February 24, 2018
When I grow up I want to be a weatherman.
I don’t mean a “Weatherman,” one of those young radicals who took their rage to the streets of Chicago in 1969. I mean those whose prognostications I read each day in the Post and hear on NPR.
The weather predictors were right last Saturday. They said we’d have rain and snow in the late afternoon and there was a bit of both. Not much. The roads weren’t slippery as they were supposed to be; but at least this time there was rain and there was snow when they said there would be.
A few weeks ago on January 30th they had direly predicted a horrible morning of ice and snow; and schools were scheduled to open late. In fact a gloomy early morning turned into bright sunshine by 10 am. There was no snow and the streets were dry. Some parents, in the bakery with their children, weren’t happy but I was.
Really I should have no complaints about threatening forecasts as an awful lot of neighborhood customers with children come to the bakery on those days when the weathermen (and women) predict doom and the schools close peremptorily. But others complain – even occasionally the weather forecasters themselves.
Dan Stillman of the Capital Weather Gang:
“D.C. has stood for “dusting central” this winter, and yet the delays and cancellations keep piling up. We Washingtonians like to say it’s always been like this. But I’m here to tell you that it wasn’t always like this. I see our sometimes comical overreactions to snow as part of the charm and character of living here. The threshold, though, was never quite as low as it is now. I grew up here and remember many a time going to bed hoping for a snow day only to wake up with a dusting and an on-time departure for school.”
I am glad he wrote that as it spares you from hearing from me what it was like in the late 1940s waiting in snowstorms at a corner of our block on North Avenue for a street car that would drop us off at the bottom of a hill a few blocks from PS 87.
In recent decades, however, a strong forecast of snow following by the arrival of a storm came to justify staying at home from work and closing schools.
Now, however, just the possibility of a storm, the prediction that a storm is likely to arrive, is sufficient to close whole school systems.
I don’t blame weather forecasters for that. I don’t believe they intend to change the world as we know it when they forecast snow. But they do understand the consequences of their predictions; so why don’t they make those predictions with a modesty that should accompany their actual abilities.
The newspapers display weather maps and forecasts not as though they are estimates or projections, but oracles. They certainly don’t say, “Our best guess is that this is what’s coming.” Instead they tell us how much snow we will have in Hagerstown, Quantico, and Jessup.
As for television forecasts, they are like everything else done by television, dramatic and hyperbolic. Modesty, after all, doesn’t make good television.
Indeed, if I may say, modesty has disappeared from many of society’s institutions.
“Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart.”
I remember the beginning of the weather channel in 1982. I thought it was a stupid idea, a television station devoted to weather. Who would watch the weather on television?
I was visiting Boston then and a hurricane was supposed to strike Cape Cod. The Weather Channel was there to cover the emergency. A weatherman wearing orange gear and a hood was standing in a light rain, “We’re expecting the winds to pick up at any moment, Chuck.” Behind him joggers were passing peacefully.
Naturally I was wrong about the success of the weather channel just as I was wrong about the golf channel but my bad predictions don’t cost anything, not even my pride.
Baker-friend Larry Kilborne called to make plans with me on a Tuesday for Friday; but he told me that they’d have to be tentative plans as a big snowstorm was forecast to arrive on Friday morning. I teased him about trusting the forecast and he responded, “Sometimes they are right.”
How is that for an expression of confidence in an establishment we pay so much attention to.
“Tomorrow (Tuesday): Snow showers, which could be locally heavy, are possible from sunrise to mid-to late morning, finishing first in our western areas. Morning temperatures hold steady between about 30 and 34. By the afternoon, it turns quite blustery with winds gusting up to 25 mph as clouds decrease. Highs are mostly in the mid-30s. Confidence: Medium”
“Confidence Medium?” Are you kidding. Would you make decisions about anything significant in life (like keeping children out of school) with a merely medium confidence? I wouldn’t fly in an airplane with medium confidence. I wouldn’t buy a cigar with a medium confidence that I’d enjoy it.
We are held to certain expectations in this bakery. Our breads, pastries, and savories have to be good all the time; they have to be consistent. Customers expect a degree of civility in our service. We can’t fail very often to satisfy our customers.
Certainly we are not unique in that respect. Who doesn’t have to satisfy their customers/patients/clients/guests?
If weather-people have only modest confidence in what they do, why bother?
Friday, February 16th, was sunny and cold and the Capital Weather Gang wrote:
“Capital Weather Gang:
“Snow, ice and rain likely Saturday afternoon and night with some accumulation possible.”
Snow began falling at 2 pm and the Weather Channel on my telephone said at that moment we were having “light rain showers.” By the end of the afternoon there was a shimmer of snow on the streets, no ice, and little other than water was still on the ground when I left for the bakery on Sunday morning.
“Forecast: Rain and snow to arrive this afternoon with some accumulation expected tonight. The Washington metropolitan region will see a quick-hitting storm, with the focus of intensity lasting from late afternoon through mid-evening.”
Eun, sent a memo to all staff:
“Since we are looking at the possibility of a real storm arriving Tuesday night into Wednesday, please keep track of staff. If we need to bunk people in hotels or my couch, let me know.
As usual, if the storm does hit hard, we are open, but with limited services and hours. I have a Subaru waiting for snow conditions, if people need rides or rescue.”
Eun has greater respect for most things than I do – she’s a lot younger – and so she still trusts the word of those I rarely believe.
There was no “quick-hitting storm” that day. I don’t recall that the weather-people said “sorry.”
I have a proposal: Several years ago I started to clip from the Post each Monday morning its five-day forecast. I kept a record on that day and on the four days thereafter an accounting of the five-day forecasts. I found that the forecasts published in the Post were correct 55 percent of the time.
I think we should stop wasting all that money, all the television air time and newspaper space. All those weather-people could beat their radars into plowshares.
I acknowledge that we should keep hurricane forecasting as it’s really important and seems to me more accurate than daily weather forecasts are. But otherwise, let’s let it go.
It’s an immodest system. Indeed it’s not forecasting – it’s a best guess.
So let’s acknowledge that they are right about 50 percent of the time and standardize the weather forecast.
So from now on one of those inevitable news trios on local television channels could say simply, “It’s cold outside so it may snow. But it may not.”
Or, “There’s a 50 percent chance of rain. It will either rain or it won’t.”