Nate Silver is a genius. I'm pretty sure that this 35 year old could solve most of the world's problems, or at least tell other people how to, through some intense analysis. And perhaps a little time locked in a room with some Cheetos.
He had flowcharts. He talked us through a chess match, and the data behind the computer making the moves. He went from baseball to Bieber in three moves.
But putting him on as the day three keynote speaker the morning after InBound Rocks with One Republic, well it was sort of like getting a data-rich presentation from Rainman.
Silver spoke for around 45 minutes, following a third installment (and by far the least inspired of the three) of the hilarious morning video segments on "recovering" outbound marketer Dan Sally. He spoke about his election predictions ("can you count to 270? Because that is what it takes"), and discussed the incredibly biased state of our media today.
One fascinating correlation that he drew was between the fact that people today have access to more information, via the internet, than ever before. But it isn't the first time in history that information dissemination has exploded wildly over a short period. The other time that this happened was with the advent of the printing press. And with that dissemination of knowledge, people became passionate about their beliefs. The challenge at that time was that printing books was incredibly expensive, and so rather than constantly consuming new information, people became deeply entrenched in the information they had. They memorized, they debated. They believed, fiercely.
And then they fought wars.
Yes, passion and deeply held beliefs turn into contention, because it turns out the thing that humans have capacity for even greater than the thirst for knowledge is the hunger to be right, and to impose that "rightness" on everyone else around them.
Now, Silver posited, information dissemination has changed. A 24 hour news cycle, plus endless possibilities for how you get your news means that the information you seek will be more and more tailored to the beliefs you already have, making your position (potentially) a more and more extreme version of the views you already held.
He never said it out loud, but this seems very dangerous.
What he did say out loud, albeit in very different terms than the other speakers at the conference, echoed the themes of the days.
1. No matter how great your data is, you need human beings and their judgement to interpret it in order to have it really work for you. The most sophisticated machine is still a machine, and computers are built with bugs. Humans, with all our inherent flaws, still have sentience and judgement that ultimately will always win the day.
Redux: Be human. Oh yeah, we've heard that before.
2. There are three components to data that is "rich": quantity, quality, and variety. There are also three components to effective data analysis: context, culture, and competition. Miss any one of these and you are headed in the wrong direction.
3. Embrace failure. Silver ended his presentation by discussing failure, which he was a big proponent of. This, too, was a theme we've heard all week. Fail often. Pick yourself back up. Failure is success. Consider everything a work in progress. The work is never done. Silver rounded out his presentation with poetry, which, coming from him, was, well, poetic.
The road to wisdom? Well, it's plain
And simple to express:
And err again.
But less, and less, and less.