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Why So Many Predictions Fail--But Some Don't

by Nate Silver

Pub Date: Sept. 27th, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-59420-411-1
Publisher: Penguin Press

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.