Triumph of the nerds, and a gay one at that -- the spotlight's on Nate Silver
"[R]ight now I bet that you could get anyone to go out with you just by saying something like 'I predicted Florida, North Carolina, and Illinois, and now I'm predicting that you'll have dinner with me.'"
-- Emma Gertlowitz, in her letter to Nate Silver
"If you grow up gay, or in a household that's agnostic, when most people are religious, then from the get-go, you are saying that there are things that the majority of society believes that I don't believe."
-- Nate Silver, in a profile by The Observer's Carole Cadwalladr
Just to be clear, this is more than an excuse to search for nekkid pitchers of Matt Bomer (as if an excuse were required for that!). It's a way of introducing my hands-down favorite comment about the punditocracy, the Infotainment Noozemedia, and especially the "mind" set at the moment of our mainstreamed Far, Far Right.
It comes from the above-mentioned 11-year-old Emma Gertlowitz, who reveals in a "Dear Nate Silver" letter contributed to The New Yorker recently by that witty scribe Paul Rudnick (see "A Date With Nate") that "for a million years I liked Justin Bieber because he was so cute but now I like you."
I watched you on MSNBC and HBO and on Charlie Rose and I can't stop thinking about how you study polls and create probability models and predict elections and how you're always right, which I think is so unbelievably cute, and I keep imagining you saying to me, "Emma, I think that there's a 93.7% chance of me falling in love with you."It doesn't even faze Emily that Nate is openly gay. "That’s fine because we can just hang out and you can say things like 'I think that Harry from One Direction is 73% cuter than Louis although Louis is 21.8% funnier than Harry and my model predicts that they would both really like you, Emma, even though they both look 100% like Kristen Stewart, only less rugged.'"
Eventually Emma is led to fantasize -- don't ask how; you'll just have to read the piece yourself -- to imagine Nate's mom giving him grief about how he needs "something heart-healthy to start your day," even if he is "a fancy statistician with a Times blog and Seattle green-architect eyeglass frames," and she imagines him answering, "Mom, if you keep nagging me I will never let you meet my new boyfriend, Matt Bomer."
This prompts Emily to explain:
See, I think that because you predicted the election with near-100% accuracy Matt Bomer is way more likely to go out with you than with Dick Morris, who predicted a Romney landslide, or with Karl Rove, who kept predicting that Ohio was still in play a week after the election was over. In fact, right now I bet that you could get anyone to go out with you just by saying something like "I predicted Florida, North Carolina, and Illinois, and now I'm predicting that you'll have dinner with me."That's the line I love, the line where Karl Rove "kept predicting that Ohio was still in play a week after the election was over." I'm old enough to remember when Karl Rove was a genius, before being reduced to a simpering buffoon -- though I imagine that with access to Rupert Murdoch's and Roger Ailes's stockpile of Fox Noisebucks, buffoonery pays way better than being a propaganda genius ever did.
In the really nice profile from which I extracted the quote from Nate Silver at the top of this post, "Nate Silver: It's the numbers, stupid" (which you can find on Raw Story, without a link to the original), The Observer's Carole Cadwalladr describes her subject as "new kind of political superstar. One who actually knows what he’s talking about."
For Nate it's all about a rigorous use of numbers, which he's been doing since he was six, applying numbers to Detroit Tigers baseball. Applied to politics, he hopes his numbers can give him just a bit of an advantage in analyzing whatever he's analyzing. Carole Cadwalladr writes:
In the rarefied world of US politics, it's proved spectacularly more accurate than what was around before. Or even in British politics for that matter. We don't have the same abundance of polling data that exists in America, so its use here might be less successful, but it didn't stop theDaily Telegraph's Janet Daley weighing in on the US election. On polling day, she declared a victory for Romney, on the grounds that Obama's campaign didn't "feel" like a winner to her. Others had a "hunch" that Romney would edge it. With competition like this, says Silver, it really wasn't so difficult to do something just slightly less medieval.One reason I'm happy to see Nate getting some happy press is what he's had to overcome from right-wing attacks by people who don't understand, or want to understand, what he's doing, and who casually descend to (for them) ritual homophobia.
"Numbers aren't perfect, but for me, it's numbers with all their imperfections versus bullshit. You had people saying, ‘You can't quantify people's feelings through numbers!' But what's the alternative? Me sitting at my Georgetown cocktail party saying that I know how people in Toledo, Ohio, are going to vote better than the actual people of Toledo, Ohio, who answered a survey? It's incredibly presumptuous. And truth is an absolute defence. So if they got it right it would be one thing, but they didn't. They're consistently quite wrong."
Silver doesn't work the Georgetown party scene. He doesn't meet the lobbyists, spin doctors, campaign managers and press officers. He doesn't, in short, play the system, because political reporting, both in the US and the UK, is a system, a system that can at times resemble a cartel. In Britain, the you-scratch-my-back-and-I'll-scratch-yours atmosphere of the lobby came under scrutiny during the expenses scandal, a scandal it took a journalist outside politics to bust apart. In the US, Silver describes it as "transactional".
There was more than a touch of homophobia to the criticism (Silver is gay), not to mention an aversion to scientific rationalism that has come to characterise certain segments of the conservative right. (Gawker compared the attack to "something like a jock slapping a math book out of a kid's hands and saying, ‘NICE NUMBERS, FAG.'")Not that Nate is any more comfortable with the sudden rush of adultation.
"It's been a little crazy," he says. But then, he doesn't really see it being about him. "I've become invested with this symbolic power. It really does transcend what I'm actually doing and what I actually deserve. And I'd be the first to say you want diversity of opinion. You don't want to treat any one person as oracular."Nate believes there is in fact a connection between what he does and both his nerd history and his sexual orientation.
It might be a bit late for that, however. The day after the election, he went on The Daily Show and Jon Stewart saluted him as "Nate Silver! The lord and god of the algorithm."
In other circumstances, if Silver had been a different sort of personality, a more egotistical one, this all could be a bit much. But this is also a story about the underdog coming out on top. In the weeks before the election, Silver's critics (largely on the right, angry that he was predicting an Obama win) attacked not just his methodology, but also him.
Dean Chambers of UnSkewedPolls.com railed against his "voodoo statistics", claimed he'd been "smoking the wacky weed" and finally pronounced him a "thin and effeminate" man "of small stature" with a "soft-sounding voice".
It turns out that what he calls his "dorkiness" is actually the secret to his powers. "I've always felt like something of an outsider. I've always had friends, but I've always come from an outside point of view. I think that's important. If you grow up gay, or in a household that’s agnostic, when most people are religious, then from the get-go, you are saying that there are things that the majority of society believes that I don't believe."
What made you more of a misfit, I ask, being gay or a geek? “Probably the numbers stuff since I had that from when I was six.”