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We need to stop treating weather scientists like oracles

We need to stop treating weather scientists like oracles

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It's mid-afternoon on Tuesday, and much of New York City is probably still smarting after the so-called snowstorm of the century turned out to be just a snowy day. Wherever you stand on the I'm-Barely-Snowed-In-And-Kinda-Annoyed scale, that our preparedness blitz — the alerts, the stockpiling, the breathless headlines — came to face a disappointing reality exposes a huge problem with how we think about weather. As a people, we’re really bad at handling the inherent doubt in weather science.

Weather science is hard

Let's take a deep breath and say a simple truth together: Weather science is hard. When it comes to the weather, meteorologists work with a multitude of models — ones that often conflict — to determine with varying degrees of accuracy how dynamic weather patterns will behave days in advance. In short, meteorology is about predicting a region's future, which should give you an immediate sense of how difficult the task is. That being said, science is judged by progress, and meteorology is getting better all the time. As Nate Silver wrote for The New York Times in 2012:

But watching the local news is not the best way to assess the growing accuracy of forecasting (more on this later). It’s better to take the long view. In 1972, the service’s high-temperature forecast missed by an average of six degrees when made three days in advance. Now it’s down to three degrees. More stunning, in 1940, the chance of an American being killed by lightning was about 1 in 400,000. Today it’s 1 in 11 million. This is partly because of changes in living patterns (more of our work is done indoors), but it’s also because better weather forecasts have helped us prepare.

The trouble comes with conveying doubt. Culturally, we hate doubt, especially when it concerns something as fundamental as what the weather is like outside. Weather apps lend a sense of certainty to what's uncertain on the other side of our windows. But applying language that implies certainty to uncertain science can produce disastrous results. That's when weather stops being just science and starts becoming a political and media issue.

Nope! Weather Science Politics Media

For many, meteorologists are authority figures; we imbue a certain level of trust in their predictions. Unfortunately, meteorologists are often lousy at conveying doubt; even when they do, we often don't appreciate it. That's why we can call them "Weather Gods" with straight faces when they get things right. It's also why we blame them when their predictions don't work out. Calling an approaching storm "historic" can seem like fear-mongering when the storm isn't as strong as promised.

But the abundance of caution meteorologists use around weather is meant to avoid human deaths. Lawmakers are forced to make decisions in the public's interest based on these predictions. For instance, when a blizzard hit New York City in 2010, dropping 18 to 24 inches of snow, Mayor Bloomberg whiffed in his response (perhaps in part because he was on vacation in Bermuda when he should have been planning for the storm). As a result, plows were unable to clear many streets, ambulances couldn't respond to 911 calls, and many travelers were stranded. DeBlasio, the city's public advocate at the time, chided Bloomberg for failing to declare a snow emergency.

Decisions to ban all travel have a material effect on the electorate, and do double duty in showing concern for human life and helping protect said politician's viability. It's no mistake now DeBlasio is mayor, he chose to approach this week's storm with caution, claims that he was building a nanny state in the process be damned. In the aftermath, though, we have this:

And let's not forget the role of the press: doubt doesn't attract audiences. So instead, the bulk of coverage around the storm focused on the worst-case scenario. We saw a glut of stories about what to do during the storm, blizzard explainers, so on and so forth, all to the point that BuzzFeed had to chide the internet for the freakout. BuzzFeed!

So it's no wonder New Yorkers are pissed off, either because we're losing money, or because we're disappointed New York City doesn't look like that scene from The Day After Tomorrow. Meanwhile, Boston is getting buried essentially as predicted.

This is a systemic, cultural issue

But this isn't just one storm, really. What we're seeing here is a systemic, cultural issue: how much we hate doubt. Weather science doesn't trade in certainties, no matter how much we want it to. Workable facts are necessary to enact policy and keep people informed. An array of possible outcomes means, essentially, that the media and politicians will focus on one outcome — which can set us up for disappointment.

There might be a fix, though. We should work on how we talk about predictions and the models we use to understand weather. If that happens, we might still get an unnecessary snow day here and there, but we can stop being mad about it. Because until weather science gets better, we're still — sometimes — going to get it wrong.

Update 3:40pm ET: The above article previously stated that Mayor Bloomberg was on vacation in Bermuda during the Blizzard of 2010. He was on vacation the day before, and was in New York the following day during the storm.