The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don't

( 40 )


"Nate Silver's The Signal and the Noise is The Soul of a New Machine for the 21st century." —Rachel Maddow, author of Drift

Nate Silver built an innovative system for predicting baseball performance, predicted the 2008 election within a hair’s breadth, and became a national sensation as a blogger—all by the time he was thirty. He solidified his standing as the nation's foremost political forecaster with his near perfect ...

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The Signal and the Noise: Why Most Predictions Fail-but Some Don't

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"Nate Silver's The Signal and the Noise is The Soul of a New Machine for the 21st century." —Rachel Maddow, author of Drift

Nate Silver built an innovative system for predicting baseball performance, predicted the 2008 election within a hair’s breadth, and became a national sensation as a blogger—all by the time he was thirty. He solidified his standing as the nation's foremost political forecaster with his near perfect prediction of the 2012 election. Silver is the founder and editor in chief of

Drawing on his own groundbreaking work, Silver examines the world of prediction, investigating how we can distinguish a true signal from a universe of noisy data. Most predictions fail, often at great cost to society, because most of us have a poor understanding of probability and uncertainty. Both experts and laypeople mistake more confident predictions for more accurate ones. But overconfidence is often the reason for failure. If our appreciation of uncertainty improves, our predictions can get better too. This is the “prediction paradox”: The more humility we have about our ability to make predictions, the more successful we can be in planning for the future.

In keeping with his own aim to seek truth from data, Silver visits the most successful forecasters in a range of areas, from hurricanes to baseball, from the poker table to the stock market, from Capitol Hill to the NBA. He explains and evaluates how these forecasters think and what bonds they share. What lies behind their success? Are they good—or just lucky? What patterns have they unraveled? And are their forecasts really right? He explores unanticipated commonalities and exposes unexpected juxtapositions. And sometimes, it is not so much how good a prediction is in an absolute sense that matters but how good it is relative to the competition. In other cases, prediction is still a very rudimentary—and dangerous—science.

Silver observes that the most accurate forecasters tend to have a superior command of probability, and they tend to be both humble and hardworking. They distinguish the predictable from the unpredictable, and they notice a thousand little details that lead them closer to the truth. Because of their appreciation of probability, they can distinguish the signal from the noise.

With everything from the health of the global economy to our ability to fight terrorism dependent on the quality of our predictions, Nate Silver’s insights are an essential read.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

From tomorrow morning's weather, to football results, to political elections, we all sometimes obsess about predictions. Nate Silver's new release demystifies the subject of predictions, explaining why even veteran professional prognosticators often get it wrong. A brisk reader that doesn't require a calculator or an advanced degree.

