The hardest thing about being a magician is that once the secret is out, there’s nothing left to see.
Statistician Nate Silver insists he’s not a magician. All throughout the heady election times of 2008 and 2012, when it seemed that Silver could predict the future with incredible accuracy, he sold America a steady brand of analysis based on statistics and sophisticated yet simple research. The hardest thing about speaking to Americans is that your message will be boiled down to its simplest, most saleable minimum. Silver wrote careful political analysis and drew graphs, but somehow he ended up on the evening news in starry blue robes, staring into a crystal ball.
It is in this sorry context that Silver is touring with his new book, “The Signal and the Noise.” At Zellerbach Hall on Sunday afternoon, in a lecture presented by Cal Performances, Silver held the stage down with a graceful ease. Using simple and clear slides, he illustrated the glory of being more popular on the Internet than Vice President Joe Biden before dwarfing them both with the ignominy of being nowhere near as popular as Justin Bieber.
This self-effacing ability to examine the facts in context and with an eye toward scale is the stuff of which Silver’s magic is made. He presents these facts seemingly without ego and without attachment to the outcome. The vibe is not quite Zen; Silver is sarcastic and witty and clearly possessed of strong opinions. He doesn’t deny desire; he just denies that desire has an effect on the outcome — a phenomenon he calls “the opposite of politics.”
Silver made sport of politics from the stage, explaining that people on the inside of the election cycle are subject to wild speculation and disbelief, the best example of which was Karl Rove’s 2012 election night meltdown on live television. Silver referenced this as his own foil — the analyst who can see the evidence but still cannot believe the outcome.
The Zellerbach crowd was spellbound by Silver’s quick and decisive explanations — not only about his own amazing predictions of sporting events and major political happenings but also about the nature of data and the possibilities in extrapolation. Silver has been on everybody’s list: the 100 Most Creative People in Business last year, according to Fast Company, and Time’s list of the 100 most influential people of 2009. Rolling Stone named him an “Agent of Change.” His book, “The Signal and the Noise,” is a mammoth bestseller, unstoppable on the charts.
Yet immediately after Silver concluded his performance, there was an overwhelming feeling of disappointment. People raised their hands during the Q&A and asked questions that crackled with political unrest or made it clear that Silver has quite a following among gamblers. In the ladies’ room, the ever-present line hummed with dissatisfaction. The audience had enjoyed Silver well enough; he was cogent and funny and his point came across as clear as crystal. So why was everyone so let down?
Silver himself once said, “Well, the way we perceive accuracy and what accuracy is statistically are really two different things.” The same can be said of the man himself.
We perceive him as no less than a wizard, a wunderkind, the brain that can set the outcome of the election tomorrow squarely into the realm of today’s knowledge. We want, like the politically unhappy questioners, for his powers to benefit ourselves and our parties. We expect, like the gamblers rubbing their hands together, reaching for the mic, that he will reveal his secret to us in short lectures like these and that we too will become high priests of simple numbers, seeing clearly into the works of the universe.
Nate Silver was excellent at Zellerbach on Sunday. His only mistake was telling the truth.