- Education and Science
Why Meteorologists Are (supposedly) Almost Always Wrong
As a 25 year former television and radio meteorologist here is the comment that would have bought me a mansion if I had a dime for every time I heard it: “It must be nice to screw up your job every day and not get fired”. I always politely smiled to my viewers and went on my way, but inside I was itching to start something.
I mean, come on, as a professional meteorologist I took my job very seriously! (let alone the countless hours in the classroom studying physics, math and chemistry to understand this darn thing) Perhaps I’m getting a little defensive—I do realize that comment was just a cute joke. But it has always irked me when the public continues to have this perception that weather forecasters just can’t get it right.
For starters, studies have shown that a two-day forecast is accurate 75 to 80% of the time. If you think about it, that’s a pretty darn good record! Just think about your favorite NFL team for a minute--in my case the Green Bay Packers. If the Packers won 80% of their games every year, the team would have to build an addition to Lambeau Field to display their pile of Super Bowl trophies. What I’ve always found interesting about our culture is how meteorologists seem to get unfairly picked on compared to other professionals in the science world. Perhaps it’s because we need someone to curse at when it suddenly rains on your picnic. But, for example, what about doctors?
Does a doctor always get it right when trying to diagnose a health problem you’re having? Do you politely curse him when you still don’t feel better after his diagnosis and treatment?
A former boss of mine had a very simple, but I think profound observation. “You’re predicting the future”. I initially thought, of course I am—that’s what I get paid to do. But no, I am predicting the future. What other profession in the world that predicts the future is so highly scrutinized as weather forecasters? That question is part of the answer to the original question “why are Meteorologists always (supposedly) wrong”. Leave it to a meteorologist to sound confusing, right? But here are my top three reasons why people think we just can’t get it right. Hopefully you’ll be pleasantly surprised a bit.
1. Selective Memory
What is one of the first things most people in America do when they wake up in the morning? They check the weather forecast. Meteorologists are tested 365 days of the year. There are no vacations, no sick time, no sabbaticals, no holidays, no “my kid is sick I gotta stay home” days. Somebody always has to forecast the weather. My point with this is when there’s that much attention paid to anything, for whatever reason many times human instinct is only to remember the “misses”.
I always told my friends it’s amazing how I’ll get on TV and accurately predict the weather to a tee six days in a row, but on the seventh day when I blow it, the complaint hotline starts ringing. Sounds crazy but I honestly believe perceptions change when the only thing one remembers is the negative! If you only actively process the blown forecasts and not the correct forecasts, sure—you’re probably going to have a bad perception of meteorologists.
2. The Telephone Game
Do you remember that game you may have played as a kid? Ten people sit in a circle and the first player whispers a short story to the person sitting next to him. That person then tells the same story to the person sitting next to him, and so on. What a hoot it was when the last person in the circle had to tell the story out loud! Usually it started as “my dog likes to take a walk in the park” and finished as “your grandmother wears combat boots”.
Talk about the telephone game with weather forecasting. Sometimes I was convinced in my television career that my “Mostly cloudy with scattered afternoon thunderstorms” forecast ended up as “Mostly cloudy with scattered snow showers” by the time the TV signal actually landed in someone’s living room. Let’s face it, people talk, especially when a big storm is on the way. I observed it for a quarter of a century—the “story” of a weather forecast gets distorted on it’s path from the meteorologist to the last person in line hearing it.
3. Learn To Listen Correctly
Don’t want to sound like your mother here, but wow, this one is a doozy for me. I always said I would bet my next paycheck on the following scenario coming true. I would ask ten people to come into a room and I would give them a three-minute weather presentation—detailed forecast and all. An hour later I would then ask them to come back to the room and individually repeat back to me what the forecast is. I guarantee I would get at least four different versions! One meteorologist, one forecast, but four different versions. This problem will probably never be cure-able because it’s inevitable that people get distracted during the evening news and don’t always process everything. But you get the point. Its no wonder people think weather forecasters always get it wrong when there are different perceptions of the forecast.
Here is an amazing example of this and I swear on my barometer that this is a true story. I presented the forecast on the 11 PM news one night. The next morning I went to the grocery store and a woman stopped me because she recognized me from the news. She was very polite but really pointed out how wrong I was with my forecast the night before. I was polite back and went on my way. Ten minutes later and four aisles down another woman stopped me, recognizing me from the news. We chatted a bit and then she commented that my forecast from last night was spot-on. I think I dropped my tomatoes on the floor and just stared at her for a moment. I chuckled a bit and made the proper confirmations: she watched me on Channel 13 during the 11 PM newscast Tuesday night. Same time, same bat channel, same weather guy and the same forecast as the other lady who thought I blew it. How is this possible? Goes back to what I was saying—someone needed to sharpen up their listening skills.
So the next time you bump into your local meteorologist in aisle four cut him some slack. He’s not as bad as you think. If you have any questions about the weather feel free to post! I would be happy to answer them and will even give you a custom forecast for wherever you’re headed.