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A Few Points About Education From Nate Silver’s “The Signal And The Noise” (Plus A Video)


I’ve been meaning for awhile to write about the connections between education and Nate Silver’s book, The Signal and the Noise. In fact, I had called it the best ed related book I had read in 2012.

His comments this past week questioning the use of test results in teacher evaluation were no surprise to readers of his book.

I don’t have time right now to write my planned lengthy piece on his book, but I thought people might be interested in seeing a few key quotes. I’m confident in saying they’re representative of the book as a whole — he raises series questions about the use and misuse of data in multiple fields throughout it, though he does not specifically discuss education.

However, he does briefly discuss education in the video clip, along with making some interesting comments about economists…

Here are the quotations. I think they’re very obviously connected to the data-driven mentality pervasive in “school reform” circles these days — let me know if you agree or not.

The signal is the truth. The noise is what distracts us from the truth. p. 17

One of the pervasive risks that we face in the information age…is that even if the amount of knowledge in the world is increasing, the gap between what we know and what we think we know may be widening. This syndrome is often associated with very precise-seeming predictions that are not at all accurate…This is like claiming you are a good shot because your bullets always end up in about the same place — even though they are nowhere near the target. p. 45

…more information actually can make matters worse for people who take the wrong attitude toward prediction and use it as an excuse to advance a partisan theory about the way the world is supposed to work — instead of trying to get at the truth. p. 92

Distinguishing the signal from the noise requires both scientific knowledge and self-knowledge: the serenity to accept the things we cannot predict, the courage to predict the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. p. 453

And here’s a pretty interesting short segment from a talk Silver gave at Google (I don’t think it’s viewable on an RSS Reader, so you’ll have to click through to this post to view the clip). You can also see the entire talk here:

Let me know your thoughts about Silver and his work. I’ll probably be publishing a lengthier piece in Education Week in the future, and would love to include comments.

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. I’m 20% through his book and the big takeaway appears to be the need for triangulation of data to make conclusions/predictions. Data is not irrelevant, it’s just incomplete. He provides examples in baseball and weather that underscore the importance of keen observation to help interpret data, or better yet, speak to the areas where data is incapable of providing nuance.

    In teacher evaluation, I think the strategic use of data (what data is best to use is an entire discussion in itself) coupled with observation of the actual interactions in the classroom can work together to create a clear picture of an effective teacher.

  2. Pingback: Predicting the Future

  3. Loved the book as well and thought the data discussions were so on-point for the conversations in the edu-sphere at the moment. I also thought there were implications for teacher eval systems and wrote about it here:

    I would so love any feedback on these ideas!

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