FiveThirtyEighter Nate Silver Answers Your Questions About Politics, Baseball, and The Signal and the Noise

We recently solicited your questions for Nate Silver regarding his new book The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail -- But Some Don't. Not too surprisingly, a lot of the questions were about politics and baseball. Below are Nate's answers to some of them. Thanks to him for playing along and to all of you (as always) for sending in the excellent questions.

Q. Under what circumstances will a voter actually change his/her mind about whom to vote for? I understand that this rarely happens (this study for example), and that most of the action involves undecided voters deciding whom to vote for.

Also, if political scientist are right that voters rarely change their minds, how can a large swing in the polls ever occur? A classic example that your briefly mention in your book is that of Michael Dukakis, who was ahead of GHW Bush by 10% at one point in 1988. -Alan T

A. We see more big shifts in the primaries, when voters don’t have that much information about the candidates. Dukakis was a relative unknown at the start of the 1988 race, before the two parties could advance their own narratives. You rarely see big swings in voter conversion in late stage presidential races, though. If I knew how to cause such a swing, I’d be drawing a big salary from one of the campaigns right now.

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.)

The Authors of The Knockoff Economy Answer Your Questions

We want to thank everyone for their questions -- it's great to see people responding to, critiquing and, in some cases, tweaking, the ideas we set out in The Knockoff Economy. We are fascinated by the complex relationship between copying and creativity -- and we're thankful that many of you are as well.  So, to the Q&A . . .

Q. The issue that concerns my industry most is internet sales of prescription skin products such as retin-A and hydroquinone. Some might be counterfeit, but many are probably diverted products. The manufacturer sells them to a physician, the unscrupulous physician sells them on the internet at a deep discount, the patient may be hurt by expired or dangerous medications or may not use them correctly even if they are real. This hurts legitimate physicians by drawing business away from them, but also hurts a manufacturer’s reputation. (Apparently, people who have qualms about buying Viagra online don’t think twice before buying skin medications from those same sources.)

Do you plan to do any research in this area? Will you be looking at diversion in addition to counterfeits?

The End of Men Author Will Soon Take Your Questions

Freakonomics reader Alan T. recently suggested that when we run an author Q&A on the blog that we announce it beforehand so that readers have time to check out the book first.

Good idea, Alan!

We will soon be running a Q&A with Hanna Rosin about her new book The End of Men: And the Rise of Women. More notices to follow.

The Knockoff Economy Is Out! Bring Your Questions for Kal Raustiala and Chris Sprigman

The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovationis out! The book explores the relationship between copying and creativity. Copying has a well-known destructive side—which is why we have intellectual property rights—but it also has a much less appreciated productive side. We explain how some creative industries not only survive in the face of copying, but thrive due to copying.  These industries offer an important set of lessons about intellectual property law and highlight the often complex balance between innovation and imitation. While many of the cases we explore are unusual—such as fashion and fonts—we close the book with a broader examination of the main themes and lessons and a brief look at the music business, which is perhaps the poster child for the (often exaggerated) perils of copying.

The Knockoff Economy grew out of an earlier paper of ours on innovation in the fashion industry. We realized there were many creative fields that fell outside the scope of intellectual property law in one way or another, and just as importantly, these fields turned out to be really fun to explore. Writing the book allowed us to dig into things like football and fonts, and to do so in a way that, we hope, opens up a broader debate on the law and economics of innovation.

Fooling Houdini Author Alex Stone Answers Your Questions

Alex Stone, author of the excellent new book Fooling Houdini, was kind enough to take questions from blog readers – and there were some tough ones! Here are his answers:

Q. If you are a highly skilled — but evil — magician, and wanted to use your skills for financial gain through criminal means (or at least highly unethical means), what do you think would be the most profitable routes to take? -Derek

A. Wall Street.

Q. Why is it that magicians are almost all men. Why are there so very few women magicians? -Eric M. Jones

A. I don’t really know, but I think it’s high time for that to change.

Bring Your Questions for Alex Stone, Author of Fooling Houdini

I get sent about 200 books a year by strangers who want me to provide blurbs.  About 199 out of those 200 will walk away empty-handed.   Most of the time I don’t even open the book – it would be a full-time job just to read everything sent my way.  Occasionally a subject will really interest me, and I will spend some time with a book, but certainly not read it from cover to cover.  And about once a year, I actually start reading one of these books and like it so much I can’t put it down. 

That book is Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind , by Alex Stone.  I happened to receive the book not long after I blogged about a book by two mathematicians on the mathematics of magic.  That mathematics book was excellent and taught me a lot, but wasn’t exactly a page turner.  In contrast, the first 30 pages of Fooling Houdini was some of the most engaging non-fiction I’ve read in a long time.

Foodie Economist Tyler Cowen Answers Your Questions

We recently solicited your food questions for economist Tyler Cowen, whose latest book is An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies. (He also blogs at Marginal Revolution and at Tyler Cowen’s Ethnic Dining Guide.) That book was the jumping-off point for our recent podcasts “You Eat What You Are” Parts 1 and 2

Below are the answers to some of your questions. Cowen talks about food subsidies, the Malthusian trap, "ethnic" food, the the meal he'd like to share with Murray Rothbard and Ludwig von Mises. Thanks to all for participating.

Q. Any advice on choosing the best food when eating at a college cafeteria? - Philip Mulder

A. That is a good time to start your diet. Otherwise, look for items which can sit and stew for a long time.  Indian food works okay in such contexts, as do stews, as the name would suggest.  Stay away from anything requiring flash frying or immediate, short-term contact with heat.  The vegetables won't be great, but often they are not great (in the U.S.) anyway, so now is the time to fill up on them!  The opportunity cost of eating the bad-tasting but nutritious food is especially low in these circumstances.

Bring Your Food Questions for Foodie Economist Tyler Cowen

Our latest full-length podcasts are "You Eat What You Are," Parts 1 and 2. They were inspired in part by Tyler Cowen's latest book An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies. Here's what I had to say about the book in a blurb: "Tyler Cowen's latest book is a real treat, probably my favorite thing he's ever written. It does a fantastic job exploring the economics, culture, esthetics, and realities of food, and delivers a mountain of compelling facts. Most of all it's encouraging -- not a screed, despite its occasionally serious arguments -- and brings the fun back to eating. Delicious!"

Your Garbage Questions, Answered

Last week, we solicited your questions for journalist Edward Humes, who seems to love trash as much as we do. His new book is Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash. 

Below are his answers to some of your questions. He writes about New York City's cleanup, the facts about burning trash and recycling, how incentives work (or fail) when it comes to trash, and, of course, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Thanks to Humes for answering so many questions, and to all of you for your good questions (and candor).