The Fine Art of Oracular Precision: A Handout

I’m reading Superforecasting: The Art & Science of Prediction (Philip E. Tetlock). Yes, I feel like an oracle-in-training every time I say it. 

This book has a lot to offer, and a casual reading would unjustly reduce it to the usual one-dimensional bestseller-fluff. At exactly 27% of the way through (according to my library’s app), there’s a 93% chance I won’t finish it in the next 1 day 22 hours before it reverts to its cyber-shelf, en route to the next reader who has it on hold. I’ve already re-requested it. 

I haven’t reached the stuff that turns me into the Oracle (Matrix or Delphi). But I’ve reached an excellent, if brief, discussion on the use of precise language and the translation between quantitative and qualitative communication. My inner Teaching Assistant wants to print it off and hand it out to any undergraduate student I see. 

You lucky reader, you. 

To summarize: Sherman Kent had a PhD in history, and a history at Yale University. In 1941 he left academia for the agency that would eventually become the CIA. He retired from the CIA in 1967, after shaping the field of intelligence analysis through some of the U.S.’s most textbook-worthy Cold War history. 

As someone whose job involved estimating likelihood of the sort of events that could lead to nuclear holocaust, he recognized that he and his colleagues could write a report, agree on the language, and put it in the hands of decision-making officials without ever pinning down exactly how certain they were of their best guesses of likelihood. To address this, he agitated for the use of quantitative definitions of certainty, and produced a table detailing the numerical definition of commonly used qualitative phrases. 

Certainty According to Sherman Kent:

93% (give or take about 6%)Almost certain
75% (give or take about 12%)Probable
50% (give or take about 10%)Chances about even
30% (give or take about 10%)Probably not
7% (give or take about 5%)Almost certainly not
0% Impossible

(Source note: The title is mine, the table is reproduced as found in Chapter 3 of Philip E. Tetlock’s Superforecasting. Tetlock cites Sherman Kent and the Profession of Intelligence Analysts, Center for the Study of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, November 2002, p. 55.)

I’ve been collecting notes on the idea of “truth” as applied to writers. Sooner or later it will come spilling out in a post, but for now Mr. Kent’s table will have to stand on its own. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have 83% of a book to finish in the next 1 day 21 hours 32 minutes.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts! Be sure to share the exact percentage of certainty you have regarding how helpful the above is.


Published by Marushka

I dream curiosity and write words that change brains.

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