Nate Silver on Learning, Intuition, Boredom, and Changing Jobs

The Harvard Business Review recently sat down with Nate Silver, everyone’s favorite stat nerd and author of The Signal and the Noise, for an interview. The whole thing is worth the read, but I enjoyed the following two exchanges.

On learning and intuition:

HBR: What about if I’ve read your book and I’m just starting college or a little younger and I’m trying to think actually maybe this statistician/data scientist role is something that I’m interested in? What do I study? How much education do I need? What’s that base for plugging into some of these jobs?

Silver:  Again, I think the applied experience is a lot more important than the academic experience. It probably can’t hurt to take a stats class in college.

But it really is something that requires a lot of different parts of your brain. I mean the thing that’s toughest to teach is the intuition for what are big questions to ask. That intellectual curiosity. That bullshit detector for lack of a better term, where you see a data set and you have at least a first approach on how much signal there is there. That can help to make you a lot more efficient.

That stuff is kind of hard to teach through book learning. So it’s by experience. I would be an advocate if you’re going to have an education, then have it be a pretty diverse education so you’re flexing lots of different muscles.

You can learn the technical skills later on, and you’ll be more motivated to learn more of the technical skills when you have some problem you’re trying to solve or some financial incentive to do so. So, I think not specializing too early is important.

On being listened to, being bored at work, and changing jobs:

HBR: You’ve had obviously some very public experience with the fact that even when the data is good and the model is good, people can push back a lot for various reasons, legitimate and otherwise. Any advice for once you’re in that position, you have a seat at the table, but the other people around the table are really just not buying what you’re selling?

Silver: If you can’t present your ideas to at least a modestly larger audience, then it’s not going to do you very much good. Einstein supposedly said that I don’t trust any physics theory that can’t be explained to a 10-year-old. A lot of times the intuitions behind things aren’t really all that complicated. In Moneyball that on-base percentage is better than batting average looks like ‘OK, well, the goal is to score runs. The first step in scoring runs is getting on base, so let’s have a statistic that measures getting on base instead of just one type of getting on base.’ Not that hard a battle to fight.

Now, if you feel like you’re expressing yourself and getting the gist of something and you’re still not being listened to, then maybe it’s time to change careers. It is the case [that] people who have analytic talent are very much in demand right now across a lot of fields so people can afford to be picky to an extent.

Don’t take a job where you feel bored. If it’s challenging, you feel like you’re growing, you have good internal debates, that’s fine. Some friction can be healthy. But if you feel like you’re not being listened to, then you’re going just want to slit your wrists after too much longer. It’s time to move on.

Excellent advice.

On Nate Silver and Predicting Elections: Betting is a Tax on Bullshit

Yesterday, The New York Times math/election guru Nate Silver offered, via Twitter, to make a $1,000 election bet with MSNBC host Joe Scarborough on who would win the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election.  Silver’s overlords at the New York Times were not pleased. From their Public Editor Journal:

Whatever the motivation behind it, the wager offer is a bad idea – giving ammunition to the critics who want to paint Mr. Silver as a partisan who is trying to sway the outcome. It’s also inappropriate for a Times journalist, which is how Mr. Silver is seen by the public even though he’s not a regular staff member. “I wouldn’t want to see it become newsroom practice,” said the associate managing editor for standards, Philip B. Corbett. He described Mr. Silver’s status as a blogger — something like a columnist — as a mitigating factor. Granted, Mr. Silver isn’t covering the presidential race as a political reporter would. But he is closely associated with The Times and its journalism – in fact, he’s probably (and please know that I use the p-word loosely) its most high-profile writer at this particular moment. When he came to work at The Times, Mr. Silver gained a lot more visibility and the credibility associated with a prominent institution. But he lost something, too: the right to act like a free agent with responsibilities to nobody’s standards but his own.

Alex Tabarrok counters and thinks that betting is a good idea, a way to put your money where your mouth is:

My best parse of the argument is that by betting Silver has given himself an interest in the election and this hurts his credibility. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.

A properly structured bet is the most credible guarantor of rigorous disinterest. In order to prove his point, Silver is not required to take the Obama side of the bet! At the odds implied by his model (currently between 3 and 4 to 1) Silver should be willing to take either side of a modest bet. Indeed, we could hold a coin toss, heads Silver takes the Obama side, tails he takes Romney.

