The signal, the noise, and the nuclear war


Clever people have always written books about probability.

But more than ever now, clever people write books about probability aimed at people who don’t work in the probability industry; in gambling, for instance, or finance.

They’re to be found in that corner of the bookshop called ‘popular science,’ or ‘smart thinking.’ In amongst the Malcolm Gladwell and the Richard Wiseman, and just to the left of ‘mind, body and spirit.’

I need to come clean right now: I know very little about probability. I understand about as much as the man/woman on the street. It’s about the likelihood of stuff happening, I know that, but from there it gets complicated.

So I dabble.

I linger in that corner of the bookshop and flick through the books. I have my mind momentarily blown, and then quickly put down the book and wander over to ‘sport’, or ‘biography’.

I sometimes check out Nate Silver, and his website, but that’s largely because he has a cool name, and his famous book is called ‘The Signal and the Noise’ (also cool).

(Just me?)

This is as far as I dare go.

You may sense, from this dilettante-ism, that I am drawn to statistics and probability. It would be fair to say that an appreciation (however superficial) for Nate Silver takes me beyond the man/woman on the street in my interest. I do like a stat.

It’s my gut that holds me back.

Take the North Korean nuclear weapons testing situation, for example.

You’ve got the personality, power, and motivations of Kim Jong-un. Add one part Donald Trump, two parts global power politics, and mix liberally with the deliberate chaos of the online media landscape; with its bots, and bloggers, and mischief-makers.

What is the probability of nuclear war?

What does my gut say?

Instinctively, I think there’s a lot of showboating and gamesmanship going on, and however unstable the main characters seem it won’t come to nuclear Armageddon. This can be backed up with a cherry-picked and partially digested comment piece.

This article here suggests, for example, that North Korea carry out their tests to ruin people’s weekend, or holiday, or day off, or national day of celebration. For effect. To irritate, annoy, but not necessarily destroy.

At least that’s how I (skim) read it.

Probability-wise, I presume there’s a chance it might happen – the whole nuclear war thing – but I find it easier to live with the instinct from my gut, than the probabilities from my (and Nate Silver’s) brain.

So I’m just going to leave probability well alone for a bit.

Before the knot in my gut gets any tighter.

(Image: via


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