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Weather forecasts and the business of news

by Greg Krehbiel on 14 March 2017

I’m watching the disappointing snow / sleet mix in Maryland today and reflecting on my observation that snow around here is almost always less than the weathermen predict.

Why is that?

I realize weather is hard to predict. One of my science teachers liked to say that the only thing more complicated than weather is human behavior. So I don’t expect them to always get it right. But my perception is that they usually get it wrong in the same direction. By overestimating.

It’s possible my perception is false and they get it wrong equally in both directions. It would be interesting if there were some data on that.

But it’s also possible that the business of news comes into play here. What if, for example, it helps ratings if the weathermen predict on the high side of the range?

2017-03-14  »  Greg Krehbiel

Talkback x 7

  1. sm
    14 March 2017 @ 11:55 am

    They probably play it up some, and it’s better to err on the overestimated side than to have people unprepared.

    You should see the reporting in California. If it rains, it’s as if the zombie apocalypse is going down.

  2. William
    14 March 2017 @ 6:32 pm

    QUOTE: But itโ€™s also possible that the business of news comes into play here. What if, for example, it helps ratings if the weathermen predict on the high side of the range?

    BINGO!!! You’ve won the kewpie doll! Although I can’t prove it, I’ve long suspected this. As well, when there is some occurrence they tend to find the absolute worst possible version of that occurrence and report it “as if” it was ubiquitous.

    It’s gotten to the point where some believe the weather report over what they could “actually” feel or see if they took a moment to step outside. Recently, my daughter was standing at the front door waiting for me to drive her somewhere and I casually asked her…”is it cold outside?”. Her immediate reaction was to check her iPhone first. ๐Ÿ™‚ There’s been more than a few times the weather reported that it was going to be extremely “cold” or “hot” and I’ve walked outside and thought…”really”?

  3. Ken Crawford
    14 March 2017 @ 10:52 pm

    I’ve begun to notice they’ll use qualifier words that we don’t notice (I think they intend it that way). I could rain *up to* 3 inches!?!

    They didn’t say it would, but we walk away expecting something close to 3 inches.

  4. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    15 March 2017 @ 10:27 am

    The latest word is that the weather forecasters knew (last minute) that their predictions were going to be wrong, but decided not to let anybody know.

  5. pentamom
    15 March 2017 @ 10:49 am

    I don’t dispute that they could be doing it for ratings, but in an imaginary world where ratings didn’t matter, wouldn’t it still make more sense to always keep their estimates on the high/unpleasant side? Most people will shake their heads ruefully or sigh with relief if the weather turns out not to be as bad as predicted. But if you predict it less bad, and people are caught unprepared or have their day actually ruined (by a snowstorm that you said would only be an inch or two, and they get stuck or something) they will be angry. If you’re doing a public service, preparing people for the worst seems far more sensible than flipping a coin to decide whether you should over or underestimate the potential effects of the weather this week.

  6. pentamom
    15 March 2017 @ 10:50 am

    “Worst within reason,” of course. I’m assuming there’s a fairly reliable margin of error at work. You don’t have to put out a hurricane watch every day to be on the safe side.

  7. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    15 March 2017 @ 10:53 am

    Yes, there’s something to that, but it strikes me as paternalism. I would prefer them to give me the range and their best guess and let me make up my own mind whether to be concerned.