a d v e r t i s e r

The Noise and The Signal

There is a very good book by Nate Silver titled "The Signal and the Noise" which I can highly recommend. While Nate is a professional statistician my interest in the subject has been more general for years. The noise is what we all routinely try to ignore, but maybe we ought to pay more attention to it.

I first noticed this concept in everyday life when listening to the radio while driving. I would be traveling at 70 MPH on the interstate, when I got to my exit, and came to a stop, the radio was always inexplicably louder? So I would turn it down. This is as good a demonstration of the signal to the noise in everyday life as it gets. I actually had a 2009 Honda Civic that had a programmable feature in the radio that would turn the volume down when you slowed down.

What we are interested in everyday life is the signal which we want to pay attention to while we try to ignore the noise. This is a highly elastic concept really. For example you may want to listen to the TV while the wife is talking to you. I turned the tables on my wife the other day when she accused me of not paying attention and nearly missing my exit. I told her that the reason I had nearly missed the exit was that I had been listening to what she was saying. She like that and I earned brownie points that day for being a good husband.

All too often what we ought to be paying attention to in daily life is hidden in plain sight in what we think of as noise. This is why political and religious discussions fail so miserably normally. Both parties think what the other person is saying is noise as they try to make their valid points in the argument as they ignore what the other person is saying.

Sometimes you have to know someone for a number of years before this filter we all use gets permeated and we actually begin to consider their views on any matter.

When I first met my aerodynamicist friend Phillip Knox in 1982 I did not pay much attention to what he was saying about aerodynamics in cars and trucks. To me what you see is what you get when you bought a car or a truck. Most people are not going to redesign the body shape of their vehicle. As far as it goes I was right, it just took me a while to realize that most of what I was seeing out there was wrong. This came from knowing Phil for a number of years and learning enough about the subject to understand why things are that way. Economics drives this and I am not talking about the economics of the end users of the car makers art.

Most people who first get to know me will hear about unshielded outdoor lighting and the effect of light pollution on astronomy in a short while. Most people will find this to be a strange predilection upon my part. After all John I can hear them thinking to themselves, we have to have outdoor lighting for public safety and to stop criminal who love to work in the dark. To show you how pervasive this attitude of what exist out there in the real world therefore it must be right is, I will relate this amusing anecdote of a homeowner I tried to talk to about fixing his area light once.

He was building a rammed earth home and I would drop in to look at his work and I tried to convince him to let shield his light. Finally in exasperation, I guess, he said to me, "if shielding outdoor lighting was important the authorities, the government would be doing something about it"! I was working on a outdoor lighting ordinance for Las Cruces at the time and started getting editorials published in the paper. Then I was appointed to an Ad Hoc Committee to write the lighting ordinance. I never had to say another word to my home owner, he simply turned the light of his own volition.

I am not saying our ability to filter things out isn't important. Hell, we would all go nuts if we didn't ignore a great deal of what we see and hear. I am saying however it would do most of a lot of good to pay closer attention to what is in the noise and at least set some of it aside for suspended judgement.

For example disturbing news this week to me at least about the Arctic Ocean. 1: Winds generated around Hawaii ended up passing over the pole and on into the Atlantic Ocean (first time this has been observed). 2: Waves up to 16 feet high are now being witnessed in the Arctic Ocean which will have the effect of eroding sea ice even more. 3: Giant sink holes are appearing in Siberia which are apparently being caused by Natural Gas (read Methane here) experts say.

To climate change deniers these are just amusing news stories, just noise. To those of us more concerned about the inevitability of climate change, these are chilling auguries of warming planet that should be warning us of a tsunami of disasters to come.

You will have to decide how you feel about these news stories yourself. All I am saying here is don't get caught in a signal to noise trap where you have decided which is the signal and which is the noise only to find out later to your chagrin you are wrong. The safest thing to do is to never get so attached to beliefs you may hold that you filter out any new knowledge that can or will change your world view. I know this may entail extra work, but this is why evolution developed our brains in the first place. Lets keep using them, exercise, one, two, three, one!

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