Boyd Tonkin: US election was a good night for the geeks - and a Tunbridge Wells cleric

The Week in Books

Anyone who tracked the US election campaign in the hope of enlightened debate over the great global issues of the age will soon have lost the will to live (or vote). However, on a tighter intellectual canvas, I enjoyed a pretty invigorating month. Nate Silver's game-changing FiveThirtyEight forecasting outfit has delivered a masterclass in the potential, and the limits, of political soothsaying. By Tuesday, Silver had the percentage probability of victory as 91-9 in favour of Obama. He didn't quite hit the bull's-eye with electoral-college votes, calling it 313-225 for the President. At the same time, the media kept up the dutiful fiction of a "cliffhanger". It was not.

Through the breadth of its sources, the detail of its analysis, the self-critical attention to its own methods and its speed and finesse in correcting for rogue results in the aggregation of polling data, FiveThirtyEight has set a standard that every other opinion-assessor will need to study. It's not rocket science - but it is the sustained, high-level application of probabilistic reasoning. As Silver acknowledges, his techniques owe much to a posthumously-published paper by an obscure Tunbridge Wells minister of the mid-18th century: "An Essay towards Solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances" by Thomas Bayes. Thanks to Bayesian principles, as Silver puts it in his deeply geeky but still engrossing book The Signal and the Noise: the art and science of prediction (Allen Lane, £25), "we can strive to be less subjective, less irrational, and less wrong". In practice, after Silver's intense road-testing of his theories, it began to look pretty clear that headline claims of a knife-edge, neck-and-neck race were baloney. Even a month ago, after the President's TV-debate débâcle in Denver, Silver still had the probability of his re-election at 62-38 per cent.

From baseball to poker, storms to earthquakes, credit crises to terrorist attacks, The Signal and the Noise argues that effective forecasting or even prediction (a stronger category for Silver) depend to a large degree on switching off the human propensity to spot shapes, patterns and meanings in data sets. They will often mislead and deceive: mere "noise". "Foxy forecasters", in contrast, know their limits, make use of prior experience, but continuously revise their assumptions. They know that "the key is determining whether the patterns represent noise or signal". Short-term weather forecasting - the closest this book comes to a genuine success story - has painfully learned to do that, as it shows that "chaos theory is a demon that can be tamed". As for the economic forecasters, many would be better off with tea-leaves and chicken guts.

On earthquakes, the book explains why the trial of scientists in the wake of the L'Aquila disaster in Italy in 2009 was a medieval absurdity. After his survey of the slow advances in seismic forecasting, Silver accepts "the Holy Grail of earthquake prediction will never be attained".

Which brings us to the celebrated bird whose shadow falls over his book, the "Black Swan": those extreme, outlier events that defy augury, and which Nassim Nicholas Taleb hunted down in his book of that name. Silver's Bayesian recipes work best in data-systems where Black Swans can never strike. Indeed, it was notable how, after Superstorm Sandy hit with all its Black Swan fury, the FiveThirtyEight blog sought to deny that this rampant outlier of a tempest could sway many voters at all.

It would be an error to set up Taleb simply as the nemesis of Silver. The latter seeks to help us make better forecasts. The former, as his forthcoming book Antifragile will argue, offers ways to think and act that embrace risk and surf uncertainty, whatever the strength of any prediction. Nonetheless, I would love to see the pair debate. What are the chances of that?

World-beating: Big History goes for broke

A massive deal (£1m. by some reports), a long haul (it's due no earlier than 2018), a big splash, a humongous theme: the projected "biography" of The World by Simon Sebag Montefiore for Weidenfeld & Nicolson shows that the book trade can still plan future projects on a Pharaonic scale. The sales triumph of his portrait of Jerusalem stiffened hopes that the market for page-turning, high-concept Big History has survived. The World will go for broke on that score. Inspiring ambition? Crazy hubris? Watch this space - but not very soon.