The New York Times
Mr. Silver…is an expert at finding signal in noise…[he] illustrates his dos and don'ts through a series of interesting essays that examine how predictions are made in fields including chess, baseball, weather forecasting, earthquake analysis and politics…a chapter on global warming is one of the most objective and honest analyses I've seen.
—Leonard Mlodinow
The New York Times Book Review
What Silver is doing here is playing the role of public statistician—bringing simple but powerful empirical methods to bear on a controversial policy question, and making the results accessible to anyone with a high-school level of numeracy. The exercise is not so different in spirit from the way public intellectuals like John Kenneth Galbraith once shaped discussions of economic policy and public figures like Walter Cronkite helped sway opinion on the Vietnam War. Except that their authority was based to varying degrees on their establishment credentials, whereas Silver's derives from his data savvy in the age of the stats nerd.
—Noam Scheiber
The Washington Post
The strength of the book lies in the abundance of relevant detail Silver provides about each field and his analysis of why predictions are generally much better in some fields than others…All in all, The Signal and the Noise provides an appealing and instructive compendium of the state of predictability in different domains, and, based on my personal sample of one, I predict readers in all 50 states will agree.
—John Allen Paulos
Publishers Weekly
Despite the fact that there is more information about everything from finance to professional sports available than ever before, predictions "may be more prone to failure" in this "era of Big Data." Balancing technical detail and thoughtful analysis with fluid prose, statistician Silver (FiveThirtyEight ) picks apart the many ways in which predictions in various fields have been flawed, while suggesting approaches that could improve the practice. The catastrophic miscalculations on the part of financial lending agencies that led to the recession of 2008 arose for the same types of reasons that caused baseball scouts to undervalue Boston Red Sox all-star player Dustin Pedroia or feed into a political pundit's flawed forecast: overconfidence in models based on oversimplified principles and unrealistic initial assumptions. Though there is no simple solution, a Bayesian methodology, in which prior beliefs are taken into account and initial assumptions constantly revised, would lead to more accurate predictive models. Effective prediction requires, according to Silver, "the serenity to accept the things we cannot predict, the courage to predict the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference." Agent: Sydelle Kramer, The Susan Rabiner Literary Agency. (Oct.)
Kirkus Reviews
An anointed wunderkind explains his own success as a prognosticator and explains why so many self-anointed "experts" are often wrong about winners in politics, sports and other realms. New York Times blogger Silver initially gained attention by developing a computer-based system meant to predict performances of Major League baseball players. Eventually, the author turned his talents to nonsports topics, including trying to figure out who would win the U.S. presidency during 2008. In 49 of 50 states, Silver correctly chose the presidential vote winner. In the 35 races for the U.S. Senate, he called every one accurately. In the 2012 election, he accurately called the presidential vote in all 50 states. Silver emphasizes that predictions are ultimately a human endeavor and that computers are programmed by humans. Meteorologists, for example, predict the weather incorrectly more than anybody would like. They have, however, used computer-based data analysis to improve accuracy. In the financial sphere, economists and other professional predictors failed to grasp the coming recession in 2008 despite sophisticated computer modeling. However, Silver writes, "nobody saw it coming" is an unacceptable excuse. The financial collapse was foreseeable with the proper underlying assumptions about economic behavior programmed into the computers. Too many underlying assumptions were misguided. Even more significant, 9/11 could have been predicted as well. Intelligence-agency analysts, however, could not grasp that religious zealots would plot their own deaths in order to kill Americans. No amount of computerized information can rectify a blind spot of that nature, Silver writes. Predicting the future performance of baseball players with well-documented pasts is more conducive to predictive accuracy than trying to understand previously anonymous fanatics. Some of the sections of the book are best understood by readers with mathematical reasoning skills, but the author is mostly accessible and enlightening.
The Barnes & Noble Review
Nate Silver shot to fame during the 2008 election, when out of the welter of political polling he correctly predicted the outcome of the presidential race in 49 out of 50 states. Since then his blog FiveThirtyEight — the name comes from the number of votes in the Electoral College — has been subsumed into The New York Times, where he nailed almost all the 2010 congressional and gubernatorial races. His role is somewhere between a commentator and a bookie. Political types might worship him, but for Silver politics is a purely quantitative undertaking, not so far from his original beat of fantasy baseball.

The Signal and the Noise applies the FiveThirtyEight model of rigorous data analysis to a whole range of fields, from poker playing to hurricane forecasting. But readers expecting the second coming of Freakonomics will (I'm happy to say) be very disappointed. There are no wacky results from deep data mining, nor unintuitive outcomes tailor- made for dinner party fodder. Data itself is not Silver's story; prediction is. We are producing more information, and faster, than ever before, and yet, "if the quantity of information is increasing by 2.5 quintillion bytes per day, the amount of useful information certainly isn't."

The financial ratings agencies, deluged with data, predicted that CDOs were as safe as AAA bonds. Health organizations failed to foresee the recent epidemics of bird flu and swine flu. The massive earthquake in L'Aquila in 2009 caught Italian authorities unawares. And the predictions of innumerate TV pundits "display about as much political acumen as a barbershop quartet," with no better than an even chance of being correct. The rise of big data has not been accompanied by better predictions; if anything, we're getting worse. (Silver naturally has a quantitative demonstration of this: in the corpus of scientific literature, instances of the word "predictable" overtook those of the word "unpredictable" in the 1950s; it kept climbing after that, but now "unpredictable" is making a comeback.)

