Public Intellectual


Nate Silver is not only a true pundit as he navigates the internet universe to construct data-proven, logical (yet, often shockingly surprising) opinions but, he is also a beacon of hope for those tired of baseless, opinionated banter and starved of substance. When Americans ask, “Who’s going to win the Superbowl?” an aggressive, cult-like testosterone filled reaction often ensues, leading many to believe this is more than the mere act of tossing a football – this, is war. However, with over half of America’s sports fans – upwards of 70 million people – believing God will determine who wins the Superbowl, maybe it is a little harsh to criticize their baseless opinions when it – what they call, “faith” – is the core of their religion. Either way, Nate Silver his paving the way as a statistician for popularizing the integration of data in hot-topics of opinion.

Silver, despite his humble beginnings in Lansing, Michigan, has stretched his abilities farther than his suburban roots. He knew he wanted something different so instead of attending Michigan State or University like most of his peers, he went to the liberal University of Chicago where he was exposed to a different way of thinking. Surrounded by a multitude of people, culture, and opinions he was not inside his white-picket fence anymore. This diversity fueled his passion to decipher the cluttering noise of differing opinions and use silent numbers to understand the facts before developing one.

Before becoming the well-known man he is today, his career path took a few interesting twists and turns enabling him to gain the life experience, maturity, and a certain je ne sais quoi that gave him his start. After graduation, he took the cookie-cutter corporate job at a consulting firm but quickly grew bored. He then started a website, “The Burrito Bracket” that rated local Mexican restaurants on the same item of food and whichever experience was more divine would advance to the next bracket. However, this taste-bud driven lifestyle did not satiate him. He then sought his hand at online player and made six figures a year but his turn came up and he sought the luster of data-driven excitement.

He enjoyed discovering the story the numbers prophesied and went to work with Baseball Prospectus – a company devoted to revolutionizing the interpretation of baseball statistics. As any observant, knowledgeable employee would, in 2003, Silver hit a home-run when he formualized an upgraded interpretation of baseball stats. PECOTA, also the name of Kansas City Royals second-rate infielder, stands for “Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm.” Using players’ performance statistics, PECOTA predicts performance in several major categories as well as the market values of players. Silver managed PECOTA from 2003-2009.

In his spare time from analyzing baseball statistics, he found interest in the 2008 Presidential race heating up. Amidst the United State’s Great Recession beginning in 2007, both candidates were spit-firing about which party was to blame and who would make the economy great again. Weekly polls and forecasts varied, fluctuating between leads and ties which was effective in keeping the uninformed public engaged. However, as a public intellectual, Silver was not going to sit on the couch with a deteriorating bag of chips to help him digest each week’s new poll. He decided to interpret the data for himself using a bi-partisan algorithm. His formula consists of giving each poll a weighting based on their previous predictions track record, sample size and recentness. The higher previous predictions were accurate, the higher the weighting for the poll. Next, to ensure context, regressions are considered in the demographics of each state’s polls and are able to take into account state’s that have no recent polling data. Finally, the election is replicated 10,000 times for each update to generate a statistical assessment based on historical data. It is with this formula that a baseball statistician accurately forecasted the 2008 electoral map predicting 49 out of 50 states on his new website, 538. Its mission statement is to

most broadly, accumulate and analyze polling and political data in way that is informed, accurate, and attractive. Most narrowly, to give you the best possible objective assessment of the likely outcome of upcoming elections. – Nate Silver, 538.

Without knowing it at the time, his forecast and website would dramatically change the course of his life by transforming into a public intellectual.

Nearly overnight, Nate Silver went from being only popular in a niche baseball market to a national forum. The accuracy of his 2008 Presidential Campaign results were unprecedented and the national news took notice. His website 538, named after the number of votes in the electoral college, increased from 800 web traffic views per month to over 2.5 million. 2008 was a monumental year for Silver, his blog was the first to ever be selected as a Notable Narrative by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. It was also the years’ Weblog Award Winner for “Best Political Coverage.” The Huffington Post named it as the “Number One of Ten Things that Managed to Not Suck in 2008, Media Edition” and the New York Times also gave a shout out, describing it as “one of the breakout online stars of the year.”

In 2012, Silver outdid himself (and everyone else) by accurately forecasting all 50 out of 50 states. In 2013, realizing Nate Silver’s forecasting potential, ESPN bought the site FiveThirtyEight and made Silver Editor in Chief. Today, the site FiveThirtyEight has become one of the ultimate resources for politics, poll analysis, economics, and sport statistical analysis. Its lack of bias is refreshing to the civil war seen between the Republicans and Democrats on Fox, CNN, and MSNBC News and the testosterone filled rants by many ESPN newscasters. Fortunately, the 21st century technology consists of the internet rather than the forecasted suburbs underneath the ocean; this gives Silver and other public intellectuals an unprecedented forum to reach citizens. In Stephan Mack’s piece, “The ‘Decline’ of the Public Intellectual (?),” he argues the purpose of the pundit is “simply to keep the pot boiling,” and with easily accessible platforms such as Blogger, Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and many more (and more to come), it is easier than ever for the public to be aware.

Being a public intellectual takes time. The public does not have the extra 40+ hours in their week to devote to crunching data, no matter how relevant it is or could be to their lives. The public intellectual is crucial in a democracy because it empowers people with knowledge to make an informative opinion each time they have the opportunity to engage whether that be on social media platform, at a local level in a town hall forum, a state ballot, or national election. Without public intellectuals to do essentially the “dirty work” for the public, sifting through endless piles of data and gaging their validity, the public would have opinions based on misinformation and emotion. If you ask someone with no context of an issue whether they are pro-life or pro-choice, they will say, “Pro-life. I’m not a murderer!” However, if you disclose that a society without pro-choice is directly correlated to higher crime rates, prison incarcerations, mental illness, and lower lifetime income, some opinions will change. Knowledge is power.

In the United States’ competitive, capitalistic market that places little value on an individual’s personal time – the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) has no maximum amount of work hours for employees 16 years and older – Americans are spending an average 45 hours a week working and 42 percent of Americans did not even take a vacation last year. This work-a-holic environment does not promote the public to develop into public intellectuals, but rather encourages people to keep their head down and mind their business as to not endanger their already deteriorating leisure time.

That’s where Nate Silver comes in, spending hours of his day synthesizing complex data to arm the public with indisputable information so when they share their opinions they mean something more than mindless, emotional banter.  It is likely that businesses and even government do not want the people to become armed with this knowledge. Imagine a United States where each citizen was a public intellectual on any subject or topic. Well, yes, we would be well informed. But, can you imagine our current business structure and government running the way it is currently? It would be highly unlikely that we would allow Donald Trump, a misogynistic and xenophobic presidential candidate, to be a frontrunner for the Republican party. I also doubt that we would operate on the two-party presidential system where winner-takes-all. If the United States citizens were all public intellectuals my guess would be that we would move towards a more parliamentarian platform, where different issues would characterize different parties and each would be represented as a percentage of the total population.

So who will win the Superbowl? Well it certainly won’t be because the Broncos have ‘better’ Christians on their team. Also, we can pray all we want for the Lord to pick the next President but, there’s an increasing chance an atheist Jew might be it.


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