From the IPA Blog

The Vigor of Rigor: Moneyball, Nate Silver, and IPA

Nov 08/12 | From the blog
by Carl Brinton

You needed years of personal experience to pick a winner, they said. It was about trusting your gut, not the numbers. Building a team in baseball had long been the purview of salty scouts with decades of experience who had seen and delved into the psyche of thousands of players, but as is now well known and documented, moneyball changed all that. A focus on numbers and cost effectiveness, within a few short years, has upended the sesquicentenarian art of baseball scouting. 

Then, rather than rest on his laurels, one of the sabermetricians instrumental in the moneyball revolution, Nate Silver, turned to the world of politics. He quickly received loads of publicity for his predictions beating the betting market cum reigning prediction champion Intrade in 2008. And several other outfits that followed similar methods of compiling polls cropped up, such as Sam Wang at the Princeton Election Consortium and Drew Linzer with Votamatic. But there were still doubters, and in the past few weeks, they had grown more vocal, from the National Review to Joe Scarborough. The 2012 elections were winding up to be an epic showdown between the Old Talking Heads and the New Electometricians, as the New Yorker put it, “the true moneyball moment in American electoral politics.”

The victor was clear, just check out Slate’s dartboard visualization of pundit accuracy. As Bloomberg put it: “Nate Silver-led statistics men crush pundits in election.”

But lest we attribute the prediction abilities of Silver et al. to their superior intellect and uncanny ability to see the future, remember that the entire purpose of the Electometrician Revolution was to take the subjectivity and uncertainty out of the prediction process. In other words, they were correct in their predictions election night not because of their intellect, but rather, because they used simple, transparent formulas on methodologically sound data that was replicated.

So now that sports and elections have been revolutionized by more rigorous, stats-based methodologies, what’s next? It’s been years in the making, but I would argue that the next field ripe for a statistical harvest is not so far from the elections themselves: public and social programs.

There is a growing consensus among academics that randomized evaluation is an achievable gold standard not only for the sciences, but also for the social sciences. And this consensus has started spilling over into the realm of practitioners. Everyone from US federal and state government agencies to foreign governments to local and international nongovernmental organizations has started using randomized evaluations to accurately discover what works and how cost effective it is. Just as in baseball and elections, we are using simple, transparent formulas on methodologically sound data that has been replicated. 

We’ve set up the Proven Impact Fund so that anybody can see which programs work and why.  We won’t choose your fantasy baseball team for you, but you can take part in the Revolution of What Works.


Using data and RCT to educate donors

We're an NGO in Africa implementing a grants based micro-enterprise and committed savings model.  We collect reams of data on our participants for impact evaluations and have just launched an RCT.  We're also pushing back against the philanthropic trend of impact investing as not applicable to those living in extreme poverty.  Outcomes and data are our best tools in the fight against the ignorance of donors who think poor rural people are not worth donors money or trust.

Thanks for this, Carl. I'm

Thanks for this, Carl. I'm interested to see a similar positive change in government agencies as we saw in baseball.

I think Drew Linzer's model actually beat Silver's, but...

I think Drew Linzer's model actually beat Silver's.  It nailed the electoral college count perfectly, and called all 50 states a bit sooner than Silver's, and unlike Silver's its methodology is 100% transparent.

If Linzer had had a national platform like the New York Times he would be just as famous right now.

But anyway, any day we're considering which of two well-known statisticians called the election more perfectly is a great day for social science.

Wonderful and insightful

Wonderful and insightful stuff!

Great read and happy to say,

Great read and happy to say, my son Allen is part of this team. Using our ability to think and apply those thoughts in innovative and exciting ways is what I call progress!

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