Writing about probability in a way that people will understand

We see probabilities mentioned in the news, in weather forecasts, during sporting events, political arguments, business reports, elections, medical advice, and scientific findings. But probability is a tricky concept that not all (most?) people understand. Grace Huckins for The Open Notebook outlines useful ways to communicate the numbers more clearly — to increase the chances readers do understand.

On using concrete numbers over percentages:

Concrete numbers can also make statistics feel more personally relevant. A 0.5 percent risk of developing a particular kind of cancer may seem minuscule. But if a reader went to a high school with 1,000 students, they may find it more impactful to hear that five of their classmates, on average, will develop the disease. In a March 2021 story, American Public Media used concrete numbers rather than percentages to communicate race disparities in COVID deaths. They reported that 1 of every 390 Indigenous Americans had died of COVID.

Other tips include using visuals, relatable comparisons, and acknowledging uncertainty instead of speaking in absolutes.


How perception can save lives

Visualization and perception researcher Lace Padilla was on the kid-centric show Mission Unstoppale to talk about visualizing uncertainty:

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Climate change and uncertainty

In his new data-driven documentary, Neil Halloran digs into the uncertainty attached to estimates for climate change. Halloran’s argument is that we have to understand the limitations of forecasting the future before we can change it.

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✚ Uncertain Words and Uncertain Visualization, Better Together

People's interpretation of a chart can change if you use differents words to describe it, even if the data stays the same. Read More

Election needles are back

The NYT election needles of uncertainty are back, and they’re about to go live (if they haven’t already). I’m not watching, but in case that’s your thing, there you go.

It’s a little different this time around, because of the pandemic and mail-in voting. There’s no national needle this time. Instead, there are three needles for Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina, because they’re battleground states and the necessary data to run the estimates is available.

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Presidential Plinko

To visualize uncertainty in election forecasts, Matthew Kay from Northwestern University used a Plinko metaphor. The height of each board is based on the distribution of the forecast, and each ball drop is a potential outcome. The animation plays to eventually shows a full distribution.

See it in action.

(And Kay made his R code available on GitHub.)

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✚ The Process 108 – Expected Value

Look only at uncertainty and it can feel overwhelming. Look at just averages and it's not enough information. So, smoosh them together. Read More

Choose your own election outcome

The election is full of what-ifs, and the result changes depending on which direction they take. Josh Holder and Alexander Burns for The New York Times use a pair of circular Voronoi diagrams and draggable bubbles so that you can test the what-ifs.

Contrast this with NYT’s 2012 graphic showing all possible paths. While the 2012 graphic shows you the big picture, the 2020 interactive places more weight on individual outcomes.

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FiveThirtyEight launches 2020 election forecast

The election is coming. FiveThirtyEight just launched their forecast with a look at the numbers from several angles. Maps, histograms, beeswarms, and line charts, oh my. There is also a character named Fivey Fox, which is like Microsoft’s old Clippy providing hints and tips to interpret the results.

One thing you’ll notice, and I think newsrooms have been working towards this, there’s a lot of uncertainty built into the views. It’s clear there are multiple hypothetical outcomes and there’s minimal use of percentages, opting for fuzzier sounding odds.

Remember when election forecasting went the opposite direction? They tried to build more concrete conclusions than talking heads. Now pundits frequently talk about the numbers (maybe misinterpreted at times), and the forecasts focus on all possible outcomes instead of what’s most likely to happen.

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Understanding Covid-19 statistics

For ProPublica, Caroline Chen, with graphics by Ash Ngu, provides a guide on how to understand Covid-19 statistics. The guide offers advice on interpreting daily changes, spotting patterns over longer time frames, and finding trusted sources.

Most importantly:

Even if the data is imperfect, when you zoom out enough, you can see the following trends pretty clearly. Since the middle of June, daily cases and hospitalizations have been rising in tandem. Since the beginning of July, daily deaths have also stopped falling (remember, they lag cases) and reversed course.

I fear that our eyes have glazed over with so many numbers being thrown around, that we’ve forgotten this: Every day, hundreds of Americans are dying from COVID-19. Some days, the number of recorded deaths has reached more than 1,000. Yes, the number recorded every day is not absolutely precise — that’s impossible — but the order of magnitude can’t be lost on us. It’s hundreds a day.

Cherrypicking statistics is at an all-time high. Don’t fall for it.

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