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Nassim Taleb’s Case Against Nate Silver Is Bad Math

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has overplayed his hand this time and is left looking, well, klueless.Photograph by Salzburg Global Seminar / Flickr

Since the midterm elections, a feud has been raging on Twitter between Nate Silver, founder of FiveThirtyEight, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, hedge-fund-manager-turned-mathematical-philosopher and author of The Black Swan. It began, late last year, with Silver boasting about the success of his election models and Taleb shooting back that Silver doesn’t “know how math works.” Silver said Taleb was “consumed by anger” and hadn’t had any new ideas since 2001. The argument has gotten personal, with Silver calling Taleb an “intellectual-yet-idiot” (an insult taken from Taleb’s own book) and Taleb calling Silver “klueless” and “butthurt.” Here is a recap of what they’re fighting about so you can know who’s right (Silver, mostly) and who’s wrong (Taleb).

The origin of Taleb’s ire can be found in Silver’s success since 2008—and his some-time failures. As in last month, evaluating probabilistic election forecasts can be conceptually slippery, made especially difficult by the counterintuitive properties of mathematical probability. Historically, Silver has received considerable credit, probably too much, for “calling” elections correctly. As his most recent (incorporating at least some of my suggestions!) shows, the more meaningful questions are: 1) How often does something that he gives an percent chance to actually happen? and 2) How bold are his predictions, in the sense of probabilities being closer to 100 percent rather than long-run averages? In both respects, his models appear to be doing pretty well.

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