Useful Probability Wording from the UK Ministry of Defence

August 8, 2023

Vea4_thumb_thumb_thumb_thumb_thumb_tNote: This essay is the work of a real and still-alive dinobaby. No smart software involved, just a dumb humanoid.

“Have You Ever Wondered Why Defence Intelligence Uses Terms Like “Unlikely” or “Realistic Possibility” When We Assess Russia’s War in Ukraine?” provides two useful items of information. Many people will be familiar with the idea of a “probability yardstick.” Others — like some podcast pundits and YouTube yodas — may not have a firm grasp on the words and their meaning.

I have reproduced the Ministry of Defence’s Probability Yardstick, which appeared in February 2023 in the unclassified posting:


Some investment analysts and business consultants have adopted this or a similar “yardstick.” Many organizations have this type of visual representation of event likelihoods.

The article does not provide real-life examples of the use of the yardstick. That’s is a good decision. For those engaged in analysis and data crunching, the idea of converting “numbers” into a point on a yardstick facilitates the communication of risk.

Here’s one recent example. A question like the impact of streaming on US cable companies is presented in the article “As Cable TV is Losing Millions of Subscribers, YouTube TV Is Now The 5th Largest TV Provider & Could Soon Be The 4th Largest” does not communicate the type of information a senior executive wants; that is, how likely is it the trend will continue. Pegging the loss of subscribers on the yardstick in either the “likely or probable” or “highly likely” communicates quickly and without word salad. The “explanation” can, of course, be provided.

In fast-moving situations, the terminology of the probability yardstick and its presentation of what is a type of confidence score is often useful. By the way, in the cited Cable TV article, the future is sunny for Google and TikTok, but not so good for the traditional companies.

Stephen E Arnold, August 8, 2023


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