Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog became a hot property after the data maven rightly predicted a breeze for Obama in the 2012 elections. The New York Times, where Silver worked his magic back then, couldn’t hold on to the boy wonder, who hoped to apply his chic nerdiness to subjects broader than Mitt Romney’s connection deficit. ESPN won the FiveThirtyEight’s heart away from the Times last summer, but what it really wants is Silver’s brain, not his heart. But the brain tends to go fuzzy in sports, and not only from NFL concussions. There’s a reason sports touts in Vegas sell their picks to eager bettors, rather than just betting them, which if the picks were any good is all they’d need to do. Silver has been at the stats game long enough to be modest about his prognostications–he charmingly calls his long list of caveats “ass-covering” when he explains his prediction model for the NCAA tournament. Nevertheless, Nostradamus Silver claimed that, ass-covering aside, he still thought he could “help you perform reasonably well in your office pool.”
Not so much, though, it turns out. When Kentucky faces Connecticut tonight in the NCAA Men’s College Basketball Championship, it’ll be a Wildcat team that had a 1.9 percent chance of winning it all against a Huskies squad whose chances were .06 percent, according to the FiveThirtyEight. Now 68 teams, which is what the tournament began with, is not the same as one-on-one, which is–excepting the little Ryan-Biden undercard–what Obama-Romney was. If Kentucky wins tonight, the graphic designer in your pool whose favorite color is blue is as likely to take home the office pot as that annoying, rabid hoops fan in IT. The math in sports is just much, much harder. And emotion–it has been ever thus–remains incalculable. Not to mention that there are far more unpredictable factors: there was very little chance of a late Romney ankle sprain affecting the electoral college in Michigan. That’s why Warren Buffett offered a billion bucks this year to anyone who could get every game right–a billion he still has safely tucked away in Omaha. Nate Silver may know the 2016 Hillary demographics like they’re imprinted in his DNA, but Dick Morris (the prototypical Silver foil) may be as likely to pick a winner for next year’s Super Bowl as the FiveThirtyEight. Or as Dr. Michael Wu, Chief Scientist of Lithium Technologies (an SF-based software company) puts it: “The purpose of predictive analytics is NOT to tell you what will happen in the future. It cannot do that. In fact, no analytics can do that. Predictive analytics can only forecast what might happen in the future.” Which, it’s important to remember, is just what Nate Silver says.