NPR Fresh Air, Oct 10, 2012
No one has a crystal ball, but Nate Silver has perfected the art of prediction. In 2008, he accurately predicted the presidential winner of 49 of the 50 states, and the winners of all 35 Senate races. Before he focused on elections, Silver developed a sophisticated system for analyzing baseball players' potential and became a skilled poker player - which is how he made his living for a while.
Silver is a statistical analyst who's become something of a celebrity for his ability to plumb the meaning of opinion polls and other political data. He writes the New York Times blog
FiveThirtyEight (named for the number of votes in the electoral college), which measures the meaning of political polls and predicts election outcomes. Silver's new book,
The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail - but Some Don't, is about the explosion of data available in the Internet age, and the challenge of sorting through it all and making thoughtful decisions.
"According to IBM, 90 percent of the data in the world was created within the last two years," Silver tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "So one problem is what we call the signal-to-noise ratio - the amount of meaningful information relative to the overall amount information is declining. We're not that much smarter than we used to be, even though we have much more information - and that means the real skill now is learning how to pick out the useful information from all this noise."
In The Signal and the Noise, Silver looks at analysts in many fields, from weather to the economy to national security, and concludes that those who succeed at spotting new trends and understanding the future are careful to acknowledge what they don't know - and examine the assumptions that underlie their thinking. Humility, he says, is critical.