“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.
Read the full review.