Do We Care About Truth in Weather Forecasting?

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20161219 – Today the Electoral College votes to confirm the election of a man who built his presidential campaign on lies. For months his opponents have complained about his lies. For months his campaign has claimed that nobody cares.

So my question today asks: How important is truth to us?

Is it simply a platonic ideal that can never be realized (so stop trying)? Or is truth-telling essential for people who need to rely on one another. This blog thinks that truth-telling is important. EightOh9 has campaigned for several years to establish an annual day to recognize truth-telling (Diogenes Day is October 1) with minimal success.

An interesting test of your ideas about truth-telling is your attitude about two brothers: Tom and Jeff Skilling. Tom Skilling is chief meteorologist for WGN-TV. Brother Jeff Skilling was CEO of the Enron Corporation and is now in federal prison for fraud.

Could we say that the two brothers made careers of lying? One lies about the weather. One lied about the financial condition of his company. One type of lie is completely legal. One type of lie is completely illegal.

Now, you might say that what Tom Skilling does is not lying. I agree. Tom is not a liar. Making a forecast that fails to come true is not the same as lying. Tom does not have a private forecast that he is keeping secret when he publicly forecasts 15 inches of snow for the Chicago area. There is no hidden “reality” that is being covered up. And that is the difference. According to federal prosecutors, brother Jeff said one thing and the truth was something else. That’s why he is in prison.

We can’t proscribe all lying. Some lies are relatively innocent. “No, your butt doesn’t look big.” If we try to root out lies like this, we’ll be too exhausted to care when the big lie comes along. We need to look for lies that harm people.

But doesn’t a bad weather forecast harm people?

This week I was in North Carolina for a couple days on business. On the first day, I started to get weather alerts urging me to change my return flight because of a storm forecast to hit Chicago in the very hour I was scheduled to return. So I did that. I moved my flight up so that I would arrive before the storm. Then the storm failed to materialize in the fury that was forecast.

My response to this forecast non-storm had a happy ending. But every dire forecast has thousands of people who respond as I did by changing plans. We rely on forecasts. And they often do not come true.

There’s another trend in forecasting that troubles me. When a storm is on the horizon, news people count up the population in the forecast storm’s path and write headlines like: “80 Million to Be Hit by Polar Vortex.” The same storm 40 years ago might have been headlined: “Expect Cold for the Weekend.”

Does shrill reporting, in and of itself, turn a legitimate forecast into a lie? Tom Skilling’s forecasts are pretty tame compared to some of his colleagues.

Check out this weather story in DNAInfo: “Chicago Is Colder Than Mars.”

Chicago is NOT “colder than Mars.” Mars is an entire planet. The temperature at the site of the Curiosity rover on Mars, which the article cites, is not indicative of the entire planet any more than the temperature at Honolulu is indicative of the temperature of the entire planet Earth (I wish). What’s more, Mars has night and day. Lacking much of an atmosphere, daytime temperatures tend to be wildly different from nighttime temperatures. All this is not to say, however, that it isn’t cold in Chicago. It’s just not “colder than Mars.”

So is this reporting a lie?

Probably not, but it’s getting close. I’m sure the reported saw the temperature from the Curiosity rover and thought he had a new angle on the annual complaints about Chicago’s frigid winters. But a little checking would have revealed the know-nothingness of the statement.

No harm done.

But doesn’t the media do this all the time? Don’t we pass on false stories on Facebook or Twitter just because it’s cute or funny or insightful—or so it seems.

Our next president does this.

We try to get a rise out of people. That’s apparently more important than being trustworthy.

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