Sometimes I wonder about the timing of book releases. For some books, it just doesn’t seem to make any sense — there appears to be no forethought given to the timing. Other books are launched with what seems like good timing, but circumstances conspire against them. But for certain books, everything just clicks into place. Serendipitous, even.
Nate Silver was fairly well known as a baseball writer (particularly in sabermetric circles), and had gained some notoriety for his election forecast blog FiveThirtyEight. Silver’s projections had performed well in the 2008 and 2010 elections. But the FiveThirtyEight blog really grabbed public attention in the 2012 elections. After months of criticism that alternated between charging Silver with unwarranted overconfidence and accusing Silver of uncertainty and hedging his bets, Silver’s projections correctly forecast all 50 states and predicted Barack Obama’s popular vote percentage within 0.3%.
And it was in the midst of this pre-election discussion and debate that Nate Silver’s book was released. The Signal and the Noise was on the shelf for a little over a month when the election results vindicated Silver’s methods and nearly every post-election report begrudgingly acknowledged his excellent performance. I imagine Silver’s publicist at Penguin was dancing around his or her office at this point.
The question now is whether Silver’s book holds up. Election forecasts are one thing, but writing an engaging and entertaining book about forecasting is another. And it’s my experience that this kind of book often tires the reader over a few hundred pages — I find myself wishing it were a really tight 10 or 12 page article instead of a 500 page book. But I had reason to be optimistic here. Silver isn’t just an excellent forecaster; he’s adept at communicating the idea, the theory behind the forecast. I’d enjoyed his baseball writing years ago; I was hopeful he’d brought the same clear writing to The Signal and the Noise.
412 pages into a 454 page book, and I’m not disappointed. Sure, I’ve set it down a few times to read something else, but not out of boredom, nor out of fatigue. I’ve set it down at times because the writing is so clear, the thesis so fully fleshed-out, and each chapter so complete and well-formed, that I have no fear of losing interest or momentum. The chapters are unique, separate stories; each addresses a new topic, a new field or industry or controversy, and can be read individually. But Silver expertly ties each chapter together into the central theme; each chapter serves as a piece of the argument Silver is constructing.
And that argument? That more data does not equal more knowledge. The massive data explosion in the internet age does not ensure greater understanding, or wisdom, or insight. If anything, the increase in the pure mass of data offers great opportunity for misinterpretation, for obfuscation. The forecaster faces a constant balance: the signal and the noise.
The signal: the meaning, the truth, that which delivers the information we seek. The noise: the static, the random, that which threatens to drown out the signal. When the forecaster constructs his argument too broadly, he includes not only the signal but also much of the noise; he risks drawing conclusions from random bits of data. When the forecaster constructs his argument too narrowly, he excludes the noise but also much of the signal; he throws out information critical to an accurate prediction.
Each chapter addresses a new topic. Baseball, elections, climate change, chess, online poker, earthquakes — each is an opportunity to examine forecasting from a slightly different angle, and Silver uses each to expand and elucidate his methods. In one chapter you might learn why your local weatherman is more interested in avoiding sending you out in the rain without an umbrella than in delivering an accurate forecast. In another, you might see how Gary Kasparov’s eventual defeat at the hands (digits?) of Deep Blue was possibly caused by a programming error. The stories are compelling. The pages fly by. The book holds up.Written by Mark