What do statisticians think of FiveThirtyEight

FiveThirtyEight: What the fox knows!

Statistics pop star Nate Silver has been exploring politics, sports, science, business and actually everything for the US sports broadcaster ESPN since Monday. That's pretty exhaustive: in both senses of the word.

By the evening of November 6, 2012 at the latest, every American interested in politics in his country knew the name of Nate Silver. The now 36-year-old statistician had correctly predicted the results of the presidential election in all 50 states in his blog FiveThirtyEight, which was published by the "New York Times" - and for the most part weeks before, when the feather on the comment pages of the big papers wrote about a completely open neck and neck race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

Schmeck's: With his conscientious analysis of all available opinion polls, Silver had ditched the established commentary and his instinctive gut feeling for trends. Turning his passion for baseball statistics to political analysis, Silver became the statistics pop star. When the "New York Times" rejected his request for a more prominent role in the editorial office, he moved FiveThirtyEight (which is called because of the 538 electors who elect the US president) to the sports broadcaster ESPN. With two dozen employees and a brisk new design, FiveThirtyEight opened its virtual doors on Monday.

The data journalists want to get to the bottom of politics, business, science, sport and - completely free of irony - life. The fox as heraldic animal is a reminder of the theoretical and historical essay "The fox and the hedgehog" by Isaiah Berlin. “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog a big one,” it says there, and that is Silver's credo: old-fashioned journalists are hedgehogs, they cling to one point of view, one ideology. The modern data journalist, on the other hand, is agile, undogmatic, and only interested in the result. So you can say: Silver and his team think inductively by collecting large mountains of data and pressing knowledge from them, instead of applying a large theory deductively to every event, no matter how different.


Shakespeare in the Excel spreadsheet

And so Silver's data foxes set out to explain everything: from the search for the missing Malaysian plane to the secession of Crimea from the Ukraine to the question of whether the British really have as bad teeth as the cliché claims (no, they have) they don't). All of this is peppered with praiseworthy numbers, but it bears the seeds of insignificance. For example, do you really want to know how often Romeo and Juliet talk to each other in Shakespeare's play (he speaks 101 lines to her, she 155 to him)? And if so, what new lessons can we learn about Shakespeare's poetry? A forest is more than just trees, life is more than one Excel table after another. Real foxes know that. (Go)


Nate Silver (born January 13, 1978) has shifted his enthusiasm for baseball statistics to election forecasting. In 2012, he correctly predicted the results of the US presidential election in all states. Since Monday he has been running the data journalism platform fivethirtyeight.com for the sports broadcaster ESPN.

("Die Presse", print edition, March 19, 2014)