Silver's satisfyingly geeky solution to uncertainty is "Bayesian reasoning" ? basically, updating predictions over time with new information. Bayes' Theorem, devised in the eighteenth century, is a simple algebraic formula (although Silver exiles the equation to a chart on page 245): given the probability of a future event prior to some new occurrence and some other fundamentals, you can calculate the event's probability posterior to that occurrence. Silver gives a litany of serious, not to say unpleasant, examples — is your husband cheating on you? Do you have cancer? Are planes going to fly into the World Trade Center? — to make a point beyond politics or sports betting: we have to "think probabilistically about the world, even when it comes to issues that we don't like to think of as matters of chance."

To an ideologue that sounds frustrating if not heretical. But Silver isn't claiming that all events are random. On the contrary, he's saying that there are limits to our knowledge, and the best way to understand the world given our epistemological blinders is to take new information as it comes and refine our perceptions accordingly. Poker players do this all the time: once your opponents bet or fold, you can reassess the relative strength of your own hand, and win a pretty sum if you do it right.

In the waning days of the 2012 presidential election — which he consistently called in favor of President Obama, whom he gave about an 80 percent chance of victory — Silver took serious stick from blowhards such as Joe Scarborough and the Politico crew, who don't seem to understand that a close election doesn't have to be an unpredictable one. (Time actually ran a column by their in-house pundit Joe Klein with the headline "I Don't Know.") Silver doesn't just infuriate them because he's almost always right, but because he's right without any special information. Although the FiveThirtyEight algorithm has grown more sophisticated with the years, Silver isn't a pollster, and he has no inside intelligence. And while Silver's politics-as-fantasy-baseball stance can sometimes grate, his analysis is a far sight better than the ruminations of the perpetually inaccurate pundit class.

Silver doesn't know the outcome in advance, only the likelihood of possible outcomes. The problem, as he concedes in The Signal and the Noise, is that while the odds of an event may be borne out over 10,000 or 100,000 instances, the actual vote happens just once. Writing about poker, a game he played for years, Silver observes: "If we make a prediction and it goes badly, we can never really be certain whether it was our fault or not, whether our model was flawed or we just got unlucky." The same, alas, goes for elections.

Jason Farago is a writer and critic whose work has appeared in the Guardian, the London Review of Books, n+1, Dissent, Frieze, and other publications. Trained as an art historian, he has contributed to several exhibition catalogs on art since 1960. He recently returned to his hometown of New York following a long sojourn in London.

Reviewer: Jason Farago

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594204111
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 9/27/2012
  • Pages: 544
  • Sales rank: 42,853
  • Lexile: 1260L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.45 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 A Catastrophic Failure of Prediction 19

2 Are You Smarter Than a Television Pundit? 47

3 All I Care About is W's and L's 74

4 For Years You've Been Telling Us that Rain is Green 108

5 Desperately Seeking Signal 142

6 How to Drown in Three Feet of Water 176

7 Role Models 204

8 Less and Less and Less Wrong 232

9 Rage Against the Machines 262

10 The Poker Bubble 294

11 If You Can't Beat'em … 329

12 A Climate of Healthy Skepticism 370

13 What You Don't Know Can Hurt You 412

Conclusion 446

Acknowledgments 455

Notes 459

Index 515

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 40 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 40 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 4, 2012

