A few years back, I wrote an extensive article on how people have certain perceptions of the weather and weather forecasts. I called it Behavioral Meteorology. Now that we are in the transition season of Spring, a season with tons of variability both in temperature and precipitation, it’s a good time to revisit why we all think the way we do about weather.
In an atypical pattern like the one we’ve experienced this April, we more than ever want a forecast that’s definitive. At the heart of these forecasts are computer models or projections. Meteorologists use these projections as guidance. They are light years ahead of where they were just 15 years ago! The foundation of these computer projections are a complicated set of equations that have no exact solutions (very good approximations) called Differential Equations. I tell high school students to imagine math without numbers and no calculators. That description usually follows with a look of horror. Any thoughts of a student in the room becoming a mathematics major are immediately wisped out the window.
Yet weather forecasting is just that: An approximation. Throw in a splash of day-to-day randomness and you have a very tough recipe to replicate over increasingly long time periods. Computers will get faster and faster. The amount of weather data from satellites will increase as they have in recent years. But the equations that are used in these simulations will always yield approximations…ALWAYS! The behavior of the atmosphere as whole can only be represented as an approximation. No one wants to hear this but all simulations are highly detailed shades of “grey” of varying degrees. So are the weather forecasts that we present on television each day. Now extend this whole idea over a large region like northern Ohio over a single weather cast of 2-3 minutes. See the problem?
What does this have to do with the human condition? Where does psychology fit into all of this?
No one likes to feel uncertain or conflicted. We all experience this feeling in our daily lives. In the world of weather forecasts, it’s this weather randomness that causes frustration and conflict in our minds. Most of the time, as humans, we grossly underestimate the significance of our subconscious conflict. We all have a built-in motivation to reduce conflicting ideas by altering the existing conditions in our mind to create consistency. In the case of understanding the weather, we do this by 1) either believing the weather information which best fits our comfort level or 2) we alter its importance in our mind or 3) we just plain criticize it. Sometimes, it’s a blend of all three. This inclination to favor information that reinforces our comfort level is called a “Confirmation Bias”. The problem is that by creating “consistency” through favoring information , we create a new false interpretation of the weather which we believe to be true. Rather than looking objectively at the reasons for the change scientifically (science scares people), most people tend to use an overly simplified and often inaccurate scientific explanation of the weather (here in northeastern Ohio) to ultimately confirm their predispositions.
Those who are preconditioned to believe that the forecast would be inaccurate dismiss the scientific explanation, ignore the random changes and replace them with their own simplified, non-scientific explanation while criticizing the real explanation from the meteorologist as hogwash. The countless emails, phone calls, tweets and Facebook messages after a weather event are strong evidence. All of this stacks the deck confirming their bias that weather forecasts and meteorologists are always wrong. For a meteorologist, you can’t win even if you present objective information to the contrary.
The psychology happens involuntarily: In a nutshell, we struggle with the randomness of the changing weather conditions (an isolated storm or two) . We feel conflicted. We feel frustrated. We dismiss the weather information (i.e stationary front that continues to move north and then south) that we deem unnecessary to ease our conflict. We might blame Lake Erie. We often say “Its Cleveland.” We criticize. We simplify. We use “weather myths” to explain weather events. We come to a new conclusion and we now believe we fully grasp the nature of the weather and all its complexities. The false narrative we just created we believe to be very accurate. We feel much better about ourselves. Case closed.
The main point in all of this is to reinforce the fact that weather is highly complex and powerful. But so is human nature and our strong motivation to dismiss the science and settle into our preconceived notions. For me as a television Meteorologist, weather prediction is just as much art and psychology as it is science. During this transition season of Spring, I look at the psychology embedded in my forecast message. I think about how the viewer might perceive the forecast so I tailoring it by smoothing out the randomness somewhat. A little smoothing is okay but too much and the forecast becomes worthless. It’s a delicate balance.
Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.