Statistician Nate Silver Offers Some Very Powerful Advice on Questioning Data and Authority (When Nate Speaks, Others Listen)

Some people find the truth in numbers, and others, like Nate Silver, have built entire careers on doing just that. As ABC News Special Correspondent and founder and editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight (a site that focuses on opinion poll analysis in sports, economics, and politics), Silver is known for how he creates and analyzes statistical information.

He even successfully called the outcomes in 49 out of 50 states in the 2008 US Presidential election, and was later named as one of the World’s 100 Most Influential People in 2009 by Time magazine.

As someone who deals in statistics, Nate Silver is admittedly, “wary of drawing conclusions of a sample size of one” — especially when this sample size of one includes just his own self. But Nate Silver, in speaking with Kenyon College graduates at their commencement this year, says he has now reached the official age at which he is allowed to pass off anecdotal evidence as “wisdom.”

With these graduates facing a major life transition, Silver notes that it may be difficult for them to, “find the right balance between experimenting with your personal and professional identify on the one hand, and staying true to yourself on the other hand.” In order to navigate these changes, this statistician’s advice?

Don’t let yourself get stuck. And don’t be afraid to question things.

“Don’t let yourself get stuck in a career that’s neither (a) something you really want to be doing right now,” he says, “or (b) something that positions you to do something you really want to do down the road.”

Silver understands that those in category (b) won’t get their dream job right out of college, and instead it will take a lot of hard work for them to reach their ideal position. “But if you don’t think you’re on the right path,” Silver underlines, “take advantage of the fact that you’re untethered and be willing to switch gears pretty quickly.” Keep it moving!

Silver reveals that at the time of his graduation, statistical analysis was not a popular career path. It hardly was a career path at all. 

“…People using statistics in fields like sports and politics and journalism were really on the outside looking in. There was a rebellious spirit. We questioned authority. We wanted to shake things up.” 

When these graduates start out their careers — or when any of us start something new — it will feel, “like you’re on the outside looking in,” like how this well-known statistician felt 18 years ago. But many will become very successful and very powerful despite feeling like an outsider, despite not always following “conventional wisdom.” But when that happens, Silver says, “don’t stop thinking critically. Don’t stop questioning the data, questioning authority — and questioning yourself.”

Check out Nate’s commencement address to Kenyon College below:

[embedded content]