At only 32 he's changed the way America looks at politics and sports by developing an accessible mathematical formula to predict the future results of elections and baseball. He also has a thriving web site, fivethirtyeight.com—the site takes its name from the number of electors in the Electoral College—that showcases his own special brand of "psychic" politics. In 2009, Time magazine named him one of the World's 100 Most Influential People. Most would say he has arrived. So what could possibly be next for Silver? To answer that question, it might help to start from the beginning. Silver grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, where his Dad was a professor of political science at Michigan State University. As far back as Silver can remember, his M.O. has been to find a passion and follow it aggressively. He took to math at an early age—multiplying two-digit numbers when he was in kindergarten. By the time he was 11 he was doing sophisticated baseball analysis. He's been on the fast track ever since. He graduated from the University of Chicago in 2000 after spending his junior year at the London School of Economics. Soon after, he settled down in the Hyde Park section of Chicago and got a primo job at the financial consultant giant KPMG, where he began churning out spreadsheets. But instead of finance, his head was into baseball. He was developing a revolutionary system that projects player performance based on past achievement and physique. "Most of my bosses just assumed I was doing something company-related," he said with a chuckle.
Vowing never to waste another three years working at a job he didn't like, Silver up and left KPMG to pursue his idea, covering his expenses (and much more) by playing poker online. Silver worked to develop those spreadsheets into a system called PECOTA (which stands for "player empirical comparison and optimization test algorithm," but is named, some say facetiously, after the mediocre Kansas City Royals infielder Bill Pecota). He sold it to Baseball Prospectus in 2003 for a managing partnership stake. During the next six years he helped the site bring sophisticated statistical analysis into the mainstream. Baseball Prospectus's work is now all over the sites of Sports Illustrated and ESPN. Few teams are without either some of Silver's protégés or adherents of his work in their front offices. NFL, NBA, and NHL statisticians have developed comparable systems.
In late 2007, he turned to politics and began posting on the political blog Daily Kos, because he was troubled by the misinterpretation of poll numbers. Needing to set his own stage, he launched FiveThirtyEight in February 2008, projecting that Barack Obama would beat John McCain in the Presidential election. He also correctly forecast 49 of the 50 states in the Electoral College.
The site's signature moment came early: Silver noted that Obama's poll numbers were off by 3 percent due to an undercount of young people who only have mobile phones, no landlines. In the next few primaries, Obama outperformed his poll numbers by exactly 3 percent. That observation got him mainstream coverage and within weeks he was a regular on many cable news shows, including Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Hardball with Chris Matthews, The Colbert Report, and The Rachel Maddow Show. He decided to move to New York in 2009, the impetus being the soaring popularity of FiveThirtyEight and the five million page views it received on Election Day.
Talking from his Brooklyn home, Silver speaks softly, with little trace of annoyance. His demeanor is like that of a young professor who is free of worries about tenure and department politics. It's as if nearly a decade of doing things his way have given him a calm, inner confidence that no matter what cards anyone else has, he can win with what he's holding. He's guarded about his personal life, only wanting to say that he lives in a part of Brooklyn that reminds him of Hyde Park, and that he misses the caliber of Mexican food he enjoyed in Chicago (his handle at Daily Kos was Poblano).
Silver is an amiable conversationalist. Our interview has the casual tone of someone in a seat next to me who shares my interests but knows a lot more about them than I do. Yet, he's entirely unpretentious. He doesn't clang you over the head with his intellect. Which I believe is all firmly rooted in his formula for success.
A lot of what Silver does is apply common sense to areas that have eluded it. In explaining the success of FiveThirtyEight, he took the poll numbers and the press as an example. "Let's say that eight polls have Obama in front by four points in some states, and one poll has him up by twelve. The news story will be that he's pulling away." Silver's method is to investigate the other poll for sample irregularities and the history of its accuracy. "We give too much weight to outliers; it's as if we're determined to make the fluke the norm rather than seeing it as a fluke.
"But, overall, despite all his success, Silver just isn't satisfied. The church of data has problems and rather than recruit new followers, he wants people to be their own leaders. "Data should be a conversation starter, not an ender," he says. "People shouldn't just accept it as gospel," he continues. "Too often people just cherry pick some numbers to support their point of view."
From that outlook comes his next move, a book, tentatively titled The Tao of Data, which will explore many different areas—global warming, national security, disease—and bring the kind of rigor and reason that have made him the latest in a line of geek rock stars that include sociologist Malcolm Gladwell, computer scientist Jaron Lanier, food writer Michael Pollan, and Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, the duo behind the book Freakonomics. He acknowledged that his book was in its early stages—soon to reveal its "3 percent revelation."
Silver continues to post almost daily at FiveThirtyEight, which now has a staff and White House press credentials. His latest coup: In June, NYTimes.com decided to host the site under its banner and auspices, with Silver a regular contributor to the Times and The New York Times Magazine. (The Freakonomics folks have a similar arrangement.) Silver's blog musings range from the mid-term elections and polls about hot-button issues to the impact of bad officiating in team sports. He focuses most of his efforts on parsing numbers that are routinely misinterpreted in the mainstream press. There's a real need for quality control when it comes to data," he said. "We need to be more aggressive about separating the signal from the noise."
Martin Johnson is a freelance writer whose work appears in The Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, and theroot.com. He lives in New York City.