In Defense of Meteorologists
Calling all victims of 'collateral misinformation'
By Steve Tracton
Q: D.C. weather tomorrow? A: Chicago weather today
This, essentially, is the concluding take-home message of an article on the supposed sorry state of weather forecasting that was posted recently on the New York Times Freakonomics blog. The basis of this conclusion, as well as several other misleading (and a few flat-out wrong) statements, is the review by a father and his fifth-grade daughter of temperature and precipitation forecasts by Kansas City broadcast meteorologists, as well as those issued by the National Weather Service.
While its conclusions are flawed in several respects, the study appears to be rather robust and to have been conducted with well-intentioned rigor and methodology. And there's no arguing here on one of the investigation's main points -- generally speaking, a forecast for several days from now is less accurate than one for today or tomorrow. This, of course, is one of several factors that go into CWG's confidence meters.
Yet, the study's findings are generalized in a way that unfairly undermines the credibility of weather forecasters the world over.
Just as unsettling are the hundreds of posted replies -- the overwhelming majority of which basically concur with the author's take on the overall usefulness of weather forecasts -- and the wide dissemination of this article across the Internet. At last count there were almost 300 returns when Googling the title of the article.
My initial reaction to the Freakonomics post was simply to refer to my post from last week on the butterfly effect (i.e., when the forecast busts, blame it on the flapping wings of a butterfly). More seriously, though, I suspect that many people who have read or heard about the post are now victims of "collateral misinformation."
Coincidentally, I chanced upon this terminology in last Sunday's print edition of the Washington Post. The article was about "truth," with the headline asking, "Can you handle it? ... Better Yet: Do You Know It When You See It?" The story notes that "collateral misinformation" is defined in UrbanDictionary.com as, "When someone alters a Wikipedia article to win a specific argument, anyone who reads the false article before the 'error' is corrected suffers from collateral misinformation."
The same can be said of those who have come across the Freakonomics weather study. (Maybe I can get credit for coining the use of "collateral misinformation" in the context of meteorology. Any editors of the American Meteorological Society Glossary of Meteorology out there?)
Among the misleading statements -- the first two of which are supposedly quotes from TV weathercasters or their station managers -- contained within the post are:
"We have no idea what's going to happen [in the weather] beyond three days out."
"All that viewers care about is the next day. Accuracy is not a big deal to viewers."
"No forecaster is ever better than just assuming it won't rain."
"For all days beyond the next day out, viewers would be better off flipping a coin to predict rainfall."
"Weathercasters say they care about accuracy but their actions say they do not."
I'll have specific reactions and responses to these and other examples of misinformation (I really want to say "garbage," but perhaps I shouldn't -- oops, I just said it) in a post next week. An honest and objective recognition of the capabilities and limitations of weather forecasting, now and in the future, is important for enabling users of forecasts to make decisions as basic as deciding whether or not to take an umbrella, when to plan a picnic, or how much milk and toilet paper to stock up on before a potential snowstorm.
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