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The Needle and the Noise

“Paint a picture for him. Something like, you want to be the needle in the haystack, not the haystack.” — Don Draper

Nate Silver, one of the world’s leading meteorologists, wrote a book in 2012 called The Signal and the Noise in which he explains to everybody else why he’s so good at predicting who is going to win the upcoming season of The Bachelor.

The phrase “the signal and the noise” is pretty intuitive. The signal is the message you want to hear, the useful information. The noise is everything else that is unimportant. Nate Silver is good at parsing out the signal from the noise in data. He knows what present information will help him to accurately model what the future will look like (or he has at specific points in the past.)

The easy physical example of this is listening to the radio. If you are ~100 years old and remember sitting by the fire knitting blankets for the patients in the hospital stricken by the latest outbreak of typhoid fever (or whatever used to happen in the 20th century, I’m not really sure,) you probably had the radio on while you did it, and that radio would occasionally emit static instead of whatever you actually wanted to listen to.

The point is, in almost any kind of situation where information is coming from one side and is being received by somebody else, it comes with noise. Imagine you’re a teacher who can’t figure out the answer to a math problem and needs the help of the smartest student. But when you ask them what the answer is, every student tells you their answer, only the smartest kid has the actual correct answer, and several students already all have the wrong answer. If every student has to yell their answer out loud several times, kids become self conscious and they will be afraid of being wrong more than they want to give the right answer. They don’t care what the teacher thinks of them. They will all settle on one (wrong) answer, except for the smart kid. They will have the right answer from the beginning and will be drowned out by the wrong answer. Genuinely intelligent people are not afraid to look stupid.

To an outside observer who needs the correct input, the signal is the signal. They are not a peer, they feel little social pressure. But to those inside the system who actually see the risk of looking like an idiot as generally higher than the value of providing correct information, (especially because the chance that they have the correct information is so low) the noise is the signal. We assume people want to be the needle in the haystack, they want to be special and stand out, but most people don’t want that. Most people, almost above everything else, do not want to be seen deviating from the mean at all. Most people want to be not just part of the haystack, they want to be the haystack. So they become so unremarkable they will never receive negative attention, but they won’t receive positive attention either. The important majority opinions of today were the minority opinions people laughed at yesterday.

This whole thing might sound familiar to anybody who has read Peter Thiel’s Zero to One. He asks readers very early in the book, “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” In other words, what is your signal in the noise? The haystack doesn’t know what to say. To the needle, it’s a magnet.

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