I am currently reading Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise. The review will go live concurrently with Jim Manzi’s Uncontrolled, which I finished weeks ago. The two works are qualitatively different, but fundamentally they’re both concerned with epistemology. I do have to admit that halfway through The Signal and the Noise I long for Manzi’s density and economy of prose. As someone on the margins of the LessWrong community I’m already familiar with many of the arguments that Silver forwards, so perhaps this evaluation is not fair.
But this post isn’t about The Signal and the Noise. Rather, I want to state that I’ve put some bets down on the upcoming election. Silver attempted to do the same, and got some blowback from The New York Times public editor. I’m not surprised, the idea of betting on ideas strikes many as transgressive. But what people have to understand is that this isn’t gambling, it’s putting your money where you mouth is. As Alex Tabarrok has stated it is a “tax on bullshit.” I really hate bullshit. I hate it from other people, and I hate it from myself. The more bullshit there is in this world, the less clarity we have about the world around us. Bullshit is the clarity killer. It is the enemy of objectivity.
Over the past few weeks I’ve tried to get people like Dwight E Howell to bet me on their skepticism on the polls. In fact, I’ve come close to harassing them in the comments, chasing them down on Twitter, etc. And yet I’ve received precious few wagers. Why? I think most of them are bullshitters. They might not even know they’re bullshitters consciously, but deep down they don’t have confidence in their views, else they’d be lining up to take my money.
Hank Campbell though stepped up to the plate. If Nate Silver calls 48 or more out of 50 states correctly, I get $50. If not, then he gets $50. Daniel Gonzalez Buitrago also proposed a $40 wager, and I accepted. These bets aren’t just about making money. They’re about sharpening my own sense of what’s true. Am I willing to lose money? My confidence in these wagers is modest, at best. Rather, my point is that if I make enough wagers, and I am confident in enough of them, then I should come out on top. This is how I view my attempts to understand the world. I’m not aiming to understand one fact perfectly; I want to understand many small facts to some approximation. You win some, you lose some.
Finally, if you haven’t read Colby Cosh’s take down of Nate Silver, you should. I like Silver because he’s presents himself as a humble Bayesian, but with great influence comes great expectations. Ultimately what Silver does that’s great is that he popularizes a method of inference and forecasting. But the problem may be that people are more enamored of the result of his current forecast.