The Signal and the Noise

  • by Nate Silver
  • Narrated by Mike Chamberlain
  • 15 hrs and 43 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

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 30. 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 listen.

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What the Critics Say

"Nate Silver's The Signal and the Noise is The Soul of a New Machine for the 21st century." (Rachel Maddow, author of Drift)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Learn About Statistics Without All The Math

I had been wanting to read this book since it was released, and I finally had the chance. I wasn't disappointed with it. In this book, the author takes a non-mathematical approach to understanding how statistics enable predictions to be made. Instead of talking about actual formulas or complex theories, he tells stories that give examples of predictions that have failed and those that have been successful. Personally, I would have liked to have been exposed to more of the math; however, I recognize that it would not be for everyone.

The book is divided into 13 chapters, and each chapter aligns with a different example of predictions that are successful and those that are not (more or less). Admittedly, some of the chapters were less interesting to me than others. Nevertheless, I feel as though I was able to learn some very important concepts in each chapter. For example, the author's background is in statistics, and he made a name for himself with baseball statistics. I never thought much about baseball statistics, yet I learned something incredibly valuable from this chapter. The author made a comparison between baseball predictions and presidential election predictions. I would have thought that presidential elections would be far richer in data (because of the magnitude of important); however, that is far, far from the truth. Presidential elections happen only once every four years--and there have been only 57 presidential elections in the entire history of the United States. In contrast, there are more than 57 games of baseball played every single year. The dataset in baseball is insanely rich, and what we learn about predictions in baseball can carry over into other data-rich fields.

Another field that is rich in data is weather prediction. I have never wanted to become a meteorologist in my life. I struggle with getting predictions wrong so often. Even so, this chapter was fascinating because the author describes why it's far easier to predict good weather than it is to predict bad weather. It is those bad weather predictions that seem to go wrong so often that make people question the skills of meteorologists, yet it is statistically less inaccurate than we might think. Another thing that I learned in this chapter is that there is a very, very big difference between meteorology and climatology. Climatology attempts to predict weather patterns over many, many years (e.g. 60 to 100); however, meteorology attempts to predict daily weather patterns. Over the longer duration, it is less challenging to predict weather patterns. It is far more difficult to predict daily fluctuations than it is to predict long-term trends. Incidentally, this heuristic holds true in other fields that the author described in other chapters. The stock market is a perfect example of this. The long-term trends in the stock market are much easier to predict than the daily fluctuations.

Far and beyond, my favorite chapter was the one that covered the game of chess. Chess is my favorite game by far. I am fascinated by the game because, unlike poker (described in a separate chapter of the book), you know everything that your opponent knows. All of the pieces are on the board in front of both players. There are no cards that are being held in your opponent’s hand that you have to guess about. Moreover, you know every possible move that is allowed by both you and your opponent. Even so, with all of that knowledge, people still lose at chess. It seems inconceivable that there were ever be anything other than a draw, yet it happens all the time. Good players win. The author talks a lot about how difficult it is to make predictions about the best play in chess because humans are only able to think about two or three moves at a time. Those players who can think out longer moves seem to do better. Enter the computer. Computers have the ability to calculate more moves in less time than humans. This provides computers with far better predictive power than humans. After Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov in 1997, the face of computer chess changed significantly. The author predicts that a human will never again be able to defeat a computer at chess (at that level of competition).

In the end, this last example is what seems to be the framework on which the entire book is built. Technology has changed the way in which we make predictions. Computers have the ability to process more data than ever before. And more data exist than ever before! New fields, like data analytics and big data, are pushing the boundaries of what computers can do with large datasets and their utility in prediction. Of course, some systems (like the weather) are less predictable than others (like chess); however, technology is enabling us to get closer and closer to more precise predictions. The author feels as though this ongoing advance in data and technology will ultimately be helpful in more and more fields include homeland security and the war on terror. I, for one, can't wait to see where it leads us.
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- Scott Fabel

Hot

Nate Silver is hot right now. As I write this, it is three days before the presidential election and he is predicting an Obama win (82% chance of winning). His insights about stats, opinions, signal and noise are spot on. Although I am still not 100% sure what Bayesian logic is. Overall a great listen full of insight. A note on the narrator. I take back every negative comment I've ever made in my reviews of his performances. He was excellent in this context.
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- Grant

Book Details

  • Release Date: 09-27-2012
  • Publisher: Penguin Audio