Not Sure How to Say Uncertainty?

May 21, 2010 · 0 comments

A posting today on the Weather and Climate Discussion blog of the Department of Meteorology at the University of Reading tackles the burgeoning subject of communicating forecast uncertainty.  It ends with a well-chosen quote from Francis Bacon:

If a man will begin with certainties he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts he shall end in certainties.

This resourceful use of literary heritage sends us hunting for other like-minded quotations.  A quick check of a quotations reference yields plenty of quips and admonishments. Most are too metaphysical for meteorological musing. For instance, from Kahlil Gibran:

Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.

Hmmmm. Maybe that’s not the best thought for portraying ensemble modeling results. Fortunately, there are more suitable candidates, as in this one from the English poet, Robert Browning

Who knows most, doubts most;…

(Unfortunately, Browning’s corollary is not so reassuring)

…entertaining hope means recognizing fear.

On this side of the Pond, communicating uncertainty becomes even more heavy-handed. From 20th Century American legal eagle, Clarence Darrow comes this motivation:

Just think of the tragedy of teaching children not to doubt.

Clearly, the thesaurus is a dangerous place to hang out: “doubt” is the downer scientists avoid with “uncertainty.”  Better to parse out Donald Rumsfeld’s oft unappreciated and surprisingly articulate case for ensemble modeling:

There are known knowns; these are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.