Friday, January 27, 2012

Weather and the Human Condition...Meteorologists Can't Win This Battle

Weather predictions have an ingrained psychological component. The weather conditions might say one thing, Yet we will characterize the weather differently depending on who we are and where we live. Just looking outside at the current weather in our corner of the world in Northeastern Ohio can shape our way of thinking even if the overall weather data says otherwise. This winter’s lack of cold, small snow falls  and "milder” stretches are a prime example of how psychology plays a role in how we perceive the weather. First, let’s set the stage meteorologically then we'll examine the psych.

This early winter weather has been stuck in a fall pattern. A ridge of milder air has sat stagnant over the eastern US. The persistent low over the southwest and a general trough with colder air over the western US and Canada hasn’t budged. The persistent southwestlow has spawned many Texas panhandle/southern systems rich with moisture fromthe gulf of Mexico; a pattern that is not indicative of a typical December or January.    The tropical La Nina pattern (cooler Pacific Ocean sea surface temperatures) and an historically strong arctic pattern over the last several winter say Canadian clipper systems would dominate the early winter with frequent 2-4 inch snows.  Unfortunately, that same arctic component—our cold air driver--has stayed conspicuously stable and quiet.

One computer projection since late November has relentlessly pointed at clippers developing in Canada. A quick snow usually accompanies these clippers across northeast Ohio followed by colder air. This year, once we get inside 48 hours of the forecasted clipper event, the computer projection would quickly push the system back north allowing milder conditions to prevail!  Crazy stuff to be sure. In this atypical pattern where computer projections offer little consistent help in forecasting, we more than ever want a forecast that's definitive.  This winter has been anything but definitive.

At the heart of these computer projections are equations that have no exact solutions, just increasingly better approximations. I tell high school students to imagine math without numbers and no calculators. That description usually follows with a look of horror. Any thoughts of a student in the room becoming a mathematics major are immediately wisped out the window.

Yet weather forecasting is just that: An approximation. Throw in a splash of day-to-day randomness and you have a very tough recipe to replicate over increasingly long time periods.  Computers will get faster and faster. The amount of weather data from satellites will increase.  But the equations that are used in these simulations will always yield approximations…ALWAYS! No one wants to hear this but all simulations are highly detailed shades of "grey" of varying degrees. So are the weather forecasts that we present on television each day.

In a Facebook post, I've explained the "approximate" nature of weather forecasts in the context of this early winter wackiness. I hope that most people are receptive to them.  Many are judging by people’s comments. Yet in times like this where weather isn't matching the Decembers and Januaries of the past (snow and cold), the human condition takes over. Our mind gets thrown off. Our preconceived notion of Decembers and Januaries featuring snow and cold have been replaced with rain and milder air. These changes don't sit well. It makes us feel uneasy holding onto these conflicting ideas.  Psychologists call this "Cognitive Dissonance". How many times recently have you had a conversation with someone and they said, “What is the deal with this 'mild' winter…what is going on here?” The uneasiness in the question is palpable.

No one likes to feel uncertain or conflicted.  Weather most times exists in a perpetual "grey" area. It’s this built in randomness that causes frustration and conflict. Most of the time, we grossly underestimate its significance. We all have a built in motivation to reduce conflicting ideas by altering the existing conditions in our mind to create consistency. In the case of understanding the weather, we do this by 1) either believing the weather information which best fits our comfort level or 2) we alter its importance in our mind or 3) we just plain criticize it. Sometimes, it’s a blend of all three. This inclination to favor information that reinforces our comfort level is called a "Confirmation Bias". The problem is that by creating "consistency" through favoring information , we create a new false interpretation of the weather which we believe to be true. Rather than looking objectively at the reasons for the change scientifically (science scares people), most people tend to use an overly simplified and often inaccurate scientific explanation of the weather to ultimately confirm their predispositions. 

For example, I go on the air and say we’ll see rain to wet snow with 1-3 inches of snow by midnight. Many of us are already preconditioned to believe that this snow forecast will either be too much or too little. The reasons can vary from a disbelief in meteorologists in general--some have the "they never get it right!" mentality—to believing “the mild weather will stay” or that "the big snow is coming!"  Regardless, the preconception of inaccuracy is set from the get-go. 

The rain slowly changes over to snow but only for some areas. It takes a few hours of rain/wet snow before finally going to all snow. The new weather conditions highlighting a slower, back and forth transition to rain and snow present new information that favors the preconception of inaccuracy already present in many peoples' minds. I go on the air and explain that there is no well-defined line where rain goes to snow. I explain that it takes a while for cold air to overwhelm the milder air so the rain/wet snow mix would exist for a longer period of time.

