinning on Fox News, insisting it was too soon to call Ohio. There was Wall Street Journal columnist and Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan a day before the election, writing of a near-certain Romney surge.

“While everyone is looking at the polls and the storm, Romney’s slipping into the presidency,” Noonan wrote brashly—and rashly—before taking an obvious dig at Silver. Was it possible, she asked, that we were too busy looking at data on paper “instead of what’s in front of us”? The sniff of disdain directed at “data,” the idea that these two things—information and common sense—were somehow mutually exclusive was, of course, part of the problem. For Silver, data on paper is the best way to see what’s in front of us, so long as we don’t allow our biases to get in the way. His best-selling book, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—but Some Don’t—less Malcolm Gladwell than Stephen Hawking in its concession to populism—is all about our tendency to filter information through a self-serving lens. Like Caesar refusing to believe the auguries of his death, we hear what we want to hear, with all the attendant consequences. We fail to take the threat of al-Qaeda seriously, for example, or we miss critical signals of an impending economic collapse.

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