Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Hats off to Nate Silver: The New Hari Seldon

The American people and our future were the big winners last night.  But in terms of individuals, the biggest winner of last night's election after Barack Obama was Nate Silver.

His New York Times blog and its statistical analysis predicted the winner, to a tee.   Understandably, Republicans attacked his work and his objectivity with increasing intensity as we approached the election.  Understandable and not surprising, not only because Republicans wanted their man to win, but because this is the Party that has denied evolution and global warming.  When you deny such scientific realities as those, denying statistics is small potatoes.

There have great historical errors in statics, from the Literary Digest poll that predicted an FDR loss in the 1936 to polls that predicted Obama over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 New Hampshire Primary.  But polling has learned from those errors, and has gotten the results right the vast majority of times.

Could Silver's analysis have turned out wrong last night?  Of course it could have - polls are always especially vulnerable when they're based on public testimony - how did you vote, what did you watch - rather than measurements of real actions.   But Silver got it right last night.

The result is not only a memorable victory for the American people, but for the practice of polling.   We should never blindly accept it or any scientific theory or procedure, but Nate Silver has ensured that there will be a little less hooting against polling when it's not going a given party's way next time around.

My favorite science fiction writer, as many of you know, is Isaac Asimov.  And my favorite work of his is the Foundation trilogy - which tells the story of Hari Seldom, and his psychohistory which, through statistical analysis,  could mathematically predict  the future - more or less.   Nate Silver may be the Hari Seldon of our time.

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