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Silver, Nate (b. 1978)  
 
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Statistical analyst Nate Silver first came to wide public attention in 2008, when he correctly predicted the outcome of the presidential election in 49 out of 50 states and also forecast accurate results for all of the 35 races for the United States Senate. He achieved a similar rate of success in 2012, that time getting the call of the vote for president right in every state.

Nathaniel Silver is the son of Brian Silver, a professor of political science at Michigan State University, and Sally Silver, a community activist. He was born in East Lansing on January 13, 1978.

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Sally Silver described her son to Patricia Montemurri of the Detroit Free Press as a "very precocious youngster who quickly became an avid reader but even sooner showed an uncanny aptitude for mathematics. By the age of four, he could perform multiplication of double-digit numbers in his head" and had also grasped the concept of negative numbers.

"My parents have always supported me tremendously," Nate Silver told Montemurri. "There was an emphasis on education and intellectual exploration. It was a household that had good values."

The Silvers encouraged their son to pursue whatever interested him most, and this proved to include baseball. When his father took him to games at iconic Tiger Stadium in Detroit in 1984, he was swept up in the magic of that championship season and became a devoted fan of the team.

Like many a Michigan child, Silver put a Tigers pennant on his bedroom wall. Unlike most six-year-old sports fans anywhere, he also began compiling statistics on his favorite team.

Silver participated in youth baseball in East Lansing, but he realized that hitting was not his forte, and so he developed a strategy of trying to get as many walks as possible so that he could use his speed to steal or take extra bases to make the greatest contribution to his team.

Although Silver did not become a star on the diamond, he shone on the debate team, leading his high school to victory in the state competition in his junior year and to a first runner-up finish the next. His extensive preparation and thorough command of facts earned him an individual first prize in the John S. Kight scholarship contest in 1996.

Silver went on to the University of Chicago, where he earned a degree in economics in 2000. He spent his junior year abroad, at the London School of Economics.

Upon graduation, he took a job with the consultancy firm KPMG, but the work did not engage him.

Bored with his job, he earned extra money--up to six figures one year--playing on-line poker but gave it up when the odds said that it was time. "For a while, there was a lot of money to be made, but you kind of eliminate one sucker at a time until finally you're the sucker," he explained to Adam Sternbergh of New York magazine.

Silver had maintained his love of baseball and his fascination with its statistics. While many baseball fans are conversant with current performance numbers and can spout historical records, Silver took statistics in a different direction, namely using the accumulated information to predict the future performance of players and teams. While he was not the first to attempt a predictive model, the one that he developed was the most sophisticated.

Silver named his system PECOTA ("player empirical comparison and optimization test algorithm") and in 2002 sold it to and went to work for Baseball Prospectus, an enterprise described by Sternbergh as "a loosely organized think tank that, in the last ten years [i.e., as of 2008], has revolutionized the interpretation of baseball stats. . . . [and] has a reputation in sports-media circles for being unfailingly rigorous, occasionally arrogant, and almost always correct."

An example of PECOTA's efficacy was a 2008 prediction of success for the Tampa Bay Rays, which Sternbergh described as "bold, even amusing, given that the Rays were [then] arguably the worst team in baseball. . . . [having] finished last in all but one season of their ten-year existence." The Rays wound up as the American League champions.

In 2008 Silver also became interested in another area of prediction, namely the forecasting of results of political elections. According to Ruth Scurr of The Guardian, he conceived of starting a web site to do just that while waiting out a flight delay at the New Orleans airport. He soon launched the political blog FiveThirtyEight--the name chosen for the number of votes in the electoral college--which he licensed to the New York Times in 2010.

In formulating the system for his predictions Silver found inspiration in the work of Thomas Bayes, an English mathematician, and, in particular, in Bayes's "An Essay toward Solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances" (1763, published posthumously), which Silver described to Scurr as "a statement--expressed both mathematically and philosophically--about how we learn about the universe: that we learn it through approximation, getting closer and closer to the truth as we gather more evidence."

He further noted that "[m]uch of the most thoughtful work I have found on the use and abuse of statistical models, and on the proper role of prediction, comes from people in the medical profession. . . . You can quite easily get away with a stupid model if you are a political scientist, but in medicine as in war, stupid models kill people. It has a sobering effect."

Silver achieved a high degree of accuracy in forecasting the outcome of the 2008 presidential election, naming the eventual winner in all but one of the fifty states. He also successfully predicted the victor in all thirty-five senatorial races.

With success came celebrity, and, with that, the curiosity of the public about his private life.

Silver had come out to his parents after his third year at college and had thereafter been candid about his homosexuality, but he had not been an activist for glbtq rights. When asked in 2008 by Japhy Grant of Queerty what he thought of having "become something of a gay icon or at least object of affection," Silver replied, "I've started to notice it a little bit, although so far it seems like I'm more a subject of geek affection than gay affection."

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Nate Silver. Photograph by Randy Stewart.
  
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