WEATHERING THE STORM


“As soon as they started covering over those graves with dirt, the hurricane moved north.  Now, was that a coincidence, or was it due to the desecration of those graves?”

The exact wording was probably a little different, but the meaning was not. This TV show was not on some sci-fi network but rather The Weather Channel (TWC), which formerly discussed the weather throughout the US, not century-old hurricane folklore.  TWC has shows about prospectors mining gems, staying on mountains during thunderstorms, exceedingly unwise.  Storm Chasers shows people outside in the middle of thunderstorms, filming or looking, extremely dangerous; lightning is one of the biggest weather killers in the US.  The towing company series in the Canadian Rockies didn’t belong on TWC but with “Ice Road Truckers,” a good show, when most of the dialogue wasn’t edited out because of profanity.

Weather Co. CEO David Kenny:  “The bottom line is, reality television on TWC needs to be based in science and storytelling.”  How about basing it on current weather and teaching people at the same time?

Science, I like; storytelling to make the supernatural appear “it really could have happened,” I don’t. Storytelling about “It could happen tomorrow,” makes some think that their lives will be snuffed out any second.  We need to inject a little reality, probability, and science into the discussion. We do not have to be afraid of everything every second.  Nature is not out to get us, regardless of what some may think.  There is no right or wrong in nature, only consequences.

Tonight, the discussion was about California prospectors in the 19th century; the only mention of weather being that “storms could form in a moment,” which isn’t true.  Storms give warning.  No mention was made of the historic drought in California, the warmest October on record in parts of Oregon, or snow in Charleston.  The US has more interesting weather than any other place in the world.  Why aren’t they discussing it?

TWC used to be thorough, reporting and discussing national weather.  While there was often unexplained jargon, it was interesting. I could have done without the notion “rain is bad, sun is good,” because I lived in a place with a 20 year drought (not mentioned), where eventually people notice it hasn’t rained for 4 months, plants are dying, reservoirs are drying up, and fires are burning.

Years ago, a local Arizona weatherman gave 5-day forecasts.  He eschewed longer ones, appropriately, because the probability of a 7-day forecast’s being correct was about 50%.  One day, he suddenly started using 7-day forecasts. I wrote him and asked him why he had changed.

“I was at a meeting of TV weathermen,” he replied, “and I learned the public wanted 7-day forecasts.”

So?  The public wants forecasts that have a 50-50 probability of being accurate, and we should give them?  No wonder people complain about forecasts!  Why do we give exact temperatures in forecasts, rather than a range of 5 degrees?  Why are apps telling us what the weather will be at every hour for the next day?  If busy people need to know the weather, have them look at the sky on the way to work and learn something about probability and margin of error.  Both of these need to be taught in the schools, by the way.

“The public wants answers, and they want the bottom line.”  Sometimes, there is no simple answer, and we can’t summarize a complex problem in 30 seconds.  Weather forecasting is one of the great triumphs of technology, but it still is inaccurate.  Cold fronts can stall, the rain-snow line may change a few miles, and models can suddenly change on a new run.

We would do well to remember that the world is subject to natural laws that we understand only partially.  We can predict a few things with certainty and others with some degree of probability less than 100%.  If people don’t like that, then perhaps they should vote for those who will fund science better.  I don’t believe a lot of economic forecasts, because they don’t have probability or confidence intervals.  I’d like to hear that “there is a 35% chance the stock market will reach a new record high in the next 6 months, based upon modeling of investor behavior.”  We don’t have that ability.  Instead, pundits are bullish and bearish about behavior that depend highly upon unpredictable world events.  Slight market changes are explained by behavior other than random noise, which is often the reason.  I would remind people that on 1 January, nobody dreamed two Malaysian airliners would be lost, one not found, and one shot out of the sky.  Nobody predicted there would be Ebola in the US, the Ukraine, the rise of ISIS, or sea stars dying off the US West Coast.  Nobody predicted in 2008 that the unemployment would be almost halved and the Dow would reach a new high by 2014.  At least the Republicans didn’t.  That is a fact.

While 5 day forecasts have unpredictability, we can be much more confident about climatic conditions on Earth.  Indeed, we have a confidence interval greater than 95% that man is changing the Earth’s climate.  That is statistically and realistically important.

Yet, TWC stopped discussing climate change several years ago.  Heidi Cullen, climate scientist at not-profit Climate Central (note the adjective), was on TWC for 2 years, before it was cancelled by NBC, after it bought the channel.  She got a lot of hate mail, and that hurts ratings.

Dr. Cullen didn’t state her message properly, however.  On The Colbert Report, she used examples floods in Pakistan and the coming displacement of Bangladeshis due to ocean rise.  The reality is that most Americans don’t care about those countries.  A high percentage of high school students can’t find Bangladesh on a map and I would bet 95% couldn’t name its capital, and even more don’t know what it was once called.  Why didn’t she talk about the drought in Texas, that was with high confidence due to climate change, or the changing migration pattern of birds in the US?

“It’s business.”  Yep.  It is.  Give the public what they want, and you will get rich.  Give them what they need, and you have a more enlightened society.  How rich do you have to be?  That has an upper bound.  How enlightened should a society be?  There is no upper bound.

I quit watching TWC.  I’ll look at the models myself and make my own forecasts, rather than worrying about what will happen if an asteroid crashes into the Earth.  Sure, the latter may happen, but I’m more concerned about tomorrow’s weather, if I should decide to go hiking and actually see the real, and not virtual world.

I’d rather be enlightened than super rich.

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