    A Brief Summary and Review

    *A full executive summary of this book will be available at newbooksinbrief . wordpress . com, on or before Monday, October 15, 2012. Making decisions based on an assessment of future outcomes is a natural and inescapable part of the human condition. Indeed, as Nate Silver points out, "prediction is indispensable to our lives. Every time we choose a route to work, decide whether to go on a second date, or set money aside for a rainy day, we are making a forecast about how the future will proceed--and how our plans will affect the odds for a favorable outcome" (loc. 285). And over and above these private decisions, prognosticating does, of course, bleed over into the public realm; as indeed whole industries from weather forecasting, to sports betting, to financial investing are built on the premise that predictions of future outcomes are not only possible, but can be made reliable. As Silver points out, though, there is a wide discrepancy across industries and also between individuals regarding just how accurate these predictions are. In his new book `The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail--but Some Don't' Silver attempts to get to the bottom of all of this prediction-making to uncover what separates the accurate from the misguided. In doing so, the author first takes us on a journey through financial crashes, political elections, baseball games, weather reports, earthquakes, disease epidemics, sports bets, chess matches, poker tables, and the good ol' American economy, as we explore what goes into a well-made prediction and its opposite. The key teaching of this journey is that wise predictions come out of self-awareness, humility, and attention to detail: lack of self-awareness causes us to make predictions that tell us what we'd like to hear, rather than what is true (or most likely the case); lack of humility causes us to feel more certain than is warranted, leading us to rash decisions; and lack of attention to detail (in conjunction with self-serving bias and rashness) leads us to miss the key variables that make all the difference. Attention to detail is what we need to capture the signal in the noise (the key variable[s] in the sea of data and information that are integral in determining future outcomes), but without self-awareness and humility, we don't even stand a chance. In the final stage of the book Silver explores how the lessons that he lays out can be applied to such issues as global warming, terrorism and bubbles in financial markets. Unfortunately, each of these fields is a lot noisier than many of us would like to think (thus making them very difficult to predict precisely). Nevertheless, the author argues, within each there are certain signals that can help us make better predictions regarding them, and which should help make the world a safer and more livable place. If you are hoping that this book will make you a fool-proof prognosticator, you are going to be disappointed. A key tenet of the book is that this is simply not possible (no matter what field you are in). That being said, Silver makes a very strong argument that by applying a few simple principles (and putting in a lot of hard work in identifying key variables) our predictive powers should take a great boost indeed. A full executive summary of this book will be available at newbooksinbrief . wordpress . com, on or before Monday, October 15; a podcast discussion of the book will be available shortly thereafter.

    21 out of 26 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 23, 2013

    I teach probability and statistics and really wanted to like thi

    I teach probability and statistics and really wanted to like this book, but Nate Silver is NOT on expert on statistics and probability and makes some pretty big errors as a consequence. Chapter 8 completely fails in its explanation of the controversy between classical and Bayesian methods. In other chapters, Silver seems to believe that anyone who revises his/her beliefs based on new information is using Bayes's theorem. Bayes's theorem involves reasoning based on how likely the information is if the hypothesis is true versus how likely the information is if the hypothesis is false.

    5 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 27, 2012

    Very credible analysis

    Silver draws on a wide range of activities with examples from poker, sports, finance, etc. that involve his own experiences and interviews with others. His goal is to uncover significant principles and factors and not to expound a specific theory. The book is well organized and easy to read.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 20, 2012

    Some good, some bad

    Silver does a great job in many areas of his book but seems to have a difficult time separating his political beliefs from the science he presents. If you can get past his obvious political biases you will find this a great read. Just be prepared to shut off the part of your mind that keeps wanting to point out that he contradicts his own premise on many occasions. If he edited out his political statements I would rate this a 5.

    2 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 25, 2012

    Problems on Nook Simple and Tablet with book Problems with this book on Nook Simple

    Great readiing but Nook Simple does not hold the page location or sync it with any other Nook and vice versa. Very annoying.

    2 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 30, 2012

    So far so good...!

    Still reading; it's a bit of a slow read but Mr. Silver has a very active mind. Fascinating to read where it takes us as readers. Not what I expected at all...!

