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Measuring Perceptions of Uncertainty

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What is the difference between an event that is probable and one that is highly likely?

The two terms seem mostly interchangeable, but each individual’s interpretation is actually highly subjective. That means that when stakes are high, such as for the intelligence community or for high-ranking government officials, a slight misinterpretation in the meaning of these phrases could be a matter of life and death.

Sherman Kent and the CIA

Sherman Kent, often described as the “father of intelligence analysis”, was a CIA analyst that recognized the problem of using imprecise statements of uncertainty. Particularly, Kent was jolted by how policymakers interpreted the phrase “serious possibility” in a national estimate about the odds of a Soviet attack on Yugoslavia in 1951. After asking around, he found that some thought this meant a 20% chance of attack, while others ascribed an 80% chance to the phrase. Most people were somewhere in the middle.

Inspired by Kent’s work, a later study asked 23 NATO officers to assign actual numbers to terms like “probably”, “almost certain”, “little chance”, “unlikely”, and other words of estimated probability.

The results were fascinating:

NATO Officer study

Interpretations are all over the map. The words are not precise to begin with, but it’s also worth keeping in mind that people attribute meaning to these phrases based on their personalities, backgrounds, and prior experiences. Context also matters.

How Do We Interpret These Terms?

Although the consequences are less severe for us civilians, we are stuck in the same quandary today.

We’re almost certain a deal will go through, or there’s little chance a candidate will win the presidency. People interpret these terms differently, and these small differences still impact our lives.

Reddit user zonination set out to recreate the poll to see if perceptions of words today matched up with data from the study inspired by Sherman Kent. The results below are very similar, and can help us communicate more clearly, particularly when the stakes are high.

Perceptions of Uncertainty Words

The same idea was also taken a step further, to look at potential misunderstandings that can occur when we use phrases instead of hard numbers.

For example, one person’s a few is another person’s several:

Perceptions of Numbers

If you want to communicate with precision, it’s best to use numbers or specific odds.

Otherwise, be aware that a term like “improbable” can have a considerable range of interpretations – from 0% to 50% – depending on who you are talking to!

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Misc

The 44 Closest Stars and How They Compare to our Sun

This graphic visualizes the 44 closest stars, revealing key facts such as distance from Earth, brightness, and whether potential planets are in orbit.

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44 closest stars

44 Closest Stars and How They Compare to our Sun

Humans have been fascinated by the stars in the night sky since the dawn of time.

We’ve been decoding the mysteries of celestial bodies for many centuries, but it is only in the last 200 years or so that we’ve been able to glean more detailed information on the lights that dot the night sky. Friedrich Bessel’s method of stellar parallax was a breakthrough in accurately measuring the positions of stars, and opened new doors in the effort to map our universe. Today, high-powered telescopes offer even more granular data on our cosmic neighborhood.

The infographic above, from Alan’s Factory Outlet, categorizes the 44 closest stars to Earth, examining the size, luminosity, constellations, systems, and potential planets of each star.

Our Nearest Stellar Neighbors

Our closest neighboring stars are all part of the same solar system: Alpha Centauri. This triple star system – consisting of Proxima Centauri, Alpha Centauri A, and Alpha Centauri B – attracts a lot of interest because it hosts planets, including one that may be similar to Earth.

The planet, Proxima Centauri b, is a lot closer to its star than Earth is to the Sun. However, because Proxima Centauri is a smaller and cooler red dwarf type star, the planet’s orbit is within the habitable zone. It’s thought that Proxima Centauri b receives approximately the same amount of solar energy as Earth does from our Sun.

Here’s a full list of the 44 of the closest stars to Earth:

Star NameDistance (light years)MoE
Sun0.000016±0.0011
Proxima Centauri4.37±0.0068
α Centauri A4.37±0.0068
α Centauri B4.37±0.0068
Barnard's Star5.96±0.0032
Wolf 3597.86±0.031
Lalande 211858.31±0.014
Sirius A8.66±0.010
Sirius B8.66±0.010
Luyten 726-8 A8.79±0.012
Luyten 726-8 B8.79±0.012
Ross 1549.70±0.0019
Ross 24810.29±0.0041
Epsilon Eridani10.45±0.016
Lacaille 935210.72±0.0016
Ross 12811.01±0.0026
EZ Aquarii A11.11±0.034
61 Cygni A11.40±0.0012
61 Cygni B11.40±0.0012
Procyon A11.40±0.032
Procyon B11.40±0.032
Struve 2398 A11.49±0.0012
Struve 2398 B11.49±0.0012
Groombridge 34 A11.62±0.0008
Groombridge 34 B11.62±0.0008
DX Cancri11.68±0.0056
Tau Ceti11.75±0.022
Epsilon Indi11.87±0.011
Gliese 106111.98±0.0029
YZ Ceti12.11±0.0035
Luyten's Star12.20±0.036
Teegarden's Star12.50±0.013
SCR 1845-635713.05±0.008
Kapteyn's Star12.83±0.0013
Lacaille 876012.95±0.0029
Kruger 60 A13.07±0.0052
Kruger 60 B13.07±0.0052
Wolf 106114.05±0.0038
Wolf 424 A14.05±0.26
Van Maanen's star14.07±0.0023
Gliese 114.17±0.0037
TZ Arietis14.58±0.0070
Gliese 67414.84±0.0033
Gliese 68714.84±0.0022

Even though we see many of these stars in the night sky, humans aren’t likely to see them in person any time soon. To put these vast distances into perspective, if the Voyager spacecraft were to travel to Proxima Centauri, it would take over 73,000 years to finally arrive.

