18 September 2012

Book Review: The Signal and the Noise

In my column over at the Breakthrough Institute I have a review of Nate Silver's (@fiverthirtyeight) new book, The Signal and the Noise. Here is how it starts out:
Nate Silver is a Wunderkind. Not yet 35, Silver has already developed the leading statistical tool for assessing prospective professional baseball players, been consulted by the 2008 Obama presidential campaign to help assess the implications of opinion polls for the election’s outcome, writes a widely read New York Times blog and in 2009 was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Along the way, and apparently in his spare time, Silver made more than $400,000 playing professional poker (before losing about a third of it and moving on). Silver’s initial foray into professional poker turned a $100 initial stake into $15,000, which was apparently enough to convince Silver to quit his day job, which has been to the benefit of the rest of us. Silver adds to this impressive list of accomplishments with the publication next week of his first book The Signal and the Noise: Why Most Predictions Fail – But Some Don't (Penguin USA).

This generally well-researched and ambitious book covers a lot of ground. It describes Silver’s evolution as a Fox (to use Philip Tetlock’s terminology favored by Silver) who is “tolerant of nuance, uncertainty, complexity, and dissenting opinion.” Silver discusses prediction in sports, geosciences, economics, politics and health. He clearly has done lots of reading in the academic literature. In most of these chapters he has tracked down and spoken to the characters that show up in the book -- a nice touch for a work that combines analysis with a bit of reporting. I’m not one of those characters, but I did engage in a long phone conversation with Silver while he was researching the book to discuss various aspects of prediction. In our discussion, I was impressed by his thoroughness and attention to detail, and have been looking forward to the final product.
To read the rest head on over. Feel free to comment here or there.


  1. I have repeatedly hoped that Nate Silver will apply his acumen for 'signal over noise' to the arena of Climate Science (may I suggest dendrochronology, error bounds, and predictive skill as potential topic areas).

  2. Roger, I'm not familiar with his baseball evaluation tool, but I am familiar with the Sabermetric revolution that Bill James put in motion back in the 70s. There is a video that every scientist and every researcher should watch (heck everyone with any desire to be wise should watch it). It was taken of a talk he gives to a class at his alma mater, Kansas. He talks about the importance of his own ignorance and how fortunate he is to have a never-ending supply of his ignorance to fuel his work.

    I find myself torn when number crunchers criticize coaches. There is no question that coaches often fall into foolish habits because of tradition and a failure to see how something which might well have been sound strategy in the past is no longer smart because of the way the game has changed. As a former coach, I've been in the meeting rooms and seen it first hand.

    On the other hand, number crunchers tend to fall in love with their numbers and fail to appreciate how their assumptions and league averages do not always translate to accurate decisions in particular game situations.

    Perhaps there is a hubris pox in both their houses.