A Rant About Weather And Climate Inspired By The Past Week

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Mornings like this provide a perfect opportunity to write about the topic that I love. The house is quite, and the family is still sleeping. I am a scientist and professor passionate about weather since my science project, “Can A 6th Grader Predict The Weather.” To this day, I remain very attentive to things that I observe about weather and climate.  An irresponsible Facebook post about a snowstorm prompted this rant, but I am sure it will head in several direction as I write this in free-flowing form (literally).

Snow at a National Weather Service office.NWS

What is the allure of a social media post about a snow storm 10 to 20 days out? Yes, there is value when official sources like the National Weather Service provide guidance for planning and decision-makers. However, what is the “gold star” reward for everyone else on social media? This is a serious question. On Twitter, for example, you will see people say things like “this is only one model run but it has a gigantic storm 5 weeks from now.” Of course, I am exaggerating with that example since I said “5 weeks”, but I hope you get the point. What value is there for the person posting that information? Is it the desire to appear to be some “meteorological genius” because you can look at a run of one of many weather models? Is it to become “Twitter” famous? Some class elements that I see in such viral posts:

  • Unsubstantiated specific snow totals without ranges or statements of uncertainty
  • Out of context banter about the various models Euro and GFS as if those are the only two things to use to make a forecast.
  • Guaranteed snow totals
  • May or may not mention that it is one isolated model run
  • Incorrect information about previous storms
  • Usage of the word “blizzard” for situations that do not meet National Weather Service criteria.

This season before you click “share” or retweet some provocative snowstorm forecast to family and friends, please verify the source of the information. There is a lot of weather information on social media, but all of it is not created equal. ” I also recommend consilience thinking. What’s that? According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word “consilience” means “the linking together of principles from different disciplines especially when forming a comprehensive theory.” I am borrowing from this definition to suggest that you look at the forecasts from different “sources” to see if there is a consistent message before you make something go viral that is dead wrong.

Speaking of “dead wrong,” two colleagues had to expend intellectual energy debunking inaccurate statements about climate change this week. Associated Press writer Seth Borenstein wrote a fact-checking piece about statements coming out of Washington in the wake of the National Climate Assessment report.  Professor Katharine Hayhoe, a climate expert and effective science communicator, debunked 5 myths about climate change in the Washington Post.

4th National Climate Assessment ReportGlobalChange.gov

Which brings me to something else tat I saw on social media this week. This “talking point” reared its head again that there is no “debate” about climate change.  I respectfully disagree. The peer-review process offers opportunities for anyone with a science idea, theory, or study to submit it for publication and evaluation by experts. There are even mechanisms within the publication process to respond to studies that you disagree with or find methodological flaws. Scientific conferences also offer sessions and forums to “debate” the science.

It is true that most people in the public sphere could care less about the minutia and procedure of the “science sausage making” process. However, these processes are essential for preventing flawed methodologies, random opinions or fringe positions from propagating. Does the process have flaws? Absolutely, but it works too as this article by Brenda Wingfield discusses in The Conversation. I suspect the public could care less about the process and methodology the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or Centers For Disease Control (CDC) uses to warn us about bad lettuce or the approval of a new heart drug. Yet, I suspect they also appreciate why those things are done.

Finally, in true rant form, I am transitioning to a random thought that just will not go away no matter how often we write about it. It comes to mind as I reflect on the SEC Championship game last night. I was in attendance. I heard a few people lament that one of the kickers missed a field goal. That young man has been one of the best kickers in college football all year long, yet, some people will unfairly define him based on that kick. Meteorologists deal with this all of the time. Our forecast accuracy is pretty good,  but most people don’t store in memory all of the correct forecasts. They simply remember the few that were wrong or that impacted their cookout. I suppose it is human nature to do this, but it sure is tiring as a meteorologist to have to respond to it all of the time.

Rant is over….Oh wait, not quite. The mini-ice age stuff has popped up again, and it is still wrong.

Now it’s over.

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