Those who are preconditioned to believe that the forecast would be inaccurate dismiss the scientific explanation, ignore the random changes and replace them with their own simplified, non-scientific explanation while criticizing the real explanation from the meteorologist as hogwash. The countless emails and phone calls are strong evidence. All of this stacks the deck confirming their bias that weather forecasts and meteorologists are always wrong.  For a meteorologist, you can't win even if you present objective information to the contrary.

The psychology happens involuntarily: We struggle with the randomness of the changing weather conditions. We feel conflicted.  We feel frustrated.  We dismiss the weather information that we deem unnecessary to ease our conflict.  We might blame Lake Erie.  We often say "Its Cleveland." We criticize. We simplify.  We use “weather myths” to explain weather events. We come to a new conclusion and now believe we fully grasp the nature of the weather. The false interpretation we just created we believe to be very accurate.  We feel much better about ourselves. Case closed.

This inconsistency doesn't mesh well with every one's already highly simplified view of the weather. A crazy, changeable 8day forecast, negative connotations of weather forecasts and forecasters in general, coupled with a lack of general understanding is a highly volatile psychological mixture which further drives more false conclusions and irrational beliefs about the weather. All of which makes people even more uncomfortable and irritable.  The vicious circle is hard to break.

Weather prediction is just as much art and psychology as it is science. We try to tailor the 8day forecast to match the viewers’ perceptions by smoothing out some of the randomness so that it fits nicely on the 8day but it doesn’t always work out. Let’s hope that the weather pattern returns to "normal" soon.  As a television meteorologist, the forecasts daily would become easier to handle.  As a television viewer, the forecast could become easier to digest perhaps quelling some of our cognitive discomfort. 

I realize that shifting the weather back to “normal” won't change perceptions. It won't change the human condition. It probably won't alter beliefs about weather forecasts, meteorologists and weather patterns as much as I wish it would.  I can guarantee this:  Cold weather in early February will make most of us feel more at ease about the winter. That is until the first snow over spring break!


Anonymous said...

It may be the wrong question to ask a man that does weather forecasting for a living but, do you think people expect the depth/detail of reporting of the weather that’s being done? I ask as I, for one, many times feel the weather portions of a news broadcast are too detailed, given too many times during a show, and can create unwarranted “oh, what will I do” weather concerns. Do studies on viewing habits indicate people want more detailed description of say Snow falling in Cleveland in January? I enjoyed your article and would never question the science behind it or the fact that you are good at what you do. I’m not one to “kill the messenger” you’re giving a forecast based on your knowledge of the science, I just wonder if it’s gotten too deep for general viewers comfort level.

Scott Sabol said...

That is a very good question. In this day in age, people can't sit and watch a newscast from beginning to end like we could 20+ years ago. So quicker more frequent weather hits fit the newscast template for today's society. So more wx hits are necessary to fit viewing habits.

As for the detailed portions of the weathercasts, people are science savy than years ago so, in my opinion, it is necessary but only if it applies to what is going on. People want hyper-local weather. But yes, too much can be just as detrimental as too little.

A nice blend of necessary info and detailed descriptions of the weather to fit what the viewers work best.

All of that said, we can't scare the heck out of people. Here at FOX8, we try not to do that.

Thanks for the comment!

Anonymous said...

I am affected by lack of sun. I'm rather enjoying this milder winter. I'm not a fan of cold weather. Seems like we've had more sunny periods this winter. I feel better this winter because of the milder more"springlike" temps. Keep up the good work Scott. I enjoy your blogs.

Anonymous said...

I have experienced one such individual who has a palpable sense of uneasiness due to the unseasonable weather pattern. I think that is rare.
Almost everybody else I talk to says they are loving the mild winter and the tremendous doses of sun we have been lucky enough to be getting this winter.

Unknown said...

Can it be sometimes the "selling" that goes into a weather forecast. Having followed you, your blog and my own experience, I fully now understand that the forecast is an approximation; a highly intelligent one in most cases but still an approximation. I now know where to go to get more information that I can use in decision making. As a boat owner, I am responsible for the people on-board so I have a vested interest in insuring I understand the weather.
Many of the stations hype their Doppler radar and their 8 day forecasts but with some education, the public needs to understand they are approximations subject to, and often do, change.
Its all about using some common sense.
that being said, when will it really warm up?

Unknown said...

It seems odd to me that we are referring to this winter as "mild" . . . . didn't we set a record for the coldest February? I have enjoyed the many sunny days this winter! Great article, Scott. Keep up the good work!

Unknown said...

It seems odd to me that we are referring to this winter as "mild" . . . . didn't we set a record for the coldest February? I have enjoyed the many sunny days this winter! Great article, Scott. Keep up the good work!

Scott Sabol said...

When have we EVER said this winter was mild?

Scott Sabol said...

Yes Dennis, selling the weather is a part of it for sure. This is why I try not to sell anything. I give the conditions and forecast as I see it and cater my wording to fit the perceptions of the public at the time. Since we've had a cold winter, mid 40s are considered warm but in reality it is near normal.