The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

November 10, 2012

Predicting presidents, storms and life by computer

(Continued)

WASHINGTON —

 

"It's essentially solving equations that are too extensive to solve with pencil and paper," Weaver explained.

 

It all comes down to collecting data, crunching it and spitting out probabilities. It's evidence turned into numbers. It's math.

 

Experts believe it's the future.

 

Silver said what he did with the election was nothing compared with what meteorologists did with Sandy, which was a matter of "real life-and-death consequences."

 

The National Weather Service forecast an extremely rare due-west turn by the storm into southern New Jersey, he said. "It's astounding. That's a huge win for computer modeling."

 

Silver's bold predictions that Obama would win upset some political pundits who predicted a Romney victory, based on what they perceived as momentum, the enthusiasm of crowds, gut instinct and partisanship.

 

But Silver was right, besting his 2008 record of getting 49 of 50 states right for president.

 

"This is a victory for the stuff (computer modeling) in politics," he said Thursday in a telephone interview. "It doesn't mean we're going to solve world peace with a computer. It doesn't mean we're going to be able predict earthquakes ... but we can chip away at the margins."

 

One of the next fields Silver said he'd like to get into is education because he feels that all the data being generated "is not being used in the best way."

 

"I hope that people focus not on me personally, but what I'm trying to do," Silver said.

 

What he and his colleagues are trying to do is take a chaotic world and make sense of it, turn events into equations to be solved.

 

More than anything statistics are tools for understanding, like a wrench for an auto mechanic, said Bill James, the godfather of modern baseball statistics and a colleague of Silver's.

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