What Do You Think of This Book?

Seriously, I’m asking. After reading The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver, I’m not totally sure how I feel about it. Given the mostly dry subject matter, I thought it was a very readable book. But I also felt like it started off strong but couldn’t keep it going to the end. I definitely learned a lot. For example, I have a much better understanding of weather forecasting now. And I suppose the same goes for the baseball analysis, although you would literally have to pay me to get me to watch a game from start to finish.

In general, this book seems to be an effort to help the general public understand just how difficult it actually is to make a prediction successfully. It also seeks to define what predictions are and what they are not. When the weather forecast says there is a 60% chance of rain, that means that out of a hundred possible scenarios, it rains in sixty of them. In other words, there is plenty that isn’t KNOWN and in reality, there is still a pretty strong chance that it won’t rain. And when Nate Silver gave Donald Trump a 29% chance of becoming president, that means he still saw scenarios where it would happen, even if he believed it was less likely than the alternative outcome. And to be fair, the vast majority of the mainstream media gave the current president virtually no chance to win so against that backdrop, Silver’s prediction looks much better. After all, he does what he does largely by aggregating the same polls everyone else was using and when polling proves to be less than reliable, it’s a garbage in, garbage out scenario. He actually assessed that and accounted for it more effectively than almost anyone else in his field. And no, this isn’t discussed in the book. It was published in 2012.

Anyway, The Signal and the Noise seems to be more a collection of borrowed ideas than a discussion of anything original. It’s at its best when talking about Silver’s personal experiences, at its worst when making conclusions that are debatable at best and presenting them as established fact (and no, I’m not talking about the global warming chapter, I’m talking about random comments that are occasionally peppered in throughout the book; I thought the global warming chapter did a pretty good job of explaining what is and is not considered consensus at this point), and somewhere in the middle most of the time. But Silver clearly did a ton of research and does a great job of presenting a fairly eclectic range of sophisticated concepts in an accessible way.

But at the end, I think this book could have done a little more to tie everything together than to simply repeat a summary of what was talked about throughout. It wasn’t a bad book or a boring one to read; I simply think it could have said more. In any case, I think it was worth my time because it got me thinking creatively about a broad range of topics.     

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