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2014

    I Also Recommend:

    The human race is a species that can analyze its surroundings as

    The human race is a species that can analyze its surroundings as well as predict future occurrences.  With the plethora of information that is available to humans, the art of predicting has increased exponentially. Predictors are separated into two categories: hedgehogs, who are specialized, stalwart, stubborn, order-seeking, confident, and ideological as well as foxes, who are multidisciplinary, adaptable, self-critical, tolerant of complexity, cautious, and empirical. In essence, foxes make better forecasters than hedgehogs. With the vast amount of information accessible, forecasters must be able to analyze information correctly, searching for a signal. “The signal is the truth. The noise is what distracts us from the truth. This is a book about the signal and the noise.” 
    The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver is about the history of predictions, what predictors can learn about past predictions, and ways to improve the accuracy of predictions. Nate Silver analyzes the predictions of the United States Recession of 2008, baseball statistics from the Moneyball Era, weather predictions, the game of poker, etc., dismantling their ideas and revealing their flaws. Silver suggests that his ideas explain the significance and accuracy of his forecasts over others. For example, before the 2008 Recession, rating agencies predicted a very minimal percentage loss on defaults, but resulted in a defect of 20,000%. He continuously mentions the theme of foxes versus hedgehogs and the impact these types of people have on the forecasting. The message that Silver touches the reader with is the difference between signals and noise. He postulates that with all of the information that is available in the world, only a small percent of it is actually useful. Being able to differentiate between the signal and the noise is what creates accuracy behind predictions.
    This book has many aspects that provide very valuable information as to why some events have occurred as well as what could be done to prevent them.  Silver presents his reader with background information about this topic of interest and helps the reader understand his analysis without any prior knowledge. He uses research not only to explain past events, but also to present statistical information to back up his theories. A slight downfall to this aspect of Silver’s writing is the excessive amount of detail and research behind each topic. This causes the reader to deviate from Silver’s underlying messages, forcing them to focus on the information presented. In a sense, he contradicts his own title of the book by presenting the reader with a signal that is hard to receive given a large amount of noise.
    An individual should read this book due to its wide variety of information. By reading this book, one can understand the fundamentals of the stock market, a poker game, as well as the sport of baseball, providing the reader not only with thoughts about the signals and noises in society but also about the history behind predictions. Another book that simplifies The Signal and the Noise is The Signal and the Noise in 30 Minutes by Nate Silver, which is highly recommended, because it conveys the same message only in a much simpler manner.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 22, 2013


    All peoples bios before are at res 4

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 16, 2013

    I enjoyed reading this book and the author's efforts to sort out

    I enjoyed reading this book and the author's efforts to sort out all the predictions that we encounter in daily life. 
    I needed to learn to put down the book after finishing a chapter so that I could absorb the points being made. Wish that the book would have
    been around when I was taking statistics.  Certainly he gave a lot of encouragement to thinking about probabilities rather than just doing counts.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 22, 2013

    Despite calm words about even-handedness, the climate controvers

    Despite calm words about even-handedness, the climate controversy chapter only interviews the alarmists, not skeptical scientists such as Richard Lindzen, Judith Curry, or the Pielkes. It suggests SIlver doesn't know much more about the topic than what he reads in the New York Times. Doesn't bode well for the credibility of the rest of the book.

    0 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 27, 2013

    Well written, fascinating and highly recommended

    A very well-written and fascinating presentation on why some predictions work and many others fail. If you're at all interested in politics, economics, disease spread, terrorism, the stock market, weather, earthquakes, baseball, chess or poker you'll be captivated by The Signal and the Noise. I'm primarily a fiction reader, but found this book to be as much or more of a page turner than many "thrillers." Although the book is written for the layman, you'll have an easier time with it if you have a solid grounding in fundamental mathematics and statistics. Bottom line: if you're curious about the world we live in and why some events are easier to predict than others, I highly recommend this book.

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  • Posted February 1, 2013

    Definitely worthwhile, but not light reading

    I was inspired to do some research on Bayes' theorem after finishing the text. Footnotes and references make up a large part of the book, but are gathered at the end, not within the text.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 25, 2013

    A good book

    Nate Silver, has taken time out to write an eye opening book.

