Nate Silver and the Shortcomings of Big Data

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Statistician and author Nate Silver understands the potential of “big data,” the value to be found in the ever-growing amount of digital records generated by online interactions. His past work, which includes successfully forecasting the outcomes of the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, has given him some insights into big data’s limitations.

In a 2013 profile for Fast Company, which named Silver #1 of the top 100 most creative people in business, he told reporter Jon Gertner that “there’s a lot of ways to take a lot of data, mangle what you’re doing with it, not ask good questions, and get yourself in trouble.” Greater quantities of data do not always mean greater quantities of useful data, especially when the analytical process is flawed.

Silver’s website, FiveThirtyEight, began in 2008 and was part of NYTimes.com for several years. When Silver ultimately decided to move to the ESPN network, taking FiveThirtyEight.com with him, Silver and his website had gained enough notoriety for his negotiations to warrant detailed examination by Politico.

In 2008, New York Magazine called Silver “the spreadsheet psychic,” and his reputation for generating near-mystical insights was bolstered by his successful prediction of the 2012 presidential election results for all 50 states. Silver has been asked to apply his predictive abilities to everything from the Academy Awards to the campaign for Scotland’s independence.

At the 67th CFA Institute Annual Conference, to be held in Seattle, Silver will discuss some of the ways that others commonly misuse data to arrive at incorrect conclusions. Follow this blog for additional news and updates as the conference draws closer.


Please note that the content of this site should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute.

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