June Sigma Series: The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail–but Some Don’t

Speaker: Mr. Nate Silver
When: Tuesday, June 4, 2019 at 7:30 p.m
Where: Virginia Air & Space Center Main Gallery
Cost: Free!

Nate Silver will discuss the practical art of mathematical model building using probability and statistics.  He will describe his big-picture approach to using statistical tools, combining sources of unique data (e.g., timing a minor league ball player’s fastball using a radar gun), with historical data and principles of sound statistical analysis, many of which are violated by many pollsters and pundits.  Silver rejects much ideology taught with statistical methods in colleges and universities today.  The problem Silver finds is a belief in perfect experimental, survey, or other designs, when data often comes from a variety of sources and idealized modeling assumptions rarely hold true. Often such models reduce complex questions to overly simple “hypothesis tests” using arbitrary “significance levels” to “accept or reject” a single parameter value.  In contrast, the practical statistician first needs a sound understanding of how baseball, poker, elections or other uncertain processes work, what measures are reliable and which not, and what scales of aggregation are useful.  This “Bayesian” approach is named for the 18th century minister Thomas Bayes who discovered a simple formula for updating probabilities using new data.  For Silver, the well-known method needs revitalizing as a broader paradigm for thinking about uncertainty, founded on learning and understanding gained incrementally, rather than through any single set of observations or an ideal model summarized by just a few key parameters.

Nate Silver is a leading statistician and best-selling author known for his unique brand of creativity, journalism and statistical analysis.  He is the founder of the award-winning website FiveThirtyEight, which was acquired by ABC News in 2018 from ESPN. While under ESPN’s ownership, the site relaunched to expand its coverage to include topics such as sports, economics, culture, science and technology, among others. FiveThirtyEight continues to provide data-driven coverage of politics, including forecasts of upcoming elections.  Silver first gained national attention during the 2008 presidential election, when he correctly predicted the results of the presidential election in 49 of 50 states.

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