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A year of uncertainty and confidence

“We’ll all grasp that a 15 percent chance of something happening isn’t 0 percent, as any seasoned Dungeons & Dragons fan can tell you. It’s roughly the equivalent of rolling a 1 — or any other single number — on a six-sided die.”

2019 will be the year when both journalists and their audiences will finally understand that most numbers we see in the media aren’t precise, but often come surrounded by a fuzzy cloud of uncertainty. We’ll all accept that this is just the way the world works. We may even come up with good ways to visualize this cloud.

In 2019, readers won’t feel anxious when seeing a needle that swings based on random jittering. Also, journalists will stop reporting tiny variations of indicators that aren’t very accurate to begin with without putting them in their historical context.

In 2019, we’ll all grasp that a 15 percent chance of something happening isn’t 0 percent, as any seasoned Dungeons & Dragons fan can tell you. It’s roughly the equivalent of rolling a 1 — or any other single number — on a six-sided die. A 30 percent chance is the chance of scoring 5 or 6 when rolling for damage with a short sword, enough to kill a goblin before it strikes back.

In 2019, most people will finally be able to read the National Hurricane Center’s cone of uncertainty as a range of possible paths of the center of a storm, and not as an area under threat.

In 2019, opinion editors will chastise columnists who still think that “error” in statistics is synonymous with “mistake,” or that the fact that all forecast models are uncertain means that all models are wrong. These editors will grasp that statistical uncertainty is always connected to a confidence level, and that the fact that many independent and uncertain models point in a similar direction should increase the confidence we have in them.

In 2019, we’ll all learn to be less certain about our beliefs. We may even pay attention to cognitive psychologists who explain that the best way to become aware of our knowledge gaps is to try to explain our opinions to others without taking logical leaps or relying on arguments from authority. We’ll be humbled by our many failures at these attempts.

Needless to say, I don’t have full confidence in any of these predictions, but I do hope they’ll become true.

Alberto Cairo is the Knight Chair in Visual Journalism at the University of Miami.

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