Bring Your Questions for FiveThirtyEight Blogger Nate Silver, Author of The Signal and the Noise

Nate Silver first gained prominence for his rigorous analysis of baseball statistics. He became even more prominent for his rigorous analysis of elections, primarily via his FiveThirtyEight blog. (He has also turned up on this blog a few times.)

Now Silver has written his first book, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — But Some Don’t. I have only read chunks so far but can already recommend it. (I would like to think his research included listening to our radio hour “The Folly of Prediction,” but I have no idea.)

A section of Signal about weather prediction was recently excerpted in the Times Magazine. Relatedly, his chapter called “A Climate of Healthy Skepticism” has already been attacked by the climate scientist Michael Mann. Given the stakes, emotions, and general unpredictability that surround climate change, I am guessing Silver will collect a few more such darts. (Yeah, we’ve been there.)

In the meantime, he has agreed to field questions about his new book from Freakonomics readers. So feel free to post your questions in the comments section below, and we’ll post his replies in short course. Here, to get you started, is the book’s table of contents:

 

1. A CATASTROPHIC FAILURE OF PREDICTION

2. ARE YOU SMARTER THAN A TELEVISION PUNDIT?

3. ALL I CARE ABOUT IS W’S AND L’S

4. FOR YEARS YOU’VE BEEN TELLING US THAT RAIN IS GREEN

5. DESPERATELY SEEKING SIGNAL

6. HOW TO DROWN IN THREE FEET OF WATER

7. ROLE MODELS

8. LESS AND LESS AND LESS WRONG

9. RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINES

10. THE POKER BUBBLE

11. IF YOU CAN’T BEAT ’EM . . . 

12. A CLIMATE OF HEALTHY SKEPTICISM

13. WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW CAN HURT YOU

 This post is no longer accepting comments. The answers to the Q&A can be found here.

COMMENTS: 54

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  1. Dutch says:

    Pardon me if you mind me asking, but what do you do with your personal investments? Do you buy any individual stock names, or do you stick with indexing? Overall, how do you apply your work in predictions to your personal finances? To me, the prices of securities have some predictive power and I’d love to hear your take on how you think about this and apply it to yourself.

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  2. Devin says:

    For anyone interested in the subject of predictions, I’d recommend Future Babble by Dan Gardner. I haven’t read Silver’s book, but I would imagine that it would be similar to Gardner’s.

    Has Silver read Future Babble? Has anyone at Freakonomics read it?

    Does Silver’s book contain anything about Philip Tetlock?

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    • Eric M. Jones. says:

      Anyone interested in predictions MUST READ “The Book of Predictions” by Amy Wallace Irving Wallace David Wallechinsky 1980. You can always pick up a used copy someplace. I keep mine in a velvet-lined box inside a safe.

      BTW:

      I always like to do surveys by asking 1000 people with IQs of 150 and 1000 people with IQ’s of 50. That way I get a population average IQ of 100. My surveys describe the way the world works very well.

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    • Alan T. says:

      My kindle software tells me that the name “Tetlock” appears 38 times in the book.

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  3. RGJ says:

    Hi Nate,

    Baseball question, if you don’t mind.

    Why would a National League team, particularly one with financial constraints, not consider the following approach?

    Sign no high priced starting pitchers. Fill your pitching roster with middle reliever/reliever pitchers with different attributes — junk ballers, power pitchers, sidearmers — with a lefty/righty balance.

    Balance your roster with righty and lefty position players.

    In the course of a game, substitute (except for blowouts) for the pitcher when his place comes up in the order, and do so with a righty or lefty batter depending on the pitcher.

    Advantages:

    – You bring an American League offense to the National League.
    – In key situations, you have a disproportionate number of righty/lefty pitching matchups.
    – In key situations, you have a disproportionate number of righty/lefty fielding matchups.
    – Rather than seeing the same pitcher four or five times in a row, an opposing batter may face batters of different styles and handedness (sic?) in a game.
    – Keep payroll down by avoiding high priced starting pitchers.
    – Arguable, but may have an injury benefit by avoiding 100 plus pitch outings to pitchers.
    – keeps the entire roster active

    Disadvantages/Challenges

    – will have trouble attracting pitchers focused on traditional counting stats and Ws.
    – will pose a pitching management challenge in rest and IP.

    Naturally, in a blow out situation, you could simply have a young pitcher stretch out for 7 or 8 innings and save everyone else’s arm. And it is important to note that now, when there is an upside blowout with a team’s ace, those usual innings are pitched by him in search of the almighty W.

    I ran this by Bill James on his website. His comment was that the only downside he saw was the part about attracting top starting pitchers. He also said that, in reality, baseball has been moving this way, albeit glacially, with the growth of middle relievers and closers and emphasis on righty/lefty situational matchups.

    Thoughts?

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  4. Laura Harrison McBride says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  5. Stuart says:

    Are polls a very good predictor of actual behavior? It seems to me they are lousy indicators of future behavior and there are much better models of behavior (starting a diet, quitting smoking, beginning an exercise program, etc).

    If I am right that polling is not a very good indicator of future behavior, then why do otherwise reputable organizations rely and amplify their “findings” in such polls and why do scientific journals publish polls in the same manner they publish true economic studies or models?

    For instance, the Legacy Foundation recently conducted a major poll where 40 percent of respondents said if the FDA were to ban menthol cigarettes they would quit smoking. It would seem that an economic model based on cigarette taxes going up or some other model would do a much better job of predicting actual quitting smoking behavior in the event of such an FDA ban.

    “A new study released today in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) presents the first peer-reviewed data on menthol smokers’ behavioral intention if menthol cigarettes were taken off the market, a decision pending with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The results of the national survey show that nearly 40 percent of menthol smokers say they would quit if menthol cigarettes were no longer available.”

    http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/many-menthol-smokers-say-they-would-quit-if-menthols-were-no-longer-available-170563516.html

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  6. James says:

    Nate,

    Is there any research on whether partisan political campaigning can prevent or delay an economic recovery? My theory is that “confidence” in the economy may have weakened as a direct consequence of the Rebublican primary season and heightened election-year politics in general. Republicans are very eager this year to tell us that the economy is bad under President Obama. Does that rhetoric actually cause the economy to be worse? Is economic growth harder to come by in election years in general? Maybe due to uncertainty?

    Thanks for your great work,
    James

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  7. mannyv says:

    Q: what factors can help people see which predictions won’t fail?

    As an example, you use various models for 538. How do you know which set of models is correct at any given time?

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  8. David says:

    Is there any circumstance where an event would shake up the political landscape so much you would pull the 538 forecast, and if so, can you give me a sense of what kind of magnitude it would need to be?

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