Tut Tut Tut, Looks Like Rain

While all manner of scandal engulfs politics and the media, and while the British Twittersphere gets angry about abortion, I’m considering the weather. Or at least, two competing attitudes to those who predict it.

First, a fascinating extract from Nate Silver’s book The Signal An The Noise looks at the art of weather forecasting, and the psychologies at play.

Catering to the demands of viewers can mean intentionally running the risk of making forecasts less accurate. For many years, the Weather Channel avoided forecasting an exact 50 percent chance of rain, which might seem wishy-washy to consumers. Instead, it rounded up to 60 or down to 40. In what may be the worst-kept secret in the business, numerous commercial weather forecasts are also biased toward forecasting more precipitation than will actually occur. (In the business, this is known as the wet bias.) For years, when the Weather Channel said there was a 20 percent chance of rain, it actually rained only about 5 percent of the time.

People don’t mind when a forecaster predicts rain and it turns out to be a nice day. But if it rains when it isn’t supposed to, they curse the weatherman for ruining their picnic. “If the forecast was objective, if it has zero bias in precipitation,” Bruce Rose, a former vice president for the Weather Channel, said, “we’d probably be in trouble.”

Contrast this to the attitude of Jerome K Jerome in Three Men In A Boat (which I am reading as part of a Download Free E-Book Versions Of The Classics policy).

I do think that, of all the silly, irritating tomfoolishness by which we are plagued, this “weather-forecast” fraud is about the most aggravating. It “forecasts” precisely what happened yesterday or a the day before, and precisely the opposite of what is going to happen to-day.

I remember a holiday of mine being completely ruined one late autumn by our paying attention to the weather report of the local newspaper. “Heavy showers, with thunderstorms, may be expected to-day,” it would say on Monday, and so we would give up our picnic, and stop indoors all day, waiting for the rain.—And people would pass the house, going off in wagonettes and coaches as jolly and merry as could be, the sun shining out, and not a cloud to be seen.

“Ah!” we said, as we stood looking out at them through the window, “won’t they come home soaked!”

And we chuckled to think how wet they were going to get, and came back and stirred the fire, and got our books, and arranged our specimens of seaweed and cockle shells. By twelve o’clock, with the sun pouring into the room, the heat became quite oppressive, and we wondered when those heavy showers and occasional thunderstorms were going to begin.

“Ah! they’ll come in the afternoon, you’ll find,” we said to each other. “Oh, won’t those people get wet. What a lark!”

At one o’clock, the landlady would come in to ask if we weren’t going out, as it seemed such a lovely day.

“No, no,” we replied, with a knowing chuckle, “not we. We don’t mean to get wet—no no.”

And when the afternoon was nearly gone, and still there was no sign of rain, we tried to cheer ourselves up with the idea that it would come down all at once, just as the people had started for home, and were out of the reach of any shelter, and that they would thus get more drenched than ever. But not a drop ever fell, and it finished a grand day, and a lovely night after it.

Weathermen: Trapped between a Cumulonimbus and a wet place.

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