Honorary Doctorate for Nate Silver

Nate Silver

Honorary Doctorate

On December 14, 2013 , KU Leuven awarded a doctorate honoris causa to Nate Silver. KU Leuven and the Leuven Statistics Research Centre (LStat) honored him for his prominent role in the development, application, and dissemination of proper prediction methods in sports and in political sciences. In particular his role in the prediction of the 2008 and 2012 Presidential Election results in the USA have a beneficial impact on statistical science, in the scientific community in particular and society in general. He has brought statistics to the general public in his masterful communications through the New York Times and his blog FiveThirtyEight.  His book “The Signal and the Noise: Why Most Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t,” was rated the #1 non-fiction book by Amazon.com in 2012. Nate Silver has also been listed among the World’s 100 Most Influential People by Time magazine.


Biography Nathaniel Read "NateSilver:

Nate Silver


  • Born January 13, 1978 in East Lansing, Michigan, USA.
  • Bachelor of Arts degree (with honors) in economics from the University of Chicago In 2000. He spent his third year at the London School of Economics.
  • Started his career as an economic consultant with KPMG (one of the world's largest professional services companies)  in Chicago from 2000 - 2003.
  • Sold PECOTA (Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm) to  Baseball Prospectus (BP) and became  Executive Vice-President, later renamed Managing Partner of BP (2003 - 2008).
  • In 2007 he began publishing a diary under the pseudonym "Poblano" on the political blog Daily Kos.
  • In 2008 he established the blog FiveThirtyEight.com. 538 refers to the number of electors in the United States electoral college. The blog later became a polling aggregation website featured by The New York Times online.
  • In the 2008 U.S. presidential election Silver's final forecast accurately predicted the winner of 49 of the 50 states.
  • The winner of each state was predicted correctly for the 2012 presidential elections.
  • In 2012 'The Signal and the Noise : Why Most Predictions Fail – but Some Don't", was published. The book explains the art of mathematical model building using probability and statistics in real-world circumstances. The book was in the New York Times Best Sellers list for 13 weeks.
  • 2013 Nate Silver left The New York Times for ESPN, a worldwide sportschannel.

Laudatio for Nate Silver

delivered by Professor Irène Gijbels and Professor Geert Molenberghs, promoters

Dear Mr. Silver,Mijnheer de rector,
Excellenties,Waarde collega’s,
Dames en heren,

A quarter of a millennium ago, in 1763, R. Price published his treatise “An Essay Towards Solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances.” While historians agree that what is commonly known as Bayes’ Theorem saw mention and use well before this time, including through Laplace, this 250th anniversary triggered the now already closing celebration of the International Year of Statistics 2013. Incidentally, the Reverend Thomas Bayes, who was born in London in 1702 and died in Turnbridge Wells in Kent, 1761, lies buried in Burnhill Fields Cemetery, a stone’s throw away from the Royal Statistical Society headquarters. The RSS is one of the four  leading societies that spearheaded the International Year of Statistics, together with the American Statistical Association,  the International Statistical Institute, the Institute of Mathematical Statistics, and some other 2,000 organizations dotted around the world. Proudly, KU Leuven is one of them.
 To this audience, here together to celebrate LStat’s anniversary, and to enjoy the Annual Christmas Lecture of the Faculty of Science, literally located at the heart of a university with statisticians active in next to every faculty, it is abundantly clear how statistics plays a role in a variety of areas, including safety and quality of food, public health, drug development, economy, insurance, and finance, industrial safety and production, criminology, survey sampling, educational and behavioral science, climate chance, and, last but not least, sports and political science.

A large class of statistical problems involves the casting of trustworthy predictions. Indeed, all of us are concerned about predicting the future, in the short (what will the weather be like on Sunday, middle (what will the outcome of the mother of all elections be?) and long term (what’s with the climate change?). Nate Silver has developed superb tools to handle these types of questions, based on mathematical model building, combining available data and sound statistical analysis. He has tirelessly been emphasizing the need of precise wording of predictions, like “this person has a 85% probability of winning the election, with an error range of ±2%”. Such a statement clearly separates what is known from what is still uncertain. For example, this statement means that the another candidate may win, as a matter of fact, in similar circumstances, this will happen somewhere between 13 and 17% of the time.
At the present time, data are more abundant than ever, in every field, from demography to genomics. How to analyze “big data” and how to use them to accurately formulate answers to relevant questions, is accordingly becoming ever more complex. In his bestselling book, “The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t,” Nate Silver explains how to approach this, using mathematical models, statistical tools, and all the data you can get your hands on. For election forecasts, this would include all available polls from past decennia, demographic data, data from previous elections, information about polls and outcomes in states that are similar to the  one studied, and so forth. Evident to statisticians, but very much in need of clear communication: a prediction is never absolute – it always remains a probabilistic assessment of possible outcomes.

Nate Silver founded the blog “FiveThirtyEight.com,” named after the 538 electors in the US electoral college. Nate Silver first launched the blog in March 2008 and it has been enthusiastically followed ever since by millions of first curious then interested people. From August 2010 through July 2013, it was licensed to The New York Times. It is being re-launched in partnership with ESPN, Disney’s sports network, which will allow a budget for hiring journalists, editors and analysts and broaden the impact of the blog even more.

From the start, FiveThirtyEight.com was devoted to data-driven coverage of politics and elections. The forecasts for the US Senate elections in 2008 proved to be correct for every single state, for the presidential elections for 49 out of 50 states. The blog has not stopped improving methodology, during several further major elections including the presidential elections in 2012. In the latter, it predicted  the correct outcome in all of the 50 states and Washington DC. The same methodology was also used in predictions of sports competitions or the awarding of Oscars.

Actually, sports was the first domain where Nate Silver published forecasts based on his data-driven approach. He developed the PECOTA model (Player Empirical Comparison and Optimisation Test Algorithm) to compare baseball players for data such as how often a batter gets on base, and studied the correlation between these data and teams winning games. In this way, he casts well-informed predictions about player performance, career development, and outcomes of championships.
Without exaggeration, we can consider Nate Silver an at the same time enthusiastic, entertaining, as well as scholarly erudite ambassador of good statistical science and practice. No man has been providing better service to the statistical profession and its practice, prior to and especially during the International Year of Statistics 2013. Continually has he been going around the United States and the world at large to promote statistics.
For these reasons, we ask you, honoured Rector, on the recommendation of the Academic Council, to confer the degree of doctor honoris causa of KU Leuven upon Nate Silver, statistician and journalist, founder of the blog FiveThirtyEightCom and journalist at ESPN.


Video coverage

Click here to see the ceremony and the acceptance speech/Christmas lecture 2013

Media coverage

De Standaard (10/12/2013) 'De man die statistiek hip maakte."

Uitzending Joos (Radio 1) (10/12/13)

De Morgen (16/12/2013) "Politieke analisten zijn ordinaire roddelaars"

De Morgen Opinie (16/12/2013) "Belgie mist cijfer cultuur"

Campuskrant (18/12/2013)