Cone of Uncertainty

I first heard the term “cone of uncertainty” on the Weather Channel in reference to a hurricane path. The weather folks used the term and a cone-like graphic to tell us that the real path of a hurricane will vary. Computer modeling determines the most likely path, but also the potential deviation from that path – the cone of uncertainty. Engineers, software developers, economists, and project manager also apply a cone of uncertainty in their work.



a1I am in love with the words, cone – of – uncertainty.  The term has a scientific vibe, a humorous tone and, more than once, set off a craving for ice-cream. The words invoked memories of the old SNL skit, the “Coneheads”.  Are the computers and storm chasers wearing cone hats? Then, I think of dogs wearing cone hats to keep them from chewing a wound.  Then, the ice-cream cone craving. So much mental and appetite stimulation from one scientific term: cone of uncertainty.

In a more serious moment, I applied the cone of uncertainty to our life journey. We set out on a certain path – even in retirement – but may veer off course, off-center. We may cause the deviation intentionally or not. Circumstances outside our control may lead to a rerouting. People who are afraid of change may not cope well living in a cone of uncertainty, yet a wobbly path is inevitable. Internal and external forces will always work on our trajectory.


Examples from my life:

  •  I planned to volunteer near Yellowstone for this past summer. I set up my camper in a spot near Gardiner and began my work. Health issues with elderly parents led to my leaving the job after a month. Instead, I spent the summer in Ohio taking care of them.
  •  I had planned to work until 65 years of age, but the opportunity arose for me to retire at 62 years. I embraced the unexpected path and never looked back.

Other examples:

  • A health issue sets you back.
  • A relationship falls apart
  • The stock market dives, affecting your income.
  • Traffic makes you late for an appointment.

I doubt that cone of uncertainty is used in behavioral science. My thoughts would be discussed using different language and in the context of fear of change.I can make a case for using the cone of uncertainty as tagging along on our life journey. We live in a cone of uncertainty every day. More crudely put – shit happens – and we can develop resilience. If the potential path change is unwanted, then we can reduce damage by making good decisions. Eventually, we can stop living in fear (unless we live in the cone of uncertainty for a real hurricane, of course), make conscious choices, and learn to be flexible.



Clarification: I do not think hurricanes like those that devastated Houston, Puerto Rico, and parts of Florida are funny. Just the term: cone of uncertainty. 


Next time: Politics and the Cone of Uncertainty