Ferrari wins Goncourt's grand prix

In this week's other momentous decision, announced as always at the Drouot restaurant in Paris, the Goncourt Prize has gone to Jérome Ferrari for his novel The Sermon on the Fall of Rome. The winning book in this year's contest for France's most august - and most sales-boosting - award for fiction is set in a bar in Corsica, where the novelist and philosophy teacher (now based in Abu Dhabi) used to live. It tells in almost fable-like form of the pitfalls and perils of utopian dreams (not so far from the US elections, maybe). In this country, MacLehose Press has just published a translation of Ferrari's Where I Left My Soul: one of several major French novels that over the past few years have, belatedly, tried to come to terms with the Algerian war, its dehumanising cruelties and its traumatic aftermaths. We'll have a review of the book next week.

Suggested Topics
Arts & Entertainment
William Shakespeare's influence on English culture is still strongly felt today, from his plays on stage to words we use everyday
books50 Shakespeare phrases still in use, to mark the bard's 450th birthday
Arts & Entertainment
The next wig thing: 'Drag Queens of London'
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Bear Grylls’ latest television show has been labelled sexist by female survival experts

TV
Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio (left) could team up with British director Danny Boyle for the Steve Jobs (right) biopic
film
Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams as Arya and Rory McCann as The Hound
TV
VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
Rush hour: shoppers go sale crazy in Barkers, Kensington
film
Arts & Entertainment
Juliette Binoche and Ralph Fiennes play Catherine and Heathcliff in Pete Kosminsky's 1992 movie adaptation of Wuthering Heights
booksGoogle Doodle celebrates Charlotte Brontë's 198th birthday
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Robin Thicke with his Official Number 1 Award for 'Blurred Lines', the most downloaded track in UK music history
Music
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello
Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

Arts & Entertainment
Tom Baker who played the Doctor longer than any other actor
tv
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival

film
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home

    It's not always fun in the sun: Moving abroad does not guarantee happiness

    Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home
    Migrants in Britain a decade on: They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire

    Migrants in Britain a decade on

    They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire
    Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

    Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

    The 'Thick of It' favourite thinks the romcom is an 'awful genre'. So why is he happy with a starring role in Sky Living's new Lake District-set series 'Trying Again'?
    Why musicians play into their old age

    Why musicians play into their old age

    Nick Hasted looks at how they are driven by a burning desire to keep on entertaining fans despite risking ridicule
    How can you tell a gentleman?

    How can you tell a gentleman?

    A list of public figures with gallant attributes by Country Life magazine throws a fascinating light on what it means to be a gentleman in the modern world
    Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

    Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

    The duo behind Asos and Achica have launched a new venture offering haute couture to help make furry companions fashionable
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The mutiny that sent a ripple of fear through the Empire

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    The mutiny that sent a ripple of fear through the Empire
    Hot stuff: 10 best kettles

    Hot stuff: 10 best kettles

    Celebrate St George’s Day with a nice cup of tea. Now you just need to get the water boiled
    Sam Wallace: Why Giggs is perfect fit as Manchester United boss... in the longer term

    Sam Wallace

    Why Ryan Giggs is perfect fit as Manchester United boss... in the longer term
    Renaud Lavillenie: The sky's the limit for this pole vaulter's ambitions

    Renaud Lavillenie: The sky's the limit for this pole vaulter's ambitions

    Having smashed Sergei Bubka's 21-year-old record, the French phenomenon tells Simon Turnbull he can go higher
    Through the screen: British Pathé opens its archives

    Through the screen

    British Pathé opens its archives
    The man behind the papier mâché mask

    Frank Sidebottom

    The man behind the papier mâché mask
    Chris Marker: Mystic film-maker with a Midas touch

    Mystic film-maker with a Midas touch

    Chris Marker retrospective is a revelation
    Boston runs again: Thousands take to the streets for marathon as city honours dead and injured of last year's bombing

    Boston runs again

    Thousands of runners take to the streets as city honours dead of last year
    40 years of fostering and still holding the babies (and with no plans to retire)

    40 years of fostering and holding the babies

    In their seventies and still working as specialist foster parents