“The numbers have no way of speaking for themselves”

1361240946In my first piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books, I delve into Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise and ask what it tells us about the highest and best use of FiveThirtyEight, the blog where the forecaster successfully called the results of all 50 states in the presidential election. The intro:

I PREDICT THAT ONE DAY Nate Silver will be remembered for doing something more consequential than forecasting the winners of presidential elections.

Do I have a sophisticated statistical model like Silver’s FiveThirtyEight backing my prediction? No, nor do I have a computer running thousands of scenarios a day. But Silver’s new book, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — But Some Don’t, suggests that the true value of forecasting the future won’t be found among the high-powered processors that populate the promised land of “Big Data.”

Instead, Silver portrays forecasting as a humanistic heuristic any of us can use to grow closer to truth. Indeed, he makes the case that we must. “The numbers have no way of speaking for themselves,” he argues from the outset of the book. “We speak for them. We imbue them with meaning.”

Guided by this ethos, Silver uses The Signal and the Noise to discern the highest and best use of data in a variety of disciplines, from meteorology and epidemiology to baseball and poker. But notably absent is a critical discussion of what greater goal such data-driven divination serves in politics, the area in which Silver currently enjoys the greatest notoriety.

“[M]en may construe things after their fashion / Clean from the purpose of the things themselves,” Shakespeare’s Cicero warned, and Silver repeats in his introduction. But what purpose is served by a program that perfectly predicts the outcome of a presidential race if such a forecast does not aid the republic it models?

Check out the rest here.