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Sunday, January 8, 2017

Hands off the weather forecasters

On Friday the weather forecast for Raleigh had a high probability of snow. It didn't. Now the ire of some citizens — particularly those who bought sleds for their children — is directed against weather forecasters. Since few people personally know anyone who works for the National Weather Service, they select weather broadcasters on television as targets.

Greg Fishel, by anyone's account the preeminent TV weather broadcaster in the Triangle, posted this to his Facebook page:

The public varies in their individual tolerances of ambiguity. I wish people were more tolerant of it. Ask any physicist and you'll be told that ambiguity is the essential fact of nature. But my experience around the world tells me that Americans are uniquely intolerant of ambiguity, compared to citizens of other countries. Odds are that a citizen of France would simply have shrugged off yesterday's no-snow with a c'est la vie. We see intolerance of ambiguity in Americans' reactions to religion, too.

As a society America could benefit from better education about probability in our schools. Suppose you flip a coin ten times and you get ten heads. What's the probability of a tail on the next flip? 50%, assuming the coin is fair, but lots of people would not answer the question correctly. In a similar manner we have many citizens playing government-sponsored lotteries and attending casinos with the sincere expectation of walking out with more money than they brought in. I can enjoy a casino for the experience and the perks, but I know going in that there is an overwhelming probability of leaving some of my money behind. Neither do many of us understand what it means when the weather forecast says there's a 90% probability of snow.

Another point: the American media have created a TMZ-like approach to personalities where we build them up to unreasonable levels and then enjoy skewering them when they turn out to be fallible, error-prone people just like us. This is bizarre.

I agree with Greg Fishel's post… except in one respect. His employer, WRAL-TV, incessantly promotes its weather forecasters and thereby sets them up for failure. The station owner and general manager should re-think their approach. Forecasting the weather is inherently risky; it's not like reading the news that has already happened. Most sportswriters are reluctant to predict the outcomes of games, and indeed most sportswriters don't care (truth be told) who wins and who loses anyway. They prefer to describe the game in the present or the past tense, as journalists do. Weather broadcasters are in a precarious position, and overly promoting them is unfair.