Nate Silver talks to a packed MIT crowd

Famous statistics guru shares his journey, plans, and philosophies

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Journalist, writer, and MIT CMS associate professor Seth Mnookin moderated the Nate Silver talk, hosted by the MIT Communications Forum. Mnookin spent the first half of the two hour talk interviewing Silver and the remainder fielding questions from the audience, both in-person and via Twitter. In the first hour, Mnookin and Silver talked about the beginnings of Silver’s career — Silver worked at KPMG, a consulting firm, right after college for several years from 2000–2003. While working as a consultant there, he began playing around with online poker and worked on a major league baseball prediction site, PECOTA (Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm), for which Silver began gaining fame. In his talk, Silver said that the reason PECOTA was better than its competitors was that it could “capture the range of forecasts,” and he tried to show the intermediate steps to get the probabilities he presented. In 2003, Silver sold PECOTA to Baseball Prospectus and began writing for it. He resigned from his consulting job at KPMG in 2004 and worked full-time for Baseball Prospectus.
Nicholas chornay—The Tech
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The event was held in the Bartos Theater in the basement of E15 (the Weisner Building/old Media Lab). The auditorium’s near-200 person capacity was exceeded before the event began; some audience members were left standing, and others had to view a live feed of the event on a screen set up outside the theater.
nicholas chornay—The Tech
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Audience members had a chance to ask Silver questions during the second half of the event. Question topics ranged from digital journalism to the future of Silver’s career. When asked about would happen when other media outlets had their own “Nate Silvers,” Silver said competing against other models would not differentiate him much in the long term — instead he “like[s] the competition against the mainstream pundits who are terrible at what they do.”
nicholas chornay—The Tech
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Nate Silver signed copies of his New York Times bestselling book The Signal and the Noise for audience members following his talk. Many audience members brought their own copies, but the book was also offered for sale outside the auditorium, providing a small consolation for attendees who were unable to get seats inside.
Nicholas Chornay—The Tech
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Statistician and political blogger Nate Silver appeared last night before a packed auditorium to talk about the role of statistics in elections and politics, as well as his own career. Silver’s fame skyrocketed late last year when his application of statistical techniques to polling data correctly predicted the outcome of the presidential vote in all 50 states (and the District of Columbia).
Nicholas Chornay—The Tech
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Much of the talk focused on the development on FiveThirtyEight, its beginnings at the New York Times, and Silver’s thoughts on its future. In 2007, Silver felt that politics was still “stuck in the stone age and not data-driven at all.” That year, he started blogging under a pseudonym, Poblano (“I always liked Mexican food”), for Daily Kos. Silver said that he went public later because he wanted to capitalize on it and also potentially shift careers. When Silver shifted his blog to the New York Times in mid 2010, daily traffic didn’t skyrocket — on his first day at the Times, he only got 500 pageviews. After a profile in Newsweek, he got 5,000 pageviews. He peaked on election day 2012 with 3 million page views — it has come back down since then. Silver’s three-year contract with the New York Times ends in July this year. Mnookin asked him about his future plans and whether he would continue into the 2016 election. “I’m in active discussions with the Times. It’s a great fit in a lot of ways. Jill is a perfect editor. Anything can happen in negotiation. But we’ll see. I’m pretty happy there,” Silver said. Silver talked about the pros and cons of working at the Times. Silver praised the graphics team that he works with to visually present his stories and praised the Times for its journalistic standards and reputation. However, he also spoke about how it could also be a downside. “Everyone comes after the Times. It’s the New York Yankees basically. The less obvious downside of that is that sometimes it’s hard to be kind of casual at the Times.” Silver says that with a blog, you can be “farting around.” But at the Times, “you can get in more trouble for that kind of thing. People treat it as more authoritative, so it’s harder to find that voice,” Silver said.
nicholas chornay—The Tech

A large crowd packed Bartos Theater last night for a talk with Nate Silver, hosted by Seth Mnookin and the MIT Communications Forum. The auditorium quickly reached its 190-person capacity, and many wannabe audience members were left to watch the live feed outside the theater.

The two-hour event covered Silver’s career path and his plans for the future, sprinkled with his somewhat deprecating commentary on political pundits and sites like POLITICO. The event was split in half, with Silver answering questions from Mnookin for the first half and then answering questions from the audience in the second.

Silver, statistician and polling analyst for FiveThirtyEight, began his talk by saying “It’s a real honor to be here. It’s a Ground Zero for nerds.”

Silver talked about his first post-college job as a consultant for KPMG and how he transitioned from the world of consulting to political blogger and statistics guru. Much of the talk was dedicated to how Silver started FiveThirtyEight, its transition to the Times, and his plans for the future.

In the second half, Silver took questions from the audience — questions ranged from his thoughts on open-sourcing his model to his thoughts on the Times’ graphics. Fans had the chance to take photos with, and get books signed by, Silver following the talk.

For more details on the talk, check out our photo spread on page 8.