In fact, the NYTimes should require that Silver, and other pundits, bet their beliefs. Furthermore, to remove any possibility of manipulation, the NYTimes should escrow a portion of Silver’s salary in a blind trust bet. In other words, the NYTimes should bet a portion of Silver’s salary, at the odds implied by Silver’s model, randomly choosing which side of the bet to take, only revealing to Silver the bet and its outcome after the election is over. A blind trust bet creates incentives for Silver to be disinterested in the outcome but very interested in the accuracy of the forecast.

Overall, I am for betting because I am against bullshit. Bullshit is polluting our discourse and drowning the facts. A bet costs the bullshitter more than the non-bullshitter so the willingness to bet signals honest belief. A bet is a tax on bullshit; and it is a just tax, tribute paid by the bullshitters to those with genuine knowledge.

Fantastic.

As of this writing, Joe Scarborough has not agreed to the bet. But he should.

The Bug in Deep Blue and Its Effect on Garry Kasparov

Nate Silver’s anticipated book, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don’tcomes out today. The Washington Post has a great excerpt from Silver’s book about the bug in Deep Blue that made Kasparov consider the machine super intelligent:

Nevertheless, there were some bugs in Deep Blue’s inventory: not many, but a few. Toward the end of my interview with him, [Murray] Campbell somewhat mischievously referred to an incident that had occurred toward the end of the first game in their 1997 match with Kasparov.

“A bug occurred in the game and it may have made Kasparov misunderstand the capabilities of Deep Blue,” Campbell told me. “He didn’t come up with the theory that the move it played was a bug.”

The bug had arisen on the forty-fourth move of their first game against Kasparov; unable to select a move, the program had defaulted to a last-resort fail-safe in which it picked a play completely at random. The bug had been inconsequential, coming late in the game in a position that had already been lost; Campbell and team repaired it the next day. “We had seen it once before, in a test game played earlier in 1997, and thought that it was fixed,” he told me. “Unfortunately there was one case that we had missed.”

In fact, the bug was anything but unfortunate for Deep Blue: it was likely what allowed the computer to beat Kasparov. In the popular recounting of Kasparov’s match against Deep Blue, it was the second game in which his problems originated—when he had made the almost unprecedented error of forfeiting a position that he could probably have drawn. But what had inspired Kasparov to commit this mistake? His anxiety over Deep Blue’s forty-fourth move in the first game—the move in which the computer had moved its rook for no apparent purpose. Kasparov had concluded that the counterintuitive play must be a sign of superior intelligence. He had never considered that it was simply a bug.

I’ve ordered the book on Amazon.

Medalball

What if you could apply the tactics of Moneyball to the Olympic Games? Nate Silver performs a neat thought experiment to do just that. As he writes, “I’ve identified three measures that, when weighted equally, suggest the sports in which the Kyrgyzstans of the world could direct their energy and resources to maximize their medal count.” The formula can be broken down to three parts:

Find a cheap sport:

The average medal winner comes from a country with per capita G.D.P. of $27,000 in today’s dollars, which is well above the worldwide average of around $11,000. But wealthy nations haven’t claimed every sport. Indonesia has won many medals in badminton; Belarus and Ukraine are powers in rhythmic gymnastics. 

Pick a sport with most medals awarded per participant:

Team sports like soccer require a lot of players for a single medal; that’s expensive and illogical for a medalball country. So I ranked the number of medals awarded in the 2008 Olympics, per event, for every 10 athletes participating. The higher the number, the better the chance of a medal.

The final tip is to pick a sport where the diversity of country winners (outside of the top three) is large. Putting these together, Nate Silver concludes the following sports are best for producing a medalball country (scores out of 10 points; 5 is average):

1. Wrestling 8.78
Thirty-five countries, including Kyrgyzstan, have medaled in wrestling since 1996.

2. Tae Kwon Do 8.76
Though an Olympic sport only since 2000, it already has among the most diverse lists of medal-winning countries, including Afghanistan and Venezuela.

3. Weight Lifting 8.69
Its eight male (and seven female) weight classes give athletes of all sizes a chance. The poorer nations of Southeast Asia have done well in the lighter classes.

A great thought experiment!