Weather Mongers

The good folks in North Carolina, from what I can tell — the news seems to have forgotten them mostly, took the brunt of Irene but the folks in NYC were scared out of their condos, that’s for sure. From The New Yorker:

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  • Paul D

    I really like donnjohnson’s comments on the weather mongers at

  • rjs

    donnjohnson’s comments on weather mongers are great … but the post just below it on the Minnesota State Fair is even better.

    To the point – my niece posted on her face book status from the fair yesterday:

    I would not be surprised if the state fair sold deep fried water on a stick…

    (OK back to the fear mongering weather forecasters)

  • Scot McKnight

    In our house, we refer to these weather mongers as those who predict “Edna,” and if you have read EB White’s famous essay, “In the Eye of the Edna,” you will catch our suspicion. This wasn’t quite Edna, but close.

  • DRT

    Wonderful cartoon, I will borrow that.

    We were without power for 22 hours…. and the only casualty near us was, what we call, a brain tree. Frankly I have no idea what the real name is, but the fruit are large green brain like things…they say they are very slow growing and this one has to be 3 feet in diameter.

    The minor damage was things like our sunflowers….

    There were people killed by the storm, including an 11 year old boy who was at home and a tree came through his house.

  • rjs, your niece has better taste, imho, than those who go for the deep fried butter! 😛 ack ack ack

    Along the lines of Donn Johnson’s comments, are there statistical studies done for media purposes which confirm what we’re touching on, here – that fear pulls in people more than cooperation and assurance? Are current news shows the contemporary equivalent of the fear-inducing appeals of the church vs. hell? “Gawkers is us”?

    I found this: It seems to me that the 4 theses (real-world, cultivation, substitution & resonance) have wider implications than just regarding fear of crime. Certainly, my husband – having never experienced a hurricane – resisted fear cultivation by the media, whereas I – with 1st hand experience of the devastation of Tropical Storm Agnes on my family and my grandfather’s college & home in Penna. – insisted on full preparation, “as if”.

  • There is a fine line between media forecasters warning the public about a potentially serious situation in such a way that they really take notice, and hyping it for the sake of ratings. Unfortunately, I believe that many in the media stepped over this line with Irene. The NHC, on the other hand, was measured in their forecasts throughout and in their national interviews, in my opinion. (They, after all, don’t have to worry about ratings and the bottom line).

    For we meteorologists (whether we are forecasters or researchers like myself), it’s a real dilemma. We see so many cases of people ignoring warnings and calls to remain vigilant that we have to err on the side of caution, but at the same time we don’t want the boy-who-cried wolf syndrome. The science just isn’t there for us to be sure exactly how a hurricane is going to behave, so we have to convey the uncertainty somehow (though we are getting better all the time, there will always be uncertainty). The NHC does this with their probabilistic forecasts of intensity and their cone of uncertainty. Unfortunately, in this case, the media meteorologists largely took this and ran with it, in some cases shamefully so.

    What concerns me is the desensitizing of the public toward situations that really are very serious (such as another Katrina). When you use such words as “historical” for a mere Category 1, what do you have left when it is a 3 heading for the same area?

    All this said, I’d rather the profession be given a black eye for overdoing a particular event which didn’t turn out as bad as the hype, than the same for underforecasting a truly serious event.

  • I must apologize, I realize now that I had made similar comments on a previous posting of Scot’s about E.B. White’s hurricane Edna essay. Sorry for repeating the same points.

  • DRT

    re: fear,…and bad news.

    My Grandma, who was born in the late 1800’s always used to complain to me that she did not understand why there wasn’t *good* news on TV. Why is it that everything had to be bad news. She would say that everyone would be much happier if they would just show good news.

  • Scot McKnight

    Dan D., well worth the repetition. So true … the whole time I watched this news, and it was way overdone by CNN, I kept thinking — they don’t know what will happen with big Irene when it hits land. It may stay and lose its steam or it may bounce back and head north right at NYC … so I think the error was not feeding us options and, compounded with politicians raising the warning levels and telling folks to leave the cities, well, it was a recipe for Edna all over again.

  • Thanks Scot.

    I completely agree with giving the public options as far as what reasonably could occur. One of the biggest things that comes up in forecasting is how to convey the uncertainty in a way that people can sink their teeth into. Many of the public don’t really understand the concept of a probability/level of uncertainty as applied to a weather forecast; they just want to know if their house is going to blow down or how much rain they are going to get. This is not to say that the public is stupid; far from it. It’s at least as much a problem with the current way that forecasts are presented. For example, something I think that should be emphasized more with hurricane forecasts is that we are much better with track forecasts than we are with intensity forecasts (i.e. it’s much easier to predict where a hurricane is going than how strong it will be when it gets there), and this is something that needs to be conveyed better. It’s a huge sociological issue in the NWS right now.

    How to stop the media from hyping everything is a rather different problem, and I’m at a loss as to how to change that. Something tells me it will always be a problem.

  • Scot McKnight

    Now we have post Irene coverage… blech.

    The flooding is awful in some places.

  • Joe Canner

    As Dan D. points out, those who predict risk for a living are in a no-win (or rarely-win) situation: if they underestimate the risk, we complain because they didn’t warn us; if they overestimate the risk, we complain because they cried wolf. The FDA has this problem a lot: only we complain when they don’t approve potentially beneficial drugs because of potential side effects.

    The problem risk-predictors have is that if their job is done correctly we will take precautions to ward off the risks (evacuations, stocking up on supplies, etc.) and then we act surprised when the consequences weren’t as bad as expected. I call this “Y2K-Syndrome”. People called Y2K a dud, ignoring the possibility that it was only a dud because extraordinary measures were taken to avoid the problem. I, for one, am glad that the alarm was raised (and heeded) at that time, and I’m glad, as a resident of a mid-Atlantic state, that the alarm was raised for Irene, and that I was prepared (as were others) for what transpired.