Special Report: Digital A-List 2013

How Stat-Celeb Nate Silver Became the Human Face of Big Data

Digital A-List Honors the New York Times' 'One Man Traffic Machine'

By Published on .


After the fall election season, Nate Silver, the FiveThirtyEight blogger for The New York Times, went on vacation to get away from it all. "I was in Mexico at the Aztec ruins," he said. "I'm climbing the Sun Pyramid, and at the top of it, someone says, "Are you Nate Silver? I really like your work.'"

He laughed at the memory and added, "I definitely saw that as a sign of the apocalypse. There probably have not been that many celebrity statisticians throughout history. It's a weird role to have."

The East Lansing, Mich., native with a University of Chicago econ degree grew up loving math and baseball, which led to his early career of analyzing MLB performance for media company Baseball Prospectus. When he turned his attention to politics, launching FiveThirtyEight.com in 2008, he quickly emerged as the media's go-to guy for making sense of polls.

Predicting Barack Obama's win that year and correctly calling 49 out of 50 states got him a licensing deal with the Times. During the 2012 political season, The New Republic called him "a one-man traffic machine," with one in five visitors to NYTimes.com on the eve of the election visiting his blog. Predicting Mr. Obama's 2012 re-election and correctly calling all 50 states elevated him to the political-analyst equivalent of a stadium rocker.

Still, Mr. Silver insists that at the core of his work is "a kind of intellectual modesty" that comes from a deep respect for the science of numbers. "If you're trying to use data and analytics to make predictions," he said, "it's a matter of picking through a problem and working pretty hard at it."

Yeah, the fame thing can be unsettling sometimes for the self-described math nerd, "but it's definitely better than the alternative, where if Mitt Romney had won I'd be in the witness-protection program or something. I can't complain."

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