    Before reading this book I had taken prediction for granted, but after reading it, I have come to appreciate the effort that goes into prediction and also how we are surrounded with predictions.

    It has also helped improve my prediction ability, because those that predict rightly, controls the future and ultimately wins in the long run.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 19, 2013

    Great book

    Great book

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 18, 2013

    I finished reading "The Signal and the Noise" a couple

    I finished reading "The Signal and the Noise" a couple of weeks ago, and although I enjoyed it as I read it, I find that it is already fading into the background of other related books that I have read. Occasionally I come across a book that requires re-reading and pondering, but this is not one of them. On the other hand, if you are new to this discussion, Mr. Silver does a good job of organizing and summarizing the problems with making accurate and reliable predictions.

    My summary of the book (and of the field of predicting the future): Predict that tomorrow will be pretty much like today, and you will have a very high accuracy rate, but you'll be BOOOOORRRIIINNNGG. Predict great and dramatic changes, and you will usually miss, but if you do it in an authoritative and entertaining fashion, you'll get lots of attention anyway.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 15, 2013

    Worthwhile but wordy and repetitive

    Some very interesting and useful concepts are explained. In particular the usefulness of Bayes Theorum for refining predictions is clearly set forth. The book needs editing. The same ground seems to be covered over and over. If you are short of time you could read just those chapters that deal with an area of your interest: gambling, weather, epidemics, or terrorism. I predict that 20% of those who start the book will not finish it.

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  • Posted January 11, 2013

    Interesting, enlightening

    Nate Silver is the wunderkind who accurately predicted how each state would vote in the 2012 presidential election. So he has more than a little authority when it comes to predictions. The Signal and the Noise is a fascinating read, with great examples from many fields in which predictions are the order of the day – from weather forecasting to baseball to poker to political punditry. I particularly liked his take on how the “smartest minds” on PBS’s The McLaughlin Group go so far astray in their predictions … and why. Although this book prompted to dust off my rusty algebra skills to figure out and use Bayes’s theorem, most of it was a pretty easy read. I was disappointed to find so many little errors in the book (the misspelling of the word “mammogram” is just one example). When a book relies heavily on accuracy, it’s a shame when the copy editors don’t show up for work. Anyone who wants to understand how Mitt Romney’s pollsters got it so wrong (it’s likely they were “hedgehogs” and not “foxes”) needs only to read The Signal and the Noise.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 30, 2012


    To be fair i don't really think this is a book you would want to read because it is stupid. I just read it and I thought it was boring and all that. So I reccomend that you DO NOT read this book. Unless you want to be bored out of your mind

    0 out of 20 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 14, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Probably a Worthwhile Read on Probabilities

    There can be know doubt that the author is an expert in his subject matter, that of probabilities and statistics. Silver is justifiably a star in his chosen fields, specifically baseball statistics and election forecasting. In the final analysis, his grasp of his subject matter is more advanced than his ability to organize and convey his lessons.

    Rich in sound analysis and valuable lessons on predictions and forecasting, this book is a worthwhile read. Nevertheless, it is hurt by occassional ramblings and redundancies. For example, early in the book Silver dedicates a great many pages to discrediting the predictive skills of television pundits vis-a-vis election outcomes. Silver addresses the pundits' predictions as if they are made with a wholehearted attempt at accuracy. Only much later in the book does Silver acknowledge that it is not their primary interest to give rock-solid predictions based on sound methodology. And even then, he only gives short shrift to the fact that these pundits are merely television entertainers who seek to make partisan viewers feel good about their own political inclinations. Silver's extensive analysis of these political predictions is a waste of time, in the final analysis.

    None of this is to say that Silver is a poor writer. His writing style is clear and engrossing. Perhaps he will consider reorganizing this book for a second edition. In truth, it could be made far better, and even perhaps into a classic of its genre.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 30, 2012


    Really like Mr. Silver's appreciation for reality vs. BS!

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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