Rightly Uncertain


When you’re uncertain, you’re not necessarily wrong.

Nate Silver recently wrote about how sometimes when experts try to nail down data with too much specificity, they can often overlook the general consensus. If they pursued a more general picture of their subject and accounted for the uncertainty, they can get a better image of what they’re looking for.

He used the example of earthquakes and flooding. Scientists try to predict earthquakes to the day. They are always wrong and when they are, people let their guard down, which is dangerous. The same goes for flood preparation. Providing a projection too specific causes the public to make plans around the projection. If it’s off and they’re not prepared, it could mean disaster.

In journalism, approximate ambiguity is more accurate than an incorrect specific. For instance, a cop tells a reporter that witnesses saw a green Ford Taurus leaving a murder scene during the night. They weren’t sure because it was dark. But the reporter prints the cop’s words. Turns out the car was actually dark blue and it was actually a Chevrolet Malibu.

The reporter got it wrong. Not intentionally though.

In lieu of the specifics, he/she could have reported that witnesses spotted a dark-colored sedan leaving the scene.

See? More accurate.

One thing I learned while a journalist was that police sketches are made with generalities. Artists try not to include too many details from victims and witnesses because, like our green Taurus, they can get it wrong. If a witness describes a waxed mustache, the artist might only draw a regular mustache.

Why do they do it? Because issuing a more general, “cleaner” image opens up the minds of the public viewing the mug. If there’s too many incorrect details on the face, (like if that waxed mustache was actually a Fu ManChu) a person who knows the perp would walk away from the drawing thinking the friend who resembled the suspect doesn’t exactly match.

The witness might spend more time considering whether their troubled friend is the suspect if the drawing contained a regular mustache.

The theory can be applied to other fields.

It’s dangerous when we try to be too specific when it comes to estimations. Miss the mark and everyone feels a false sense of security.

If we admit to our uncertainty,  we can be confident in our decisions to act. Cutting a wider path expands our vision.

A bigger view improves our odds at finding the answer.

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