During hurricane season, we hear the term “cone of uncertainty” frequently, accompanied by graphics to show the projected path of a tropical storm or hurricane. The projection indicates the exact location of the storm accompanied by estimated tracking five days hence. The experts get it right roughly two-thirds of the time.
Cone of uncertainty.
We all live within in a cone of uncertainty. More than a cone, it is rather a sphere, bubble, or atmosphere. But the aura of uncertainty is pervasive and palpable.
As for certainty, we know we are born and we die, but the details elude us — especially at the mortality end of the spectrum. We hold gigantic ice cream cones of uncertainty, either with dollops of sprinkles and syrupy flavorings or rapidly melting soupy disaster.
We inhabit a cone of uncertainty within each moment of each day.
These cones illustrate both practical and transcendent uncertainties.
On the practical side, the cone of uncertainty is applied daily to matters big and small. Will I be late for work? Did I turn off the stove? Have I locked the door? Will I get the report done, pass the test, make the plane, see the soccer game, or make it home in time to start dinner before everyone else gets home?
From the transcendent angle, we might ask: Is there a God? Is there life after death? What is good? Evil? Can I stay clean and sober today, stay off the cigarettes, not lose my temper, zip my mouth shut, safeguard that secret, keep that promise, stay on that diet, or be kind to strangers and loved ones?
If we were to calculate — or have someone or something else calculate — the uncertainties of these daily challenges, would we feel better or worse?
I vote for not knowing the precise uncertainties, or certainties, for that matter. Too torturous.
Besides, the models are not perfect.
Cone of uncertainty originated in cost engineering and project management on the premise that uncertainty decreases as a project moves along and more is known. Credit for the concept is given to the American Association of Cost Engineers in 1958. The weather-related term means virtually the opposite, starting with certainty and becoming more uncertain. Incidentally, officially it’s the National Hurricane Center Track Forecast Cone. Dull. Popular variations include Error Cone, Cone of Probability, and the Cone of Death. Now we’re talking!
I understand that the science of it all yielded the cone image, but what if instead the science took on a different visual vocabulary? Anyone for cornucopia, hand fan, or vagina?
What about the grander scheme of things? Would you want to pore over projections of how much life you have left, with all its probabilities? Someone has already done this for you and me; that’s why the insurance industry, Social Security, lenders, and medical providers have actuarial tables. (Isn’t actuarial a curious name for something not yet actual?) Experts are already estimating your life (or mortality) expectancy.
Are they within or outside of the cone of uncertainty?
There are other ways of looking at this. For tropical storms and hurricanes, a European intergovernmental approach considers 52 distinct forecasts. Lines that resemble strings or strands illustrate this method.
I am tempted to call these threads of uncertainty, with no strings attached. But I’m not sure.