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Author Fri May 17 2013

Statistician Nate Silver Speaks at Spertus Institute

thesignalandthenoise.jpgEvery few mornings, my mom will e-mail me my horoscope.

It's not that we take serious stock in the just-vague-enough-to-be-accurate predictions. We know it's silly. It's just a nice tradition; our kooky way of keeping in touch. I don't believe in what the horoscopes say, and that is the truth.

The truth, nine tenths of the truth, almost entirely true, so help me Libra.

Okay, I don't open those e-mails expecting to learn exactly what my day holds. It's only that, after reading them, they tend to sit in the back of my mind. If my horoscope tells me my "patience will be tested," and later that day I have to wait twenty minutes for the bus, a small part of me will think, "Oh! Thanks for the heads up, Mom/Universe!"

The reason my subconscious clings to the horoscope isn't that I actually believe it, nor is it a predictive measure comparable to data-based statistical forecasting (no offense, Cosmos). Rather, this behavior, and the popularity of astrology in general, is a prime example of the way in which we as a species tend to despise uncertainty.

In his book The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail - But Some Don't, statistician Nate Silver pinpoints this very aversion to uncertainty as a major cause of faulty predictions. We are wired to detect patterns. We are predisposed to lean towards our subjective bias. We tend to see in the data what we want to see. And considering the ever-amassing amount of information available, it is not difficult to lose the signal (true, relevant data) amidst the noise (everything else).

Horoscopes may be a hoax, but when it comes to predictions, Mr. Silver is the next best thing. He has gained notoriety throughout his career for the astoundingly accurate predictions of the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, various senatorial elections, as well as the performance of many Major League Baseball players. He was named one of "The World's 100 Most Influential People" by Time magazine, and his blog, FiveThirtyEight.com, was licensed for publication by the New York Times.

The Signal and the Noise was named by Amazon.com as one of the best books of 2012, and it isn't difficult to see why. Throughout the text, Silver walks the reader through a number of scenarios that exemplify prediction as both a problem and a solution. These examples range from the financial crisis of 2008, to climate change, to poker, to name a few. Both compelling and accessible, Silver's scenarios crack open the world of statistical analysis, revealing those nuances (objective versus subjective, risk versus uncertainty, signal versus noise) that determine the ability of data to portend future events.

Speaking of future events and masterful segues, this Sunday, May 19 at 1 pm, Chicago's Spertus Institute, at 610 S. Michigan Ave., will be hosting Silver as he discusses the impact of the Jewish vote in American politics and the art and science of predicting the future. Judging by his book, I predict that there's a 99% chance the event will be fascinating. Not that I'm biased.

Tickets are $50 and $35, depending on seating, and a limited number of $15 student tickets are available. Valid student ID required at the door. The Signal and the Noise will also be for sale at the event and a book signing will follow the program. For more information, visit spertus.edu or call 312.322.1773.

 
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