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Is Nate Silver a Statistician?

1 October 2013 547 views No Comment

I recently had the pleasure of attending Nate Silver’s ASA invited address at the Joint Statistical Meetings in Montréal. Mr. Silver delivered an engaging talk about the interplay between statistics and journalism, but I was most intrigued by the early disclaimer that he does not consider himself a statistician. About half of the colleagues I have informally polled since then similarly do not consider Nate Silver to be a statistician.

Is Nate Silver a statistician? On one hand, his popular blog FiveThirtyEight.com, sports applications, and successful book career (Including New York Times bestseller The Signal and the Noise) have focused the public’s attention on the power of statistical thinking in a way not seen since W. Edwards Deming. On the other hand, detractors note that Mr. Silver does not publish his approaches in peer-reviewed statistical journals, and that he does not hold any degrees in statistics. (Mr. Silver has a bachelor’s degree in economics from The University of Chicago.)

Before we decide how to answer the title question, let us recognize why the answer to this question is important. After all, Mr. Silver is at the head of a burgeoning media empire, and he is likely to do very well whether or not statisticians regard him as a colleague. The question of Nate Silver’s candidacy as a statistician is timely, since our community is facing the biggest public perception problem of the day. The president’s corner column in the July issue of Amstat News by ASA President Marie Davidian—“Aren’t We Data Science?”—notes that our field has been conspicuously absent from much of the Big Data discussion, despite the quantitative and inferential abilities that statisticians could bring to this arena. 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 profession constitutes “participating for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs” (Merriam-Webster’s dictionary). If a statistician is one who is able to ethically use statistical principals at a professional level (i.e., make a livelihood), then Mr. Silver clearly meets the criterion. If being a statistician requires publishing methodological advancements in statistical peer-reviewed journals, then I fear a great number of individuals with bachelor’s, master’s, and even doctorate degrees in statistics are not actually statisticians. I recommend Jeff Leek’s Simply Statistics blog entry, titled “What Statistics Should Do About Big Data: Problem Forward Not Solution Backward,” as it provides an elegant perspective on the apparent tension between methodology and application in the Big Data context.

I would make the case that Mr. Silver is a professional statistician by definition (even if he claims he is not) and that his rise to stardom has come during a watershed moment for our field. Mr. Silver is in the class of exceptional people who are hard to categorize exactly. He has captured the public’s imagination surrounding the use of statistical methods to an extent that will surely continue to have a great impact on the public perception of and interest in the field of statistics. Few degree-holding statisticians will have a similar career impact. I suggest we 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.

Christopher Franck
Assistant Director of LISA (Laboratory for Interdisciplinary Statistical Analysis)
Virginia Tech

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