Nate Silver, writer for the New York Times and America’s favorite nerd, took the stage in Austin at SXSW on Sunday to talk about his favorite topic: data. Needless to say, Silver’s had a few wins this year in that department.
He recently published a book called The Signal and the Noise that looks at the role data plays in our daily lives and the way we can use it to better understand the world around us. But speaking at a breakneck speed in front of a large audience in Austin on Sunday, Silver addressed some fairly random topics and questions:
1. Why the competition matters
“I’ve tried to work in fields like politics and baseball where the competition is not very good.” Silver said the lesson is important for startups, too: if you’re doing the same service that 98 percent of your competitors provide, there’s less room for growth.
2. On moving
“There were too many cool people moving to Brooklyn, so I had to move back to Manhattan.”
3. Who would play Nate Silver if they make a FiveThirtyEight movie
“I really hope they don’t make a movie about me. But I would think Brad Pitt. In terms of appearances.”
4. How he got his start
“Initially when I was a ten-year old I really wanted to build my fantasy baseball league. And I kept drafting … really crappy players and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t win. So with me it’s often been about competition, about wanting to win my NCAA tournament pool or my fantasy league.”
5. On fame
“Ironically I think I’m getting way too much credit now,” Silver says. “We’re very results-oriented as a society.” Silver said he’ll become uncomfortable if FiveThirtyEight ever discourages people from voting as the predictions improve, something he’s discussed before.
6. On the best way to pick a March Madness bracket:
“Travel distance matters a lot to performance.” Silver said that FiveThirtyEight does March Madness bracket predictions, but noted that people filling out their own should remember the correlation between travel distance and performance.
7. On one of the hardest things to predict:
“We had a formula that tries to predict the numbers and it’s only about 70 percent right,” Silver said of the Oscars. “That’s a field where you don’t have very good data available.”
8. Why he’s misunderstood by critics
“I think sometimes people mistake what I do as someone who’s saying everything we do is predicable…. Whereas really I’m more of a skeptic of prediction,” he said. “What I’m actually doing is taking polls and averaging them and the fact that it’s so surprising says a lot about where we have to go in terms of science and math.”
9. The strangest model he’s ever been pitched on
“I got pitched one time by a guy who works for a cricket team in India and thinks there can be like a Moneyball revolution in Indian cricket. I wasn’t too psyched about that.”
10. One piece of data he uses to make decisions in everyday life
“Don’t fly out of JFK in New York in the evening in the summer. If you fly out in the morning, and I’m not a morning person, but you probably have a much better chance of not having delays cascade across the system.”