The Signal and the Noise

“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.” – Nate Silver[1]

“The signal is the truth. The noise is what distracts us from the truth.” ― Nate Silver

The year 2017 might be a good time for those in the business of Earth observations, science, and science-based services to heed Nate Silver’s 2012 encouragement to focus on the signal and not the noise[2].

Two important signals dominate our times (though not necessarily our thinking).

Physical-world realities: what is the Earth doing? The state and dynamics of the atmosphere, ocean, and solid Earth. Trends in average conditions, extending out to centuries and beyond. The cycles of flood and drought, heat and cold, and other acute, localized, extreme departures from the averages. The availability of water, food, and energy, and other natural resources. The threat of hazards. Response of the physical world to human actions – the impact of seven billion people on habitat, biodiversity, air and water quality, and ecosystem services.

Social realities: our need to know. Seven billion people must track and anticipate what the physical world will do next. What’s coming? Locally, over the next few minutes? Globally, or time scales extending out to centuries and more? What is the physical world up to? Of course, day-to-day, in our manmade urban cocoon, we may fail to take notice for a short period. We can lose ourselves even further – absorbed, even transfixed by the seductive virtual realities that the Internet makes so widely and reliably available. But we can ignore the actualities of our physical environment only for so long. Sooner or later, wherever we may be, however sheltered we deem ourselves, on whatever time horizon, the Earth we live on does things that claim our undivided attention.

Day by day, year on year, these stakes of living on the real world increase. The rewards for knowing what’s on tap – what lies ahead – magnify. The value proposition of Earth observations, science, and science-based services ratchets upwards.

If these are the signals, what is the noise?

In a word? Politics.

Back in 2012, just as Nate Silver’s book was coming out, the Norwegian infotainment program Siffer put out a wonderful little one-minute video on trend and variation (translation: signal versus noise). You probably saw it at the time.

Take a(nother) look. As you watch it, remember: the importance of the Earth observations, science, and services that you do?

That’s the signal.

The political debate and public discussion about it – however loud or angry or divisive or turbulent? Or seemingly interminable?

That’s the noise.


If you’re interested, a 2011 entry in this blog (also posted from an AMS Annual Meeting, also in Seattle) treated a similar subject. You can find it here.


[1]With a presumed apology to or acknowledgment of Reinhold Niebur?. His serenity prayer goes like this: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

[2] Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t, (2012).

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3 Responses to The Signal and the Noise

  1. But remember what your broker warns: “Past returns may not be indicative of future performance.” An unasked question of climate scientists is [when] “will the Earth’s temperatures revert to the mean?”

  2. William Hooke says:

    🙂 Thanks, John,

    great comment as always. Just to note that our interest in the Earth and what it’ll do next, where, and for how long, etc., includes global atmospheric temperatures, but goes quite a bit beyond that. It extends to water resources, strength of the hydrologic cycle, cycles of flood and drought, seasonal-interannual variations, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, changes in landscape and biomass, biodiversity, and much much more. As populations grow, as we urbanize, as spot shortages of resources emerge (and dissipate), our need to track what the Earth is doing down to what we’d formerly think of as the minutest detail grows commensurately. We can’t afford inattention.

  3. Jimmy Correia says:

    Though, we must still be cautious in maintaining the premise that data/information count as evidence and that it will persist in the misinformation age. Noise can become signal when amplified sufficiently, despite the long arc bending in sciences’ direction.

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