One might ask Nate Silver, the data whiz behind FiveThirtyEight.com, which shot to prominence after providing eerily accurate forecasts of the 2008 election, what makes for good predictions. His answer will come as a surprise. In his new book, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail But Some Don’t, Silver explains the “prediction paradox”—that it is only by adopting a true appreciation for uncertainty that one can form a more accurate picture of how things will likely unfold.
Silver’s book looks not only at political forecasters, but also at those who predict hurricanes, poker games, national security risks and the stock market. And it’s a good understanding of probability that tends to make for success.
Silver writes, “Our views about predictability are inherently flawed. Take something that is often seen as the epitome of randomness, like a coin toss. While it may at first appear that there’s no way to tell whether a coin is going to come up heads or tails, a group of mathematicians at Stanford is able to predict the outcome virtually 100 percent of the time, provided that they use a special machine to flip it. The machine does not cheat — it flips the coin the exact same way (the same height, with the same strength and torque) over and over again — and the coin is fair. Under those conditions, there is no randomness at all. The reason that we view coin flips as unpredictable is because when we toss them, we’re never able to reproduce the exact same motion.”
Check out the book, out today, or read an excerpt explaining why you should never call a weatherman a moron. Below, watch Silver’s TEDTalk from 2009, which is still sadly relevant.
Nate Silver: Does race affect votes?
How did race play out in the 2008 presidential election? Math whiz Nate Silver unpacks the many layers of variables and gives fascinating insight into how town planning could promote tolerance in the future. Because, as he says, when something is predictable—it is also designable.