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Do We Want to Believe the Numbers? Q and A With Nate Silver...


Stashed in: Basketball, Moneyball, Big Data!, Awesome, Believe, Jon Stewart, Feedback, Nate Silver, @gladwell

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That triumph led Jon Stewart to crown Silver “the lord and God of the algorithm.”

Gordon: Do you think basketball is experiencing its own sort of Moneyball revolution, as more data and metrics become available?

Silver: The basketball stuff is pretty darn impressive. You have an ex-MIT guy, Daryl Morey, running one of the best franchises in the league in Houston. But people might not realize that basketball is almost as far along as baseball. And what’s funny about both those sports—really all sports—is you’re getting a lot of new data. Where now the NBA can actually track where is a player is on the court at any moment, can actually see who’s hustling and who’s not, what defensive positioning is like. What’s disappointing about the NBA relative to baseball is that much less data is public knowledge. In baseball, where stat geeks were outsiders for so long, you had a tradition of research that was made public, and free, and open source for academics, so people could get the basics of it. I’m sure teams are doing even more sophisticated stuff [internally] now. But in the NBA teams will gobble up analytic talent really quite quickly, and of course when teams are doing things that give them some type of advantage, that are proprietary, they don’t really want to share it ...

Gordon: Let's go back to the book. You put Malcolm Gladwell in the hedgehog category because of his belief in the "tipping point" theory. Does that theory hold up? 

[“Hedgehog” comes from Isaiah Berlin's categorization of thinkers into two broad categories: hedgehogs, who understand the world through the lens of a single defining idea; and foxes, whose ideas and experiences are more diffuse.]

Silver: I think the notion that processes involve feedback loops is correct. The growth in baseball salaries can be a feedback loop of sorts. That’s broadly true. But I’m suspicious of theories that are meant to explain everything. You know, the world is a complicated place. Human beings are smart, but we’re not all that bright compared to how complex the universe we’re trying to analyze is. So I’m suspicious of kind of putting a big tagline on something and saying it explains every phenomenon you might want. I think Malcolm Gladwell is a tremendous communicator of ideas and provocateur, but it’s a simplification oftentimes of what the story might be.

Gordon: Is Barack Obama a hedgehog or a fox?

Silver: I think Barack Obama is a fox, and in some ways that’s part of what’s made his presidency difficult. Because George W. Bush was the ultimate hedgehog, really. He had a very strong sense and would communicate as such to that public that here’s what the moral order of the universe is; things are absolutely good or evil. There’s not a lot of ambiguity really. Hedgehogs have an opportunity to be really decisive sometimes, and persuasive, and they can also be totally wrong about something, and you know, start a war over it.

Whereas foxes are more deliberative a lot of the time. And that can be frustrating to people when they want a quick response. At the same time you could say Obama’s playing a long game. You look at historians, they say he might look better in 10 years than he does now. His approval ratings are up a little bit. But a lot of times people want Obama to respond more strongly and firmly to things—that’s not always in the fox’s DNA. They want to collect more data, get more evidence, they’re more comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty.

The evidence says that being a fox is a good thing if you’re trying to make forecasts or predictions about the world. It doesn’t say it’s the only personality trait that you’d want for success in any line of work. I would think most CEOs are hedgehogs, they believe very strongly in one particular vision of their product. They’re probably overly optimistic about how good their product will do. Many of them fail.

Gordon: But sometimes you get the iPhone.

Silver: Yeah, sometimes you get the iPhone, but sometimes you get all the imitations of the iPhone that have failed. Whereas foxes are usually a little better about hedging their bets and managing risks. So it’s sometimes a question of which personality traits you want in a CEO or a president … Bush was kind of a hedgehog and people have a long history of overcompensating for the previous president when they pick the next one. I think you’ll see themes in 2016 where a president who seems more decisive, that might be a persuasive characteristic for people.

Gordon: Say you could perfectly predict the outcome of an election, or a referendum about, say, gun control, what would it tell you about society? How can a good prediction shape society?

Silver: I’m kind of a purist in the sense that I don’t think the goal of a prediction is to shape society. To me the hypothetical where it’s like, “can you predict how an election will turn out exactly?” is like saying well, can you play God. It’s a very strange hypothetical. There are certainly cases where forecasts and predictions can inform policy-making. The irony is that sometimes those predictions become self-canceling. If the CDC says, "We have a potentially really bad flu outbreak this winter, so stay home from work and school, get your vaccinations or it’s going to be really bad," people actually for the most part take that advice. People take precautions and you have a rather mild year for the flu instead. Or if you look at directions your GPS might give you, there’s some evidence that in some cities, New York for example, the GPS will say FDR [bridge] is really jammed up, take the West Side highway instead. Every single driver now has a GPS unit telling him or her the same thing, so you now have the opposite problem. That’s why it’s tricky. When you’re making predictions in real time and it affects people’s behavior, it can be self-canceling or self-enhancing at different times.

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