So is Nate Silver really a statistician?


  • Author: Statistics Views and Christopher Franck
  • Date: 29 October 2013
  • Copyright: Image copyright of the American Statistical Association

Amstat News has published a very interesting article following on from the Joint Statistical Meetings in August as to whether the Invited Speaker, Nate Silver, is a statistician (Amstat News, 1st October 2013).

During his speech, which was detailed here by Statistics Views including an exclusive video interview, Silver declared that he did not consider himself to be a statistician, nor did he consider himself a data scientist, which he named as a ‘sexed-up term for statisticians’.

thumbnail image: So is Nate Silver really a statistician?

But is he a statistician? Christopher Franck, Assistant Director of the Laboratory for Interdisciplinary Statistical Analysis of Virginia Tech, argues that Silver’s success with the accuracy of his predictions of the 2008 and 2012 US Presidential Elections, his blog FiveThirtyEight and his best-selling book The Signal and the Noise have helped to focus the public’s attention on the power of statistics “in a way not seen since W. Edwards Deming.” Critics have noted that Silver does not publish in academic journals, nor does he have a statistics degree under his belt (but one in economics from the University of Chicago).

Franck points out that the ASA President Marie Davidian has stated, as she did in an interview this month for StatisticsViews that statisticians need to play a greater role in data science. “One of the biggest challenges the statistical community faces is defining our role within the area known as data science. This is also one of our greatest opportunities. As I noted in my presidential address and in some of my Amstat News columns, statistics and statisticians are often missing from the ongoing discourse on data science and big data, which is disheartening given the critical importance of statistical principles and thinking to this area.” (Statistics Views, 15th October 2013). Franck clearly agrees: “The fact that the Big Data era has gotten off to a rapid start with a lack of visible involvement from our community indicates we face an underlying public perception problem. Therefore, the title question is important. If Nate Silver is a statistician, then he is a famous statistician who already has and will continue to make important impacts for the perception of statistics in the public domain. If Nate Silver is not a statistician, then who exactly is?”

A statistician surely makes informed judgements about the data present, so surely Silver fits this description? However, as his critics have said, Silver does not publish in academic journals, but then neither do many statisticians with a multitude of statistics degrees under their belts, from Bachelor’s to PhD.

Franck concludes that Nate Silver is indeed a statistician and by becoming a household name, he has not only brought statistics into the public’s eye but at a time when statisticians are needed more than ever. He is difficult to place in a category due to his different roles but Franck considers that few statisticians who studied the discipline at university will have the same impact that Silver has.

Finally, Franck suggests that the statisticians ‘acknowledge these exceptional contributions by bestowing on him an honorary PhD. It is my hope that, as a community, we will fully embrace Nate Silver as a colleague and ally. After all, he is one of us.’

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