Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Weather, farmers, and rodents

The groundhog is a rodent in the family Sciuridae. But to some, at least one species is probably the best known short-term climatologist in the world. It is a fun tradition in the United States, and one that I have fun with as well.

However, on a more serious note, I wanted to take the time to share some thoughts on recent coverage of a well-known almanac series predicting a storm during the Super Bowl on February 2nd, 2014 and other aspects of the forthcoming winter. This caught my attention because the 2014 American Meteorological Society (AMS) Annual Meeting "kicks off" (pun intended) on Super Bowl Sunday. I find it ironic that the largest U.S. gathering of weather and climate expertise also falls on Groundhog day.  What do you think will get more coverage that day? Well, duh, obviously the Super Bowl. Heck, I will even try to sneak a few peaks at the game in between my duties presiding over the meeting :). In all seriousness, remove the Superbowl, then consider my question. Would the AMS meeting of the best minds in weather and climate sharing the latest insights and findings on weather lead the news cycle or would the Groundhog?

I think we all know the answer. I tweeted today (@DrShepherd2013), "What do you think the public is most familiar with? (a) Various Farmers' Almanacs (b) Groundhog Day (c) NOAA's Climate Prediction Center." I would guess that most of the public would not select (c).  I recently had a conversation with broadcast meteorologist friend and colleague.  FRIEND: "But Marshall, we always cover almanac predictions/Groundhog day, the public and news directors love it", ME: "I always had cassette tapes as a kid too, but times change." In my ("my" meaning my not any organization that I affiliated with) humble opinion, to reinforce oversimplistic, folklore material in the public digs a deeper science literacy "hole" in the U.S. My cousin or mom (i.e. The Public) get the bulk of their science education from the media sources. Increasingly, younger generations also learn from social media. To be clear, I get it. I do have a sense of humor and am a fun-loving guy. Many of these traditions are based on history, culture and fun.  I have fun with them as well. The problem is that I find many instances of people basing real arguments/decisions on this type of stuff at the expense of real science. Guess what the headline was in almost every major news outlet on 26 August 2013. "Almanac predicts major storm on 2014 Super Bowl Sunday." NOAA Climate Prediction Center or El Nino-based seasonal forecasts are mainstays in the scientific community and use scientifically vetted methods. Yet, popular culture gravitates to rodents and alamanacs based on methodologies tangentially related to science (sunspots, tidal actions, and other factors) but not of scientific rigor and evaluation.  

My intent herein is not to evaluate the quality of any almanac prediction. I would point you to analyses by Capital Weather Gang (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/capital-weather-gang/wp/2013/08/26/the-farmers-almanac-outrageous-forecast-a-stormy-super-bowl-and-frigid-snowy-winter/), Weather Underground (http://www.wunderground.com/blog/JeffMasters/winter-forecast-part-iii-the-old-farmers-almanac), and James Conroy (http://news.psu.edu/story/141165/2007/09/24/research/probing-question-farmers-almanac-accurate).  You can draw your own conclusions.  

My concern is that "perception often becomes reality" based on my experiences with interacting with public and decision-makers. People often base science (especially weather/climate) viewpoints on confirmation bias (science that supports their belief system or experiences) or overly simple narratives.   

A few of examples of come to mind. First, there are people that actually think the government is controlling our brain with man-made clouds coming from airplanes. If you don't believe me, ask any TV meteorologist or National Weather Service colleague about the calls they get weekly about this. Second, people often say that "weather forecasts are bad" based on singular events. In fact, 1 to 5 day forecasts are quite good. However, people make that statement on an isolated event (wedding, picnic) that was affected by rain or a lack of understanding of what "percent chance of  rainfall" means. I can't tell you how often I hear, "Hey, it is raining where I am, I thought there was only a 20% chance of rain, see those meteorologists don't know what they are talking about"--by the way, this is a good link to clarify what % chance means, http://www.srh.noaa.gov/ffc/?n=pop). People tend to overlook the more numerous (nearly daily) correct forecasts, and they tend to amplify the bad forecast. As we approach college football season (Go Noles and Go Dawgs), let me use one last analogy to make this point. FSU's field goal kicker could make every single field goal kick all year long. This means he is a good kicker. Yet, if he misses "wide right" in the Bowl game (coy smile), he will be remembered for that miss, and some will even say he is a bad kicker (no, he just missed that one). Third, people will often challenge me when I explain to them what "heat lightning" or other concepts are because it is not what their grandpa told 

It is clear that climatology plays a role and it is certainly not a stretch that the Super Bowl (in New Jersey, first week of February) could have a storm. Likewise, it is not a stretch to broadly say that it will be hot in Atlanta in August. The concepts of probability, climatology, deterministic forecasting, and other technical terms are familiar to most meteorologists or climatologists. However, my mom has no idea what some of that stuff means (and she is pretty smart woman by the way). We as scientists and media communicators must find ways to convey information to the public to inform them, enrich their knowledge, and mitigate against misinformation. So, yes, I blogged on a "seemingly trivial" topic because "science literacy" or decisions can be shaped by such topics. This is particularly more evident to me as the public continues to be willing to consume information from its "source of choice" or social media irrespective of whether it has been vetted or properly explained.

And by the way, we hope ways to watch the Super Bowl if you plan to be at many of the opening night events at the 2014 AMS Meeting :)....