August 15, 2013

Nate Silver - Be The Fox, Be A Polymath



Nate Silver, he's the man. Statistician, forecaster, consummate polymath and self-professed fox. A fox because "the fox knows many things." What's special about Nate Silver, who calls theFiveThirtyEight blog on the New York Times his online home, is that he takes a big-picture approach to using statistical tools in his analysis of politics.
Nate Silver rejects much of the mainstream, conventional statistical ideology and method taught in colleges and universities today. Like Michael Oakeshott’s practical cook, Nate Silver is a practical statistician who demands less theory, less hypothesizing and more on-the-ground understanding of how baseball, poker, elections and other uncertain processes work.
His philosophy as a fox is that multi-disciplined polymaths are superior to technocrat, single-subject specialists. His idea is that various skills serve each other well in a positive feedback loop. To find out more about Nate Silver I've transcribed some of the most salient aspects of his discussion with Charlie Rose which you can watch in full, above andhere.

Charlie Rose asked Nate: "What are your core competences?"

Nate Silver responded:
"It’s the combination of knowing about statistics but also being a good storyteller. Here’s a topic where the numbers are really dry; but no, it’s pretty interesting if you actually think through things in the right way. It doesn’t mean creating false certainty but talking about where the forecast is coming from and not just throwing up numbers and leaving the environment.

So it’s that explanatory skill. I’m that guy that worked on the paper in high school and in college I was in the debate team. So I always had communication skill of taking relatively complex information and finding out how to distil it to a broader audience without dumbing it down. But to represent it in a way that is fair, interesting and marketable.  
It’s that overlap. There are definitely people who are better than me at writing the numbers, who are people who are better writers and communicators; but that overlap of skills is fairly rare. We’re used to this situation where we have an English major and Math major environment, and we divide those 2 things in ways that are false.  
There’s science and art to it. I fuse those approaches and fight against this trend to be too much of a specialist, this is one of the ways I’ve looked at things and it’s helped a lot."
Charlie Rose then said:
"Matt Yglesias said of you: He’s hardly the greatest mathematical genius in America. His journey from consulting, to baseball analytics, to professional poker, to political prognosticating is very much that of a restless and curious mind; and this more than number-crunching is where real forecasting-prowess comes from."
Nate Silver responded:
"It’s that mental attitude of not being satisfied. It’s also about the fox versus the hedgehog. The fox never stops scrapping around, it never stops working. Under Bayes Theory (Thomas Bayes) you’re always refining: refining your ideas and learning for your whole life, and that’s my approach. If I get bored with something I know that my performance declines, that’s part of why moving into a different environment where there are more fields and it’s more entrepreneurial. I respond well to that kind of challenge."
Earlier in the discussion (14m30s) Nate Silver explained his hedgehog and the fox philosophy which comes from the writings of philosopher Isaiah Berlin who wrote the book, ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox.’
Charlie Rose started this section by asking: “You tell everyone, be foxy?” Nate Silver responded by explaining his vision of how the world works through the lens of operating like the fox:
"Be foxy, right. So the hedgehog is somebody who is the master of one thing whereas the fox is scrappy; the fox takes many little approaches to the problem. The fox has a diverse range of interests and my approach is more fox-like. I’m suspicious about people who claim to be certain about things in a very complex world."
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