Cones of Uncertainty and the Storms of Life: Uncertainty and Commitment

Cones of Uncertainty and the Storms of Life: Uncertainty and Commitment

Today is my daughter Monica’s 13th birthday. I now have two teenagers in my household. (Again!) They’re both awesome. Yes, they are teens. Yes, that comes with higher probabilities of certain kinds of interactions and events. And yes, they’re still awesome.

Discussing birthdays, my 14-year-old observed last night that he almost witnessed the turning of the 20th to the 21st century . . . sort of. Born in 2002, he wasn’t that far removed from the event, though he would have been too young to appreciate it.

How cool it would be, he mused, to witness two turns, from the 20th to the 21st and from the 21st to the 22nd. Of course, to achieve that, one would have to live to at least 100, which didn’t seem likely to Jacob.

I commented that my son comes from hearty stock. Three of four biological grandparents have made it into the 80s; two are still living.

Then my wife, Carol, made the observation that the hard part actually was getting to 80, which puzzled my son. This, in turn, resulted in a conversation about life expectancy and probabilities, with the true if somewhat surprising notion that the odds on making 100 are greater for someone already in their 80s than for someone in their teens.

If you make it to 80, we already know a lot about your life path. You successfully navigated childhood illness, teen driving, and the stresses (emotional and physical) of mid-life. And we know that 100 just isn’t as far away for you at 80 as it was when you were 14.

The bottom line is simple. Our confidence in the likelihood of future events has much to do with how far in the future they are.

This is the way scientific prediction works. The next event, the next moment, we often can predict with high confidence and considerable precision. The further into the future we go, the more uncertain our predictions become . . . and the larger that cone of uncertainty.

So it is with storm forecasts. Where will Hurricane Matthew be five minutes from now? If you have good data about where it is right now and how it has been moving of late, you can make a pretty precise prediction with high confidence. Five hours from now? Not bad. Five days from now? Okay.

With each additional step into future time away from the present, the uncertainty increases.

Science is all about probabilities, not certainties. Nowhere is this truer than in the macro world of ecosystems, global weather patterns, and national political phenomena. Absent the ability to generate data from highly controlled experiments, absent large samples of similar conditions and events, we struggle to predict what the future will hold. Sometimes, we get it totally wrong.

A mistake in a forecast, whether it is of weather, or elections, or ecological change, can have significant consequences. But one of those consequences shouldn’t be that we reject the work of scientists completely.

Rather, it should prompt the appropriate skepticism of claims about the future that is, in fact, the hallmark of scientific reasoning.

Test the evidence, the logic, the theory. Look for other analyses that either support or oppose the argument and do the same with them. Dig in. Suspend both disbelief and belief.

Then take appropriate steps.

We can’t be certain of where Hurricane Matthew will be tomorrow, or of how strong it will be. We can get a good sense of the odds, and the risks, and take appropriate actions to protect the well-being of the people for whom we are responsible.

The same can be done with all of the “storms” facing us as a society.

Certainty about what will happen is not required.

Commitment to see our people through is.