Friday, December 11, 2009

Meteorology: A Falsehood

Admittedly, the title of this post is slightly tongue in cheek.  But only slightly.  I looked at the weather report the other day and it predicted rain and thunderstorms all day.  By lunch time, the sun was coming out.  I got to thinking that if meteorological predictions were judged by the same standards psychic predictions were, would skeptics consider meteorology a falsehood?

I think the answer is no, otherwise meteorology wouldn't still be considered a credible science.  I suppose that because meteorologist use technology and can visibly see how their technology is affected by the atmosphere, that somehow makes meteorological predictions more credible than psychic predictions, nevermind if they're wrong.

And boy are they wrong quite a bit.

I haven't come across any comparative statistics regarding psychics and meteorologists, but I'd be curious to see who's more accurate.  Granted, most any statistics you'd find on the subject would probably be cherrypicked and biased, and it would be hard to actually compare statistics between the two anyways.  Psychics come in many forms, some predict the future, some read objects and can tell you about its past, others read people's feelings, and some do a combination of those techniques.  Psychics may see something relatively routine, however, they may also see something that they would be unlikely to have known beforehand.  The meteorologists though, they mostly just focus on normal events that can be expected to occur somewhere at some point regardless of when or where they predict it will happen.

With that in mind, I think meteorology should scrutinized with much higher standards.  I mean, if any of us were to wake up in a room with no windows and were asked if we thought it would rain that afternoon, we'd pretty much have a 50/50 chance of getting it right.  So why shouldn't meteorologists and their fancy gadgets be expected to achieve significantly better results than just guessing?

Although I didn't find any comparative statistics, I did find an article on the New York Times website reporting how inaccurate meteorological reports can be.  Here are few interesting comments the article quotes from meteorologists and station managers that were asked about the accuracy of meteorological reports on TV:
“We have no idea what’s going to happen [in the weather] beyond three days out.”
“There’s not an evaluation of accuracy in hiring meteorologists. Presentation takes precedence over accuracy.”
“All that viewers care about is the next day. Accuracy is not a big deal to viewers.”

I can't say that I'm surprised that presentation takes precedence over accuracy.  The primary purpose of the news is to sale advertisements, and good presenters help bring in good ratings.  But if a psychic were to admit they were more focused on putting on a good show for paying customers as opposed to being focused on accuracy, they'd be branded as charlatans.  Which, of course, if they are scamming people out of money they should be branded as charlatans, but the point here is that meteorologists are practically doing the same thing, yet they aren't considered charlatans at all.

The article also queried the meteorologists about how close the actual temperature had to be to their prediction for them to consider themselves accurate.  Here is what the article says:

All of the chief meteorologists were asked, “How close does your high-temperature prediction have to be to the actual temperature for you to feel like you did a good job?”
Without exception, all of the meteorologists answered, “within three degrees.”
The chart above shows the results of the stations’ temperature prediction accuracy for their full seven-day forecasts. For next day predicting (one day out), all stations met their “within three degrees” goal. For two days out, all but one was within three degrees. But for three days out and beyond, none of the forecasters met their three-degree benchmark, and in fact get linearly worse each day.

Here's a question the article asks the reader:

Have you ever noticed that the prediction for a particular day keeps changing from day to day, sometimes by quite a bit?

Yes actually, I have noticed that.  One reason why the reports change so frequently is because the meteorologists are basically just guessing for anything beyond three days out.  Here is what the article says about it:

Meteorologists take a blind stab at what the high temperature and rain possibilities might be seven days out, and then adjust their predictions on the fly as the week goes on. As mentioned earlier, one meteorologist told us: “We have no idea what’s going to happen beyond three days out.”
Meteorologists have such a bad track record they don't even bother keeping any statistics on how accurate their predictions are.  Here's another excerpt from the article:

No meteorologist or television station kept records of what they predicted, nor compared their predictions to actual results over a long term. No meteorologist posts their accuracy statistics on their résumé. No station managers use accuracy statistics in the hiring or evaluation of their meteorologists.

Instead, the focus is on charm, charisma, and presentation. Their words say they care about accuracy, but their actions say they do not. Yet, they wish to continue providing inaccurate seven-day forecasts that are no more than a semi-educated shot in the dark because a) their competitors do and b) they can get away with it since they think the public does not know how inaccurate they are.

I recommend reading the whole article at the New York Times website here.  The article has some interesting statistics about precipitation and makes some other good points.

So why is meteorology considered a credible science when they get predictions wrong so often?  Is it because they have fancy scientific gadgets?  Why are they not more heavily scrutinized for just guessing on what the weather will be a week into the future?

Imagine if a skeptical scientist was conducting an experiment on psychic phenomena and the psychic used in the experiment kept changing his or her story everyday.  In addition to that, the psychic just predicts events that are relatively common and already has a good chance of occurring anyway.  The scientist probably wouldn't even bother to see the experiment to the end.  Yet meteorologists do it day in and day out and its considered credible science.

My intention in this post is not to criticize meteorology specifically, but to criticize the double standard of how significant statistics are when it comes to meteorologist predictions and psychic predictions.  Many people check weather reports daily to try and plan events, yet no one seems concerned with scrutinizing the inaccurate predictions of meteorologists.  Yet when a psychic predicts something, suddenly accuracy statistics are necessary and the standard is expected to be set very high.

I've mentioned before how ambiguous the results of psychic experimentation can be.  I think part of the problem with research on psychic phenomena is it is focused on accuracy statistics.  The research need not be focused on accuracy  but on the mechanism.  If a psychic receives information telepathically and the information is wrong or they just interpret it wrong, their inaccurate prediction isn't proof that they didn't receive information telepathically at all.  If research were done as to what the mechanism is that makes psychic phenomena possible, perhaps it would be possible to better learn how it works.  If we can better learn how it works, maybe people could better learn to hone their psychic skills too.

