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Nate Silver speaks to students and faculty about data’s significance in life

Published by USC Bedrosian Center on

by Nathaniel Haas

originally published by the Daily Trojan on September 22, 2013

Famed statistician Nate Silver spoke to students and faculty in Bovard Auditorium on Friday morning in a presentation titled “Baseball and Politics are Data Driven.”

Numbers game · Writer and statistician Nate Silver speaks to students about the process of predicting outcomes on Friday at Bovard Auditorium. - Ralf Cheung | Daily Trojan

Numbers game · Writer and statistician Nate Silver speaks to students about the process of predicting outcomes on Friday at Bovard Auditorium. – Ralf Cheung | Daily Trojan

Silver’s presentation was the first in a yearlong series of events made possible by the Dennis F. and Brooks Holt Distinguished Lecture, a speaker’s series. The event, put on by the Bedrosian Center on Governance and the Price School of Public Policy, drew students, faculty and members of the public for an hour-long lecture and Q & A with Silver.

Known for his extremely accurate predictions of election results over the last few years, Silver sold his original election prediction blog “538” to The New York Times, and later sold to ESPN.

He first gained national attention in 2008 when he correctly predicted both the primary election results and the presidential winner in 49 out of 50 states. In 2012, Silver topped his previous record and perfectly predicted the electoral map. Now, he’s taking the 538 blog to ESPN to bring his statistical knowledge to baseball.

Silver said his success stems from his ability to not only accurately interpret statistics, but also his ability to communicate this knowledge to others.

“As a statistician, you have to understand that however interesting your finding might be based on the statistical evidence, it won’t persuade anyone unless you have a wider audience,” he said. “I’m definitely far from the best statistician in the world, and I’m far from the best writer, but the overlap of those skills is what characterizes what I’ve tried to do.”

Silver began the presentation by describing the role technologies such as the printing press and the Internet have played in society. He discussed the importance of finding data that shows causation, not just correlation, the subject of his most recent book, The Signal and The Noise: Why Most Predictions Fail — But Some Don’t.

He concluded with a series of suggestions to help students navigate the data minefield and be aware of misleading information. Using a combination of graphs, jokes and well-timed Notre Dame jabs, Silver presented a lecture many students found entertaining.

Jack Knott, dean of the Price School, says making his expertise accessible is what sets Silver apart.

“Nate would be a great teacher. He is able to make statistics relevant to not just focusing on political elections, but because of his expertise in things like baseball and poker, he has a very special ability not only to do high level statistical analysis but to also communicate it in a way to a much broader audience,” Knott said.

Christian Patterson, a junior majoring in political science, said Silver’s unique style made the lecture engaging and fun.

“I thought that he was a very talented speaker,” he said. “His presentation made a very strong case for using statistics as a means of predicting election results.”

Knott also says that Silver’s outlook is the same view the Price School tries to instill in its students.

“Evidence-based public policy decision making is hugely important for our country — it’s not based just on ideology, or one partisan way of looking at something,” he said. “We offer courses that teach students to think in a probabilistic, statistical way about policy issues and about the role of information and the news media in information and decision making.”

Cat Duffy, a first year doctoral student in the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, agreed.

“With the explosion of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, individuals are bombarded with information that is unfortunately presented as definitive fact, even when it lacks evidentiary proof,” Duffy said. “It’s important for students to recognize that being skeptical can be a virtue and recognizing that ‘not all information is created equal’ to ensure they make better and more informed decisions about the world around them.”

For Silver, statistics is not just about data, but also the perspective it can provide on how humans interact with their environment.

“To me, statistics do not just mean numbers,” he said. “It means an empirical way of looking at the world.”

Follow Nathaniel on Twitter @haas4prez2036

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