It’s chapter 5 of The Signal and the Noise and for the first time we learn that 1) something can’t be predicted, and 2) Nate Silver doesn’t have his own algorithm to do so. When forecasting earthquakes it seems that many people – seismologists, nuclear physicists, and owners of sensitive pets – attempt to find signal in noise. After the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy, officials sought to find missed signals, this being preferable to admitting that instead there was just chaos. It certainly appears to be a human trait, to blame ourselves, or others, for past mistakes rather than admitting that, in reality, we just didn’t know something.
I find the aspects of human behavior that this book reveals fascinating. We want a bad weather forecast so that when the weather is fine we will feel lucky, we want a nice house even if we know we can’t afford it, we may anticipate the consequences of positive economic feedback but we want to enjoy the bubble for just a while longer, we would rather find fault than admit we have no control.
I remember loosely the trial of the scientist who failed to predict the L’Aquila earthquake. At the time it seemed un-European and more American in its litigiosity. Legal culture aside, there also appears to be cultural differences in how we respond to signals. Bernardo De Bernardinis, the deputy chief of Italy’s Civil Protection Department, said that the earthquake swarm in L’Aquila was nothing to worry about and that everyone should sit back and enjoy a glass of wine. This parallels the response of The Big Easy to the prediction that hurricane Katrina would be a direct hit and potentially catastrophic hit. Can we really blame relaxed officials elected by the relaxed populace for adhering to the norms of cultures that we all admire? Who wouldn’t want to swap the 80-hour workweek and two-hour daily commute of the Northeast US for some downtime in the Mediterranean or New Orleans?
In 2012 the six Italian scientists and one official were sentenced to six years in jail for manslaughter. Where does this leave scientists working at the forefront of natural disaster prediction, especially with phenomena that can’t be predicted and are characterised by chaos? Malcolm Sperrin, director of medical physics at the UK’s Royal Berkshire Hospital said, “If the scientific community is to be penalised for making predictions that turn out to be incorrect, or for not accurately predicting an event that subsequently occurs, then scientific endeavour will be restricted to certainties only and the benefits that are associated with findings from medicine to physics will be stalled.” I probably don’t have to worry too much as I learned in Chapter 4 that I am not a serious scientist given that I love (and admit to loving) the Weather Channel (seriously, did anyone see today’s article on the baby Asian elephant born in the English zoo?). I do, however, have to worry about always seeking an answer instead of welcoming chaos. Unless we are talking R, in which case I freely admit to knowing nothing…