The Brightest Stars in the Sky

The closest stars aren’t necessarily the ones most visible to us here on Earth. Here are the top 10 stars in terms of visual brightness from Earth:

RankProper nameConstellationVisual magnitude (mV)Distance (light years)
1SunN/A−26.740.000016
2SiriusCanis Major−1.468.6
3CanopusCarina−0.74310.0
4Rigil Kentaurus & TolimanCentaurus−0.27 (0.01 + 1.33)4.4
5ArcturusBoötes−0.0537.0
6VegaLyra0.03 (−0.02–0.07var)25.0
7CapellaAuriga0.08 (0.03–0.16var)43.0
8RigelOrion0.13 (0.05–0.18var)860.0
9ProcyonCanis Minor0.3411.0
10AchernarEridanus0.46 (0.40–0.46var)139.0

Excluding our Sun, the brightest star visible from Earth is Sirius, or the Dog Star. Sirius, which is about 25 times more luminous than the sun, visually punctuates the constellation Canis Major.

Filling in the Gaps

The next step in learning more about our surroundings in the cosmos will be seeing which of the stars listed above have planets orbiting them. So far, the 44 stars in the infographic have over 40 planets scattered among them, though new discoveries are made all the time.

With each new mission and discovery, we learn a little bit more about our pocket of the universe.

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Politics

Visualizing the True Size of Land Masses from Largest to Smallest

Maps can distort the size and shape of countries. This visualization puts the true size of land masses together from biggest to smallest.

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The True Size of Land Masses from Largest to Smallest

Is Greenland the size of the entire African continent?

No…

But looking at a map based on the Mercator projection, you would think so.

Today’s infographic comes from the design studio Art.Lebedev and shows the true size of the world’s land masses in order from largest to smallest using data from NASA and Google.

Check out the actual shape and size of each land mass without any distortions.

Distorting Reality: Mercator Misconceptions

Maps can deceive your eyes but they are still powerful tools for specific purposes. In 1569, the legendary cartographer, Gerardus Mercator, created a new map based on a cylindrical projection of sections of the Earth. These types of maps were suited for nautical navigation since every line on the sphere is a constant course, or loxodrome.

Despite the map’s nautical utility, the Mercator projection has an unwanted downside. The map type increases the sizes of land masses close to the poles (such as in North America, Europe, or North Asia) as a side effect. As a result, Canada and Russia appear to take up approximately 25% of the Earth’s surface, when in reality these nations only occupy 5%.

“Things are not always what they seem; the first appearance deceives many.” – Phaedrus

This collection of images above represents the world’s land masses in their correct proportions. Measurements are based on Google Maps 2016 and NASA Earth Observatory maps, with calculations based on the WGS84 reference ellipsoid, or more simply, a specific model of the Earth’s shape in two dimensions.

We take for granted Google Maps and satellite imaging. Making these accurate representations is no small task – the designers went through six steps and many different iterations of the graphic.

Countries are arranged by descending size and shown without external or dependent territories. For example, the total area for the contiguous United States shown does not include Hawaii, Alaska, or overseas territories.

Top 10 Largest Land Masses

Although Mercator maps distort the size of land masses in the Northern Hemisphere, many of these countries still cover massive territories.

JurisdictionArea (km²)
Russia16,440,626
Antarctica12,269,609
China9,258,246
Canada8,908,366
Brazil8,399,858
United States (contiguous)7,654,643
Australia7,602,329
India3,103,770
Argentina2,712,060
Kazakhstan2,653,464

The top 10 land masses by size account for 55% of the Earth’s total land. The remainder is split by the world’s 195 or so other countries.

Top 10 Smallest Land Masses

Here are the 10 tiniest jurisdictions highlighted on the map:

JurisdictionArea (km²)
Sealand0.001
Kingman Reef0.002
Vatican City0.5
Kure Atoll0.9
Tromelin Island1
Johnston Atoll1
Baker Island1
Howland Island2
Monaco2
Palmyra Atoll3

While the Earth’s land surface has been claimed by many authorities, the actual impact of human activity is less than one would think.

Human Impact: Humbled by Nature

Political borders have claimed virtually every piece of land available. Despite this, only 20% of land on the planet has been visibly impacted by human activity, and only 15% of Earth’s land surface is formally under protection.

The remaining 80% of the land hosts natural ecosystems that help to purify air and water, recycle nutrients, enhance soil fertility, pollinate plants, and break down waste products. The value of maintaining these services to the human economy is worth trillions of U.S. dollars each year.

While some nations are not as big as they look on the map, every piece of land counts.

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