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Calling long range forecasting on its BS

Chris Coen3 comments264 views
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He had me at “silly on weather.” A retired, Buffalo-based, 30-year broadcaster and longtime meteorologist,  Don Paul still contributes occasionally to the local paper with smart articles like this one.

Reading them is so much more interesting than looking at some guy (or gal) standing in front of an animated map. There simply isn’t time to say anything in the couple minutes they allot for weather during the average half hour of local news—which isn’t really a half hour and you don’t get much news in it either. That’s why Walter Cronkite always wanted to end every broadcast with “for more details, see your local newspaper.”

I liked Paul’s recent column on the silliness of long range forecasting because I think we’ve all been seduced by the idea that we can look into this particular crystal ball. That must be why people buy and believe the predictions is such publications as the Farmers’ Almanac and the Old Farmer’s Almanac, on which Paul has this to say:

Both issue essentially worthless detailed forecasts for a year out based on either nothing at all or junk science. Some people take them seriously, but most don’t because they know better. Or, if they don’t, they SHOULD know better. There actually have been a number of statistical studies done on their forecasts proving their worthlessness, which was no surprise to meteorologists. Studying silly forecasts is probably grant money that could have been better spent elsewhere.

And then there are the month-long forecasts you can find elsewhere (he does not name them):

The concern is these few forecasting firms, a couple of which are very large and filled with well-educated meteorologists, have managers who KNOW better than to issue 45-day or 30-day daily forecasts. But these executives also know a lot of customers are willing to believe such forecasts are viable, coming as they do from well-known and seemingly respectable firms.

Personally, I try not to take anything too seriously beyond 2 days out, which is actually more conservative than Paul gets. Recently, we had a two-day art festival here and all the local forecasts insisted—through the early morning hours—that the first day would be at least 80% likelihood of rain. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky all that gorgeous day, but many stayed home and I’m some vendors lost money. Them’s the breaks.

Gardeners, and many others, spend much of their days with their eyes on the sky, which seems to be as good a way as any to assess the weather. But I’m glad to have some interesting and enlightening weather reporting in the place I’d expect to find it: print journalism.

Posted by

Elizabeth Licata
on June 29, 2016 at 7:26 am, in the category Ministry of Controversy, Unusually Clever People.

3 Comments

  1. Our son got married last Labor Day, and the people at the outdoor wedding venue assured them that 99.99% of the time, it never rains on that weekend–no one had a memory of it having ever rained then, in fact. But in our world, we live or die by the weather, so when the last chance came along to pay for the “rain contingency” (a huge deposit to ensure tents would be put up in the event it did rain), we advised him to do it. Guess what? It poured! I have a lot of respect for what meteorologists do, predicting the weather, but I agree that specifics are hard to nail down more than 2-3 days out.

  2. I agree with you on long range forecasting, but I think they’ve gotten a whole lot better at predicting things like hurricanes pretty far out and other new oddities like the effect of the polar vortex. Also, in 1940, the chance of an American being killed by lightning was about 1 in 400,000. Today it’s 1 in 11 million. More people work indoors, but computers have helped predict changes over a short, and sometimes longer, time period.

  3. A few points:
    1. My dad knows a meteorologist, and he says that it’s nearly impossible to accurately predict weather more than 2-3 days ahead. My dad asked him why, if that is true, his station provides 7-day forecasts. The meteorologist said “because if we only did a three day forecast, no one would watch our broadcast!” Unfortunately, at the end of the day, they have to give people what they want.

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