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Last Published: April 14, 2016
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Photos by Nicholas Chornay

Institute Professor Robert Langer in his office, where The Tech spoke to him last week. The walls of Langer’s office are covered from floor to ceiling in awards given to him for his pioneering work in biological engineering; the next award to be added is the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, which will be presented to him later this year.

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).

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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