Sunday, November 11, 2012


Those of you who drop in here at varying rates of frequency (yes, we know exactly who you are and applaud your fearlessness and semi-infinite indulgence...) will know that we have occasionally taken a shot or two at Nate Silver, who's taken a whole lot worse than what we've previously tossed his way during the last two weeks of the 2012 presidential election.

Those momentous events, and Silver's sterling performance throughout them, has caused us to do some further reflection about the arc of his career and what that might mean in terms of future "advanced analysis" in baseball.

Silver's original work for Baseball Prospectus--the PECOTA system (with its malign advertising--not Nate's doing, we are certain--positing "deadly" accuracy) and his touting of the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays--helped to vault him into a position where his next career move would be well-received. The climate was perfect for a "poll of polls"-type aggregation; while and Sam Wang at the Princeton Election Consortium had been well ahead of Nate in pioneering such concepts, Silver applied himself to such a task at a level of detail and dedication that outstripped his colleagues, and was thus in a position to become the leader in what we cautiously call the "statistical pundit" sub-area of political analysis.

That term--"pundit"--is, of course, a loaded one, as it has unsavory associations both here (where we assiduously and aggressively practice our brand of "anti-punditry") and in the world of the media as a whole, where it is virtually unavoidable for those who pass through the portals and become insiders to avoid what we like to call the "gasbaggery quotient."

Michael "the Bone" Barone's vision of the 2012 election: red-state rosiness
at its thorniest...
What is notable--and refreshing--about Nate Silver is that he has successfully resisted the temptations to turn into a traditional "pundit" even though the role was there for the taking. The 2012 election, with its heavily-pitched battle centered around the dangerous question of whether or not America would turn back the clock on its historic decision of 2008, was a minefield of siren-like events pushing pundits toward Circean rocks where they could be wrecked--and in retrospect it seems clear that much of the polling apparatus in place for the election was nothing more or less than (as the Sex Pistols once infamously "sang"...) "frigging in the rigging." The subtle and not-so-subtle bias that was constantly in play during the final month of the 2012 election campaign can be quantified, thanks to Nate's methods: 21 of 25 polling organizations who conducted five or more polls in October were overestimating Mitt Romney's candidacy.

The actual 2012 election results--as predicted by Nate Silver.
All of that was in stark contrast to what Nate's method was tracking. (And--let's be fair--the methods of Sam Wang and the anonymous aggregator at

In the end, only Republican party hacks will resist the notion that what these "statistical pundits" were doing was--despite being immediate sucked into the vapid vortex of "liberal media bias"--injected a badly needed dose of objectivity into an otherwise malevolent political prescription.

What's clear to us is that Nate found an area--political polling--where the level of complexity in the analysis was a good bit less forbidding than what's actually the case in baseball, and where the strengths of his statistical toolmaking could make a direct impact on our ability to see what is happening before our eyes. (As you know, this remains the biggest area of disconnection for sabermetrics--what happens in any individual game does not often directly translate into the modeling efforts that have come to dominate that field.) Politics, however, is actually easier--a good bit easier--to model. While our old pal Brock Hanke's claim that polling has gotten so good that everyman can be his own aggregator still has a lot of merit, we now tend to think that this election showed how such a system as Nate's, when applied with rigor and consistency, can cut through even the efforts of some portion of the pollster population to influence public perception and tilt the election results in one particular direction. (Such tactics are more subtle and devious than many that have already been practiced in America, as a reading of this Harper's article will demonstrate.)

It is a warm feeling, indeed, to know that those who would attempt to willfully distort aspects of the political process in order to unduly influence an election can be both neutralized and then exposed; that is the added value that the work of Silver and Wang etal have demonstrated to us in 2012. The prospects for how we examine politics in the future have been bolstered by such an occurrence, and it is almost as important as the need for America to not turn its back on the historic change that its electorate wrought in 2008--breaking the color barrier for high office, and repudiating policies that relied on distortion and privilege. Policies, in fact, that are antithetical to the original principles of this nation.

Oops...wrong image...sorry Nate, we're sure the folks
will find your book anyway (and this one's a bit more, er,
"metaphorical" for the pollster-pundit situation...)
So what will Nate Silver do now? He's in an enviable position--he could easily continue in the role of political stats guru for the rest of his days after the events of the past three weeks. But it's not quite a full time job--after all, he found enough time to write a book (The Signal and the Noise), which demonstrates that he has broadened his horizons concerning the science of prediction. What we hope is that he will find a way to kick himself upstairs in terms of political analysis and, over time, find a way to return to baseball, where the field could use someone who possesses both the name value and the totalizing tendency to headline the type of long-term analytical project that would operate at a think-tank level (as opposed to the highly flawed entrepreneurial models in place today).

Of course, such an approach is not going to happen until baseball's BS Era comes to an end. Let's face it, used car salesmen--no matter how they try to transform themselves--remain averse to the concept of think tanks. That probably means that our scenario for Silver could not and cannot happen until after the 2016 election. Which, come to think of it, might be just as well--given the way that the Republicans are reacting to their "upset" loss in 2012, it's likely that we'll need Nate's steady hand at the tiller for at least one more election cycle before he decides what to do with the rest of his life.