Nate Silver visits Comm Dept for an exclusive, data journalism Q&A

Nate Silver, editor-in-chief of ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight blog, poses with Chair David Domke.

Nate Silver, editor-in-chief of ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight blog, poses with Chair David Domke.

En route to his sold-out lecture at the UW Graduate School, Signature Speaker and stats superstar Nate Silver stopped by the Department of Communication for an exclusive Q&A session.  Moderated by Chair David Domke and attended by a rapt audience of 50 faculty, staff, grad and undergrad students, the event touched on everything from Silver’s jaded view of politics and his move to ESPN to his love of poker and burritos.

For someone who owes his fame to accurately predicting elections on the New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog, Nate Silver has little love for politics. And the author of The Signal and The Noise: Why Most Predictions Fail — But Some Don’t is pretty frank about it.

“It’s not a noble field,” he said. But for all the half-truths and negative ads Silver had the pleasure of analyzing during his tenure at the Times, the math whizz had more rebuke for the reporters than the politicians.

When asked if there was one thing he would change about political reporting, Silver recommended a ban on post-debate, newsroom “spin,” saying that the superficial conjecture overshadows the actual content of the event and skews the national dialogue.

And while many like to quip about FiveThirtyEight’s statistical sorcery, Silver retorts that what he did in 2012 was hardly “clairvoyant.” He’s much more concerned with why so few other news organizations asked “the right questions.”

Given the above, Silver’s move to ESPN last year was a no-brainer. Now as the editor-in-chief of a revamped FiveThirtyEight, he’s grateful for the opportunity to build a bigger team and diversify from politics.

With many new-media-savvy Communication Leadership students in the room, the questions soon turned to Silver’s workflow and the key to successful data-journalism.

“Our default is that we share the data,” he said of FiveThirtyEight’s story sources. “Transparency is the new objectivity in journalism.”

His newly established team of 20 is based in New York City and prioritizes in-person collaboration. Silver is very hands-on in his work, and reads about 80 percent of the blog’s articles before they go live. As far as topics go, FiveThirtyEight still dabbles in politics, but Silver’s found success in analyses of air travel, education and Bob Ross paintings. Whatever the genre, repeat interactions are the necessary ingredient for good data, but even that won’t always guarantee the viability of predictions.

“It’s unpredictable what’s predictable and what isn’t,” Silver reiterated. “Intuitively, I would not have known how reliable polls are in politics.”

Ultimately the statistician cautioned against putting too much faith in the overabundance of information available in the digital age.

“People expect big data to be the magic solution. It’s not. Unstructured data can lead you astray,” he said.

But for all his hedging, Silver’s position as the country’s leading data journalist is unlikely to waver anytime soon.

“The world is a messy place. We [at FiveThirtyEight] don’t want to clean it up for you–just give some guidance.”

For more on Nate Silver’s Q&A, check out Flip the Media’s excellent write-up >>>