Alright, Nate Silver is a genius. Let’s just get that out there right from the start. He runs the blog fivethirtyeight.com, which forecasts election results. If you watched any coverage of last year’s presidential race you almost definitely heard his name since he correctly predicted how all 50 states would vote, and got all but two of the congressional races correct as well. Those are pretty impressive results—not as impressive as the restraint I showed in NOT ripping the radio out of my car after the 10,000,000th political ad came on (NC residents, I know you feel me)—but still very impressive.
But, just because Mr. Silver is smarter than me, doesn’t mean he knows how to write the perfect book, so let’s get to the review! The Signal and the Noise looks into the successes and failures of human prediction. Covering a wide range of topics (we’re talking anything from baseball to meteorology to national security), Silver explains why most people/organizations/experts have such difficulty making accurate predictions and he even ventures a little into demonstrating ways that we can improve our results.
Even if you don’t think this book applies to you, I’d recommend reading it over. I’m not a gambler or a stock broker and I don’t make tons of outright predictions in my everyday life, but I was still able to glean some good, practical knowledge regarding what my biases are and how to avoid letting them color my predictions. The writing is very clean and tight—you won’t end each sentence thinking Wow, he really could have said that in about four words which, trust me, is a ginormous accomplishment for any expert writing a non-fiction book. Though there is a lot of variety in the subjects, Silver usually brings enough passion and insight for you to care about what he’s saying and his topics are popular enough to satisfy your sweet tooth.
The gripe that I do have with TSITN is one that I encounter in a lot of non-fiction—the author doesn’t know when enough is enough. The book is about 550 pages long (I think about 100 of those are the index, but still 450 is a considerable number), and I can’t say that I gathered many new concepts from the last 75-100 pages or so. Once again, this is a disturbingly common trend in non-fiction books today. The author has a point or an idea, she makes the point or idea, she shows how it could be used in real-life scenarios…and then she rambles on about it for a couple extra chapters. And I’ll tell you, it’s disappointing to see this problem resurface over and over and over (Quiet and Mastery, I’m looking at you). It’s those last 100 pages (and the last 5 pages of a couple earlier chapters) that make me say “Wait” on purchasing this book. Silver has interesting things to say, and he says them quite well, but he just talks for a little bit too long.
This is a thing I’m going to do when I notice an awesome/awful detail about a book but can’t find a reasonable way of talking about it in the review without going completely off topic. And for TSITN the detail is….AWESOME. I noticed whenever Silver uses a noun that doesn’t distinguish between gender (for example when I say “the author” in the paragraph above), he then uses the pronoun she. I love that. I was always taught to use he or she, or to make the noun plural (“the authors”) and then use they, but those methods are so clunky and distracting. Traditionally, of course, these undistinguished nouns would use the pronoun he, but that is pretty antiquated and sexist. And to hell with tradition anyways. He dominated books for a few hundred years; I think it’s time for she to stand in the sun. Kudos, Nate Silver. I predict that I will be adopting your style from here on out.