Thursday, September 18, 2014

Why Are We Skeptical About Weather Forecasts? How To Fix It

(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". The more we selectively perceive the weather to fit our negative connotation (cognitive bias), the more hyper critical our reaction and the more rigid our bias becomes. It’s a vicious circle that feeds on itself. 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. 

How do we navigate these rough waters of perception and weather bias? 

It all goes back to basic human nature: We all simplify complex, probabilistic themes. We all love a good story with pictures. It’s hardwired in our DNA. Bullet points and/or data without strong associative elements only trigger the Broca's Area and Wernicke's Area of the brain. This area is involved in language processing ONLY.  Brain scans show that if you incorporate emotional elements into your story telling, it will active multiple sensory parts of the brain like the Motor Cortex (body movements) and the Insular Cortex (emotional region) all at once producing chemicals that make us feel good in response specifically Cortisol, Dopamine and Oxytocin. Each one responsible for our involuntary reactions to a good story. 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.  Here's a great quote that summarizes this up very well:


A weather forecast is no different. Your brain wants a good story not boring data. This is why we use colorful, pictorial driven graphics like this one. 

Often times if the weather presentation becomes too data intensive, our brain doesn't produce the chemical that make us feel good. Our biases can surface quickly which can alter our perceptions fast. All of this happens in seconds and you've lost the viewer even if the on-air meteorologist has the best of intentions. !

Spaghetti Plot showing forecast uncertainty
Bottom line is a narrative or story is desired versus something that is solely data/science driven. 

Each day, I analyze the science and remember the psychology. I try to tell a compelling, relatable weather story with a dash or two 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. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Remnants of Hurricane Ike Revisited

I'm a few days late in publishing this but it's worth a look back anyway. On September 14, 2008, the remains of Hurricane Ike (then a tropical depression at best) moved through the mid west and the Great Lakes ultimately falling a part in southern Canada.

I remember distinctly having to cut up several trees that fell in my backyard only to find that they all had Poison Oak growing throughout. Needless to say, the next two weeks were very uncomfortable.

Two distinct elements were present that allowed Ike to not only hold together but move more than a thousand miles inland. A strong high pressure cell was parked off of the east coast. A strong mid-latitude cold front was sliding across the central of the US. Both acted as a funnel focusing the storm north and east. The upper level pattern was perfectly aligned to drive the surface pattern.
500 mB heights from September 8th to September 15th

Wind gusts across northern Ohio topped out at 71 mph in northern Lorain County.
Rainfall amounts across northern Ohio were very high.

Tropical storms have impacted Ohio before. Remember Hurricane Katrina in 2005? How about Hugo back in 1989?  Here are a few notable storms NOT including Hurricane Sandy as it deserves its own post which you can read HERE.