Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Why Do We Dismiss The Science Of Weather So Easily?

Weather is just as much psychology as it is science. I've written about this several times HERE, HERE, and HERE

 I call it "Behavioral Meteorology".

Most people find it very difficult to grasp the fact that the weather is one big approximation.  Weather should be exact right?  Well, we humans hate probability.  Why? For our minds to grasp probabilities and randomness, we need to be able to handle multiple possible outcomes at once. We all want a forecast that fits a nice and neat one-size-fits-all package.  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 time and the probability becomes significantly higher. We want to visualize a line of showers that moves in at a specific time, stays for a select amount of time and then moves out without fanfare. Unfortunately, rain events especially the hit and miss storms that we’ve had across the area recently rarely behave in this manner.

I'd like to say that I make a forecast whether 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 selectively perceive the weather to fit their "sphere of reality". I learned that quickly years ago. For all of the simulations, super-computers, highly detailed satellite data, it doesn't matter how exact your forecast is or what scientific reasoning you used in coming to your conclusion, 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, its 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. Its a vicious circle that feeds on itself.  I’ve notice this change over the last 10-15 years. This is called the Disconfirmation Bias. Its 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 string of 80+ degree warmth is proof that this summer will be warmer than we thought.  Its 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 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. A good weather narrative or story is desired versus something data/science driven. Nebulous weather data and science makes most of us feel uncomfortable even if the on-air meteorologist has the best of intentions.  Sophisticated computer models of the weather have made some very good “probabilistic” outcomes for weather events and situations.. Yet a level of uncertainty still remains and we humans don’t like it! We try to rationalize the irrational. Our biases quickly dismiss the probabilistic science as irrelevant or at the very worst, an excuse.

Each day, I analyze the science and remember the psychology. How you react when you hear a weather forecast? Do you dismiss the science? 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?

Deep thoughts this morning...Hmmmmm.