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Posted at 07:00 PM ET, 05/14/2008

Comment of the Week: Bob Ryan on Freakonomics

Last Thursday, Capital Weather Gang's (CWG) newest writer, Steve Tracton, defended meteorologists against the critical points raised in the NY Times Freakonomics blog "How Valid Are T.V. Weather Forecasts?" NBC 4 Chief Meteorologist Bob Ryan agreed with Steve's assessment and weighed in with some insightful comments:

Steve Tracton gives a excellent, useful cogent discussion and answers to the tired cliches and plain errors and misinformation as in the original Freakonomics post and responses and other "rants about the weatherman" for lack of a better term.

Some observations of my own.

1. No matter how much the science and predictability advances, people's expectations will continue to out pace what is possible. A 24 hour forecast accurate close to 90% of the time. . . we want 95% accuracy. 95% accuracy in 10 years. . .we want 99% accuracy. Talk to your parents or grandparents about how accurate forecasts (and more importantly tornado and hurricane warnings) were 40-70 years ago.

Keep reading for more of Bob Ryan's comment. Also, see our full forecast through the weekend.

2. People do get probabilities. We conducted an on-line survey a few years ago with sample graphics asking if including the PoP [probability of precipitation] would help with viewers weather related decisions. Of 1000+ responses 95% wanted to see the PoP. In another question survey with 4 multiple choice questions 70% of respondents knew the correct definition/usage of PoP. When Howie Mandel talks about probabilities on "Deal or No Deal" . . .people get it. We find most everyone likes to see the PoP on our graphics. . .people get it.

3. Don't confuse weathercasters or weather presenters with meteorologists. The comment, "We have no idea what will happen beyond 3 days. . ." might be attributed to a "meteorologist" but the statement only indicates ignorance of the science and the advances of the science. Many weather presenters have solid training in meteorology and overall I believe the U.S. public is well served by excellent weather presentations. But the outrageous quote will often get the print as they say.

4. In response to "Ryan" (no relation) [who asked about whether TV forecasters are allowed by management to present uncertainty information] we (NBC4) purposely show the weather icon graphics as two items, a 1-4 day "forecast" and a day 5-7 "outlook" with only general numbers (50s, 70s etc.) to show the uncertainty in an extended outlook. When the skill threshold was shown to be out to day seven many years ago, we first showed only descriptive elements (colder, warm, humid etc.) and no numbers at all. Again to communicate the uncertainty. No station or news manager has ever directed what we can and can not show in our weather presentation. Spirited discussions and compromises . . .sure. Directives "You will do this or else". . .never.

5. Finally (at least for now) we should not be consumed with evaluating a forecast as which is "most accurate". How do you evaluate a partly sunny/partly cloudy icon for example. Or if forecast X is one degree more "accurate" than forecast Y does it really matter? Rather, the generation, communication and user decision of a weather forecast should be how we look at what should be a continuous process. A 100% "accurate" forecast that results in a poor decision because of ineffective communication is a useless forecast. If no one retains what I have just said about tomorrow's weather, I haven't done my job and I get fired . . .just not tomorrow I hope. Effective communication of the forecast and the uncertainty, which may include forecaster confidence, should enable users to make the best weather related decision. That should be our common goal whether it is a forecast for the next hour, the next day or the next 50 years.

By  |  07:00 PM ET, 05/14/2008

Categories:  Capital Weather Gang

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