Thursday, September 18, 2014

Why Are We Skeptical About Weather Forecasts?

(2nd Edition)

Weather is just as much psychology as it is science. Call it "Behavioral Meteorology".

Most people find it very difficult to grasp the fact that the weather is one big approximation. Not surprisingly, we humans hate approximations and probability. Why? For our minds to grasp probabilities and randomness, we need to be able to handle multiple possible outcomes at once.  The problem is that we are all wired to simplify uncertainty. We want life to be basic and easy to understand. Weather is no different. We all want a forecast that fits a nice and neat one-size-fits-all package.  Unfortunately, weather has many, many outcomes over a large area over a significant period of time. Change the initial weather conditions (humidity, wind flow, frontal position, upper level energy, etc.) and you create more uncertainty. Factor in length of time and the probability becomes significantly higher. We envision an area of rain approaching as a uniform “blob” which moves over our house at say 5:20pm and leaves at 7:15pm. Unfortunately, the actual rain area (or lake effect snow stream) rarely evolves into a tidy, uniform entity.  Instead, it has jagged edges, dry pockets and other random protrusions that impact local forecasts in a few minutes time.  See the problem?

I'd like to say that I make a forecast, short or long term, with a cold, rational, scientific eye but I don't.  I take into account how the general public will react to EVERY word knowing that most people selectively perceive the weather to fit their "sphere of reality". It’s in our DNA.   I learned that real quick after my first major lake effect snow event.

For all of the complex simulations, super-computers and highly detailed satellite data, it doesn't matter how exact your forecast is or what scientific reasoning you use in creating your forecast.  People will ignore the facts and the data that disagree with their perceptions and will "rationalize" what they want and react accordingly. More often than not, the reactions are very critical. Worse still, it’s accumulative. The more we selectively perceive the weather to fit our negative connotation, the more hyper critical our reaction and the more rigid our bias becomes. It’s a vicious circle that feeds on itself. This is called the Disconfirmation Bias. It’s the tendency to accept supportive evidence of a belief uncritically, but to discount evidence that challenges that belief.

Recently, many have already postulated that this "cooler" summer and this cool mid-September is proof that this upcoming winter will be cold and snowy. It’s a classic example of the RECENCY EFFECT: This is the tendency to think that more recent trends and patterns we observe (which are more recent in our minds like our recent mild winters) are a very good representation of the entire period in question. We believe our memories and observations--recent warmth and humidity--are excellent predictors of what the near future will bring. Throw in the thousands of weather apps out there that claim to provide the forecast for YOUR location along with the Old Farmers' Almanac and the laundry list of cognitive biases (some mentioned above) and you have the confluence of many psychological elements that are difficult to overcome with rational discussion.

It all goes back to basic human nature: We simplify complex, probabilistic themes. We all love a good story. It’s hardwired in our DNA. A boring data driven paragraph by itself only activates Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area of the brain. Brain scans show that if you incorporate emotional stories with descriptive metaphors, it will active multiple sensory parts of the brain like the Motor Cortex (body movements) and the Insular Cortex (emotional region) at once. We instinctively turn the story into our own personal experience! Given that personal stories make up more than 65% of our conversations, this makes perfect sense.

A weather forecast is no different. A narrative or story is desired versus something data/science driven. Nebulous weather data, probabilistic outcomes and other hard to grasp weather ideas makes most of us feel uncomfortable even if the on-air meteorologist has the best of intentions. Sophisticated computer models have come a long way in recent years in deriving more detailed outcomes for weather events and situations. Models are getting better as more data becomes available to be assimilated into these computer models. Yet a level of uncertainty still remains and we humans don’t like it! We try to rationalize the irrational yet our brains fight us tooth and nail. It wants a good story not boring data. Our biases quickly dismiss the probabilistic science as irrelevant or at the very worst, an excuse.  We then settle on a good story instead.

Each day, I analyze the science and remember the psychology. I try to tell a compelling, relatable weather story with a dash of data, some description of probability and a bit of historical perspective. Human nature is a powerful beast. Each person is different. Sometimes it works for the viewer. Sometimes it doesn’t. 

How do you react when you hear a weather forecast? Do you dismiss the science? Do you like the story? How do you handle probability? Do you like hearing an explanation to why the weather does what it does? Do you overly simplify the weather?

Let me know what you think. 


Lou DiMattia said...

I'm guessing you're preaching to the choir on this one. Interesting nonetheless.

Dennis Boylan said...

Excellent article!

Do you see the day when technology will be of such a state that I can put in a set of coordinates and get the current conditions for that point then ask for ranges of forecast probabilities; the next hour, two hours, day, etc?