The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

November 10, 2012

Predicting presidents, storms and life by computer

WASHINGTON — Forget political pundits, gut instincts, and psychics. The mightier-than-ever silicon chip seems to reveal the future.

 

In just two weeks this fall, computer models displayed an impressive prediction prowess.

 

It started when the first computer model alerted meteorologists to the pre-Halloween disaster headed for the Northeast from a bunch of clouds in the Caribbean. Nearly a week later, that weather system became Hurricane Sandy and grew into a superstorm after taking a once-in-a-century sharp turn into New Jersey.

 

Then, statistician and blogger Nate Silver correctly forecast on his beat-up laptop how all 50 states would vote for president. He even predicted a tie in Florida and projected it eventually would tip to President Barack Obama, which is the equivalent of predicting a coin landing on its side. He did it by taking polling data, weighing it for past accuracy and running 40,000 computer simulations at a time.

 

He then gave his forecast in terms of percentages, saying that Obama had a 91 percent chance of being re-elected.

 

In the case of Sandy, lives were at stake. With the election, reputations were on the line and some pundits were dismissive of the computer modeling. Bets were made. Challenges issued.

 

The math majors came out on top thanks to better and more accessible data and rapidly increasing computer power.

 

"In this particular case, rationality scored a win," said Princeton University neuroscientist Sam Wang, who since 2004 has been using mathematical formulas and polling data to predict elections for the Princeton Election Consortium. Wang predicted a "100 percent chance" of an Obama victory, but missed Florida, giving it to Republican Mitt Romney. For the record, Wang notes that he beat Silver at accurate Senate race predictions.

 

Computers soon should be able to tell health officials where the next food poisoning outbreak will spread, a U.S. government lab predicts.

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