4 Big Questions Nate Silver Should Tackle

Owen Poindexter
Nate Silver, who left the New York Times for ABC/ESPN has said he will have a lot of latitude with his new contract, and can explore a range of topics outside of sports. What topics? Here are 5 where we could really use Nate Silver’s ability to project and predict.

nate silver, espn, abc, new york times, 538
Nate Silver will explore new ground as a statistician for ABC/ESPN. Here are four suggestions for the projection master. PHOTO: Randy Stewart, CC

Nate Silver left the New York Times for ABC/ESPN, and he is returning to the topic that launched him as a predictions genius: sports. I have long been both a Nate Silver promoter and explainer. Promoter because he’s a thoughtful guy who uses data in more thorough ways than others (i.e. evaluating each polling company separately for their predictive value and partisan lean as opposed to just averaging all polls together), and explainer because people cite Nate Silver whenever they encounter a problem that involves a lot of numbers (i.e. “people on Jeopardy should talk to Nate Silver about how much to bet on Daily Doubles).

That said, I’m nervous about Silver’s move to ESPN. Since his PECOTA system made waves in 2008, when Silver correctly predicted that the Tampa Bay Rays would win the A.L. East over the monolith Yankees and Red Sox, many other projection systems have taken on baseball, and some are now considered better than PECOTA. That’s not to say that Silver is washed up and should get out of the game—I’m sure he has much to contribute. It’s more that Silver might not be needed in sports in the way that he is in politics.

However, Silver has said he will have a lot of latitude with his new contract, and can explore a range of topics outside of sports. What topics? Here are 4 where we could really use Nate Silver’s ability to project and predict.

1.       When and how the next financial crisis will occur

Two of the central lessons from the 2008 economic crash are 1) better prediction would have blunted the crash and 2) we haven’t done much to prevent the next one. Toward that second point: banks are just as “too big to fail” as they were before the crash. Dodd-Frank put in some useful regulations, but there are plenty of loopholes, and stronger legislation is needed (and won’t happen with this or the next Congress). As for the idea that better prediction would have softened the crash, this is true not only because certain investment companies and ratings agencies might have slammed the brakes had they seen what was coming, but also, there weren’t enough people making bets against the subprime mortgage market to cushion the impact when that market tanked.

On top of all that, I’m curious how long it is before the banksters drive the economy off a cliff again.

2.       The policies of the next president

Silver and his fivethirtyeight projection system are quite adept at guessing the name of the next president, but the next president’s policies are an entirely different matter. While we don’t know who the next president is, we know who will be lobbying her or him, the nominating and election contests they will have to survive and the sorts of fundraising they will have to go through. An analysis of all these factors could lead to a fascinating and telling examination of what sort of person it will take to wriggle through that gauntlet, regardless of that person’s name.

3.       The date climate change denial goes out of style

Anyone 28 or younger has never lived through a below average month for global temperature. It’s not clear what will be the cold water to the face that wakes up climate change deniers, but it has to happen eventually, right? Nate Silver, make me feel better about this.

4.       When gay marriage and marijuana are legal federally

Both gay marriage and marijuana legalization are trending upward in polls, with cannabis lagging behind the civil rights movement of our time. Both have scored major legal victories of late, with DOMA getting struck down and marijuana becoming legal for recreational use in Washington State and Colorado. While there is plenty of feel-good news, both are still more illegal than legal in the U.S. (though gay marriage is getting close to 50-50). That both will eventually be legal seems inevitable with gay marriage and probable with marijuana. Nate Silver, as a gay man, has a definite interest in at least one of these topics. The world would be enriched by Silver's take on both polling questions and the other three.