Discussion of The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver

  • April 14, 2013 · 5:00 PM
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In a rare come from behind victory, our April book will be:

The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don't by Nate Silver

Nate Silver built an innovative system for predicting baseball performance, predicted the 2008 election within a hair’s breadth, and became a national sensation as a blogger—all by the time he was thirty. The New York Times now publishes FiveThirtyEight.com, where Silver is one of the nation’s most influential political forecasters.

Drawing on his own groundbreaking work, Silver examines the world of prediction, investigating how we can distinguish a true signal from a universe of noisy data. Most predictions fail, often at great cost to society, because most of us have a poor understanding of probability and uncertainty. Both experts and laypeople mistake more confident predictions for more accurate ones. But overconfidence is often the reason for failure. If our appreciation of uncertainty improves, our predictions can get better too. This is the “prediction paradox”: The more humility we have about our ability to make predictions, the more successful we can be in planning for the future.

In keeping with his own aim to seek truth from data, Silver visits the most successful forecasters in a range of areas, from hurricanes to baseball, from the poker table to the stock market, from Capitol Hill to the NBA. He explains and evaluates how these forecasters think and what bonds they share. What lies behind their success? Are they good—or just lucky? What patterns have they unraveled? And are their forecasts really right? He explores unanticipated commonalities and exposes unexpected juxtapositions. And sometimes, it is not so much how good a prediction is in an absolute sense that matters but how good it is relative to the competition. In other cases, prediction is still a very rudimentary—and dangerous—science.

Silver observes that the most accurate forecasters tend to have a superior command of probability, and they tend to be both humble and hardworking. They distinguish the predictable from the unpredictable, and they notice a thousand little details that lead them closer to the truth. Because of their appreciation of probability, they can distinguish the signal from the noise.

With everything from the health of the global economy to our ability to fight terrorism dependent on the quality of our predictions, Nate Silver’s insights are an essential read.

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  • Nina

    It turns out there's a family friend in town visiting all day so the likelihood that I can get away is very low. I'm sorry and enjoy discussing Signal, a book I actually liked a lot!

    April 14, 2013

  • lorena

    Have you read any of A.J. Jacobs books such as The Guinea Pig Diaries, The Know it all, The year of living biblically, My life as an experiment....etc. ? I like them.

    April 14, 2013

  • Scott H.

    Here are a few responses to specific suggestions:
    1) Lorena suggested a book by David Sedaris. We put "Me Talk Pretty One Day" up in 2/13 and it came in a tie for 9th place on the overflow list. Other ideas?
    2) Nina suggested "The Power of Habit" but that was voted down at the 8/12 and 2/13 meetings. I also heard from people that although the topic is interesting, this book is not.
    3) Christine suggested "Good Guys Don't Wear Hats: Children's Talk about the Media" by Tobin. This seemed a bit obscure to me (i.e., an Amazon sales rank of >1M) but I did add your other suggestion.
    4) Elain suggested "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" which I have read and I think it is a great book, but we voted on it at the 1/13 and 4/12 meetings and it did not do well.
    5) Deanne made 2 suggestions and listed one but did not list The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World by David Deutsch since that seemed to be considerably more obscure and got mixed reviews on Amazon.

    April 13, 2013

    • Scott H.

      The candidate list of books for the vote tomorrow are posted at http://www.meetup.com...­. Note that I got more suggestions than there was space for and I prioritized suggestion from folks planning to attend vs. those not attending, trying to take suggestions from as many people as possible (i.e., if you suggested multiple books I picked one), prioritizing regular members over newer members, and sales rank and generally if I think the group might actually pick the book.

      April 13, 2013

  • LindaDG

    Hi, Scott, sorry I can't make it after all! Will catch you next month.

    April 8, 2013

  • lorena

    When a spot opens up, how does a person on the wait list take the new spot??

    March 20, 2013

  • Anna M

    Sorry, can't make it

    March 20, 2013

  • Bruce S.

    Looking forward to reading/discussing this.

    March 4, 2013

  • Janice

    Consider Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries, a collection of essays by astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson

    February 24, 2013

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