Nerdfighting, numeracy, and the New York Times

I’ve blogged in the past about five thirty eight, the site which aggregates opinion polls particularly in connection with American politics.  I’ve particularly noted the site’s readiness to engage in ‘nerdfights’ (their term) in connection with issues such as the 2010 general election here in Britain, where they might have disagreed – in the most constructive, scientific, spirit – about methodology.

These three related changes occured between the 2010 British general election and the 2012 American presidential election:

  1. Nate Silver, who created fivethirtyeight, changed from being an independent blogger (and, cleverly, one who could set up with a limited infrastructure, because as a poll aggregator he didn’t need to go out and canvas voters himself) to one whose site was hosted by the New York Times.  So this was a neat example of an individual blogger being ‘adopted’ by traditional media
  2. Through the election campaign, he produced figures based on his own model, and on understanding the workings of the electoral college which appoints the president, both for the probability of each candidate winning and for the result that he would expect if the election took place on that day.  His prediction immediately before the election proved to be remarkably accurate – making Nate Silver into something of a hero in some circles at least
  3. Perhaps because of his success, he has also become a rather controversial figure, almost as though political punditry and scientific analysis were two contrasting and incompatible approaches…

There’s a nice discussion of some of the scientific background to this on one of the Guardian’s science blogs.

Meanwhile the fivethirty eight site itself is back to analysing predictions about basball scores, which is where Nate Silver’s statistical analysis started.  And its accuracy in terms of the presidential election is a great illustration of the value of data and the usefulness of numeracy.


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