We know how meteorological equipment works and no one seems concerned with statistics.  Maybe if we better understood how psychic phenomena worked, people wouldn't be concerned with statistics on it either.

And you know, it's funny, but I remember as a kid I read about some of the old ways people used to predict the weather, and one of the ways mentioned was based on how high starlings flew in the evening.  If the starlings flew high in the evening, the next day would be sunny.  If they flew low, the next day would be stormy.  I haven't thought much about it anymore over the years, but one thing I do recall from when I would watch the starlings as a kid is that the starlings were never wrong.

I'm also reminded of how so many of the animals on the Sri Lankan and Indian coastlines somehow seemed to know they needed to move inland when the big tsunami was about to hit in December 2004.  It seems that despite all of our fancy technologies, no one was able to predict the tsunami until the people saw it looming over them.  The animals had no technology, but they seemed to somehow know a tsunami was coming.

I'm not aware of any psychics that specialize in predicting weather, but maybe some of them should start trying to do it.  Hey, maybe one day psychics could do the weather report on TV!  Statistically speaking, they probably wouldn't be much worse, and they might even do better.


  1. Jeff;
    I just love the way your probing mind turns. I would say that meteorologists are basically cold readers as fake psychics are. They throw things out there, test the reactions, hedge their bets and make vague sweepings statements and when the winds begin to change, change their prediction. Both end up with followers begging them to tell them the future so they can make plans. They just dress it up in charts and readings and a degree in...prophecy.
    Great post! Were you ever on the debate team?

  2. Nah, I was never on a debate team, but I used to do some debating on internet forums. I realized it was rather frustrating and time consuming and people didn't change their minds very often. Most the same people kept agreeing with each other, and the others kept disagreeing with them. A lot of the debating going on consisted of people just repeating 'talking points' and the debates just seemed to go round and round.

    I also came to realize that public political debates can be decided by who was the better orator. A good debater could win a debate with charisma, especially if many of the people listening to the debate already know in advance which debater they like better. If most of the listeners are already aligned with one debater, then it becomes less of a debate and more of a bunch of followers just listening to their leader lash out at some 'villainous' dissenter.

    I think that is one reason why I've come to love blogging so much. I can just write my thoughts, and if people like them, great. If they don't like them, oh well. Blogging is much more relaxed.

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  4. My holiday gift to blogs I follow is to write them and tell them what I love about their blog.

    I like that your blog is sleek and black--it just makes me focus on the writing and what you have to say is the star here. I'm extremely impressed with your very high IQ and your open-mindedness, your devil's advocate stand, your ability to see all sides of something and make connections. You're my favorite place to go when I want to contemplate conjecture. I'm a nerd at heart and I so miss just sitting around and debating the sides of a subject to come up with the essence of truth within. You're very good at that. Don't stop blogging--ever. Everyone from conspiracy theorists to intellectural nerds to those in love with all things paranormal would be very lost without you. Keep at it!

  5. Wow..thanks for the compliments Autumnforest! Much appreciated!

  6. First of all, I would like to point out that no meteorologist simply guesses the weather. They rely on extensive computer models and intimate knowledge of the atmosphere.

    Secondly, the reason long-range forecasts vary so much is that computers model what is most likely to happen. However, since the atmosphere is very dynamic, many factors arise that cannot be taken into account, for instance a jet stream may roll in, or a front may collide with a moisture boundary, among other possibilites.

    So please don't compare meteorologists to psychics, because the two are drastically different. Meteorolgy is a physics and math based science, guessing has nothing to do with it.

    And to Autumforest, the whole point of a meteorologist's job is to keep up-to-date forecasts, which means altering their predictions when the winds change. And they do not get degrees in "prophecy"; you try getting a meteorology degree, it's harder than you might think.

  7. First of all, anonymous, I know meteorologists don't 'simply guess' the weather. They may rely on extensive computer knowledge and 'intimate knowledge of the atomosphere', but obviously it doesn't do them much good because they're accuracy is horrible. You don't need an article to tell you that, you can watch the reports for yourself and see how horrible their accuracy is.

    Secondly, I don't care why the long range forecasts are wrong, the point is, they're wrong. The computer models obviously aren't all that great. The atomosphere is dynamic? Many factors arise that cannot be taken into account? Then don't report long range forecasts. If they can't predict it accurately, what's the point in reporting it?

    And throwing around the word 'science' and 'physics' doesn't impress me when the weather reports are notoriously inaccurate. But anyways, that wasn't the point I was trying to get across. I wasn't just comparing psychics to meteorologists, I was pointing out how psychic phenomena is not taken seriously because it is not 'scientifically' understood, yet meteorology is taken seriously because it is understood - nevermind the accuracy. See the double standard? That's what I'm talking about. My point is that the accuracy of psychics isn't necessarily what scientists should be studying. A psychic can be inaccurate, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they didn't have a psychic experience. The experience is what should be investigated, not the accuracy. How is the psychic information transmitted? Whether the information is wrong or the psychic interprets it wrong is beside the point. How did the information transmit? And making predictions is only one aspect of psychic phenomena. There are other aspects such as remote viewing, telepathy, and telekinesis.

    If scientist understood how the information was transmitted, then psychic phenomena may be taken more seriously. If they understood the 'physics' behind it, then they might not be as concerned with accuracy...just like they don't seem to be concerned with the accuracy of meteorology. Scientists take meteorology seriously despite its inaccuracy simply because they understand how it works. If they understood psychic phenomena, then they might take that seriously too.