4 posts tagged the signal and the noise
Human beings do not have very many natural defenses. We are not all that fast, and we are not all that strong. We do not have claws or fangs or body armor. We cannot spit venom. We cannot camouflage ourselves. And we cannot fly. Instead, we survive by means of our wits. Our minds are quick. We are wired to detect patterns and respond to opportunities and threats without much hesitation.
“This need of finding patterns, humans have this more than other animals,” I was told by Tomaso Poggio, an MIT neuroscientist who studies how our brains process information. “Recognizing objects in difficult situations means generalizing. A newborn baby can recognize the basic pattern of a face. It has been learned by evolution, not by the individual.”
The problem, Poggio says, is that these evolutionary instincts sometimes lead us to see patterns when there are none there. “People have been doing that all the time,” Poggio said. “Finding patterns in random noise.”
The human brain is quite remarkable; it can store perhaps three terabytes of information. And yet that is only about one one-millionth of the information that IBM says is now produced in the world each day. So we have to be terribly selective about the information we choose to remember.
“It could turn out to be one of the more momentous books of the decade.”
“Moneyball” was a classic underdog tale about the cash-deprived Oakland A’s; “Freakonomics” read like a series of detective stories. Silver’s volume is more like an engagingly written user’s manual, with forays into topics like dynamic nonlinear systems (the guts of chaos theory) and Bayes’s theorem (a tool for figuring out how likely a particular hunch is right in light of the evidence we observe).
And yet, while “The Signal and the Noise” doesn’t chronicle Silver’s rise, it marks an important milestone in his ascent. For that reason, it could turn out to be one of the more momentous books of the decade. Journalism is in a strange place these days. Cable and the Internet crippled the old media establishment; political polarization dealt it a death blow. In the meantime, no new establishment has risen up to take its place. What we have is a growing sense of intellectual nihilism. The right-wing media speak only to true believers. Liberal journalists are often more fact-conscious but equally partisan, while mainstream outlets have a rapidly dwindling audience. Few media institutions command widespread credibility.
I think Silver — or at least Silver-ism — has the potential to fill the void. Silver uses statistics to scrutinize the claims of people who don’t always have an incentive to be accurate. Until now, he took aim mostly at sports pundits and political handicappers. But the book hints at his ambitions to take on weightier questions. There’s no better example of this than his chapter on climate change. In recent years, the most sophisticated global-warming skeptics have seized on errors in the forecasts of the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.) in order to undermine efforts at greenhouse gas reduction. These skeptics note that global temperatures have increased at only about half the rate the I.P.C.C. predicted in 1990, and that they flatlined in the 2000s (albeit after rising sharply in the late ’90s).
Silver runs the numbers to show that the past few decades of data are still highly consistent with the hypothesis of man-made global warming. He shows how, at the rate that carbon dioxide is accumulating, a single decade of flat temperatures is hardly invalidating. On the other hand, Silver demonstrates that projecting temperature increases decades into the future is a dicey proposition. He chides some environmental activists for their certainty — observing that overambitious predictions can undermine a cause when they don’t come to pass — without descending into false equivalence.
What Silver is doing here is playing the role of public statistician — bringing simple but powerful empirical methods to bear on a controversial policy question, and making the results accessible to anyone with a high-school level of numeracy. The exercise is not so different in spirit from the way public intellectuals like John Kenneth Galbraith once shaped discussions of economic policy and public figures like Walter Cronkite helped sway opinion on the Vietnam War. Except that their authority was based to varying degrees on their establishment credentials, whereas Silver’s derives from his data savvy in the age of the stats nerd.
That Silver is taking this on is, by and large, a welcome development. Few journalists have the statistical chops; most scientists and social scientists are too abstruse. Though his approach doesn’t apply to every issue, it’s not hard to imagine Silver and his ilk one day letting the air out of an inflating housing bubble, or unmasking tobacco-company spin, by appealing to nothing but the numbers.
Illustration by Timothy Goodman
Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times review of Nate Silver’s The Signal and The Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—But Some Don’t:
“(In one memorable section, he demonstrates how an algebraic equation used to determine probability can be employed to determine the likelihood that a woman’s partner is cheating on her if she comes home to find another woman’s underwear in his drawer.)”
Next week brings the publication of FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver’s The Signal and The Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—But Some Don’t. (You may have read the excerpt in the New York Times Magazine, “The Weatherman Is Not a Moron.”)
We’re so excited about this one that we’ve drummed up a special bonus for anyone who pre-orders the book. Get it from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, your favorite independent bookstore, wherever. Then let us know here. We’ll send you a signed bookplate from Nate with a custom chart stamped right on top. What does the chart look like? You’ll have to pre-order the book to find out…