(Farmers’ Almanac)

Over the years, I’ve written many pieces debunking the weather forecasts in the Farmers’ Almanac (and Old Farmer’s Almanac).

Some people yawn and say I’m beating a dead horse. They say smart, informed people understand the limitations of these forecasts. Surely, they say, people appreciate that the outlooks are based more on folklore than credible, established science.

But people still believe these predictions and even use them for planning decisions.

Oscar Munoz, the CEO of United Airlines, incredibly, is an almanac-believer.

In speaking with Marketplace about the challenges airlines face in ensuring on-time departures and arrivals, he highlighted weather as a factor out of airlines’ control. But, he said, based on the Farmers’ Almanac prediction for a rough winter in Chicago, the carrier is busily preparing.

“I think the hardest thing that historically the industry may have relied upon is that we can’t control weather, we can’t control air traffic control, and use that at the end of the day as an excuse,” he told Marketplace. “Things do happen, we know they happen — we don’t exactly know when they are going to happen — but we should definitely be prepped. A very quick example: Farmers’ Almanac is calling for a very nasty winter, particularly in Chicago — one of our main hubs. So as we speak, our operating team is hard at work as to how are we going to accommodate passengers.”

No serious business should be using these almanacs for weather-related decisions. But, here again, is a teachable moment to explain what these almanac are and are not.

Let me reprint an excerpt of the post I wrote last year to help educate and inform:

“[Here’s] your annual reminder that using the Farmers Almanac for a seasonal meteorological outlook is about as good as going to a psychic,” tweeted Matt Lanza, a meteorologist based in Houston.

“[It’s a] forecast that has as much accuracy as a Magic 8 ball,” wrote Connecticut broadcast meteorologist Ryan Hanrahan on his Facebook page.

[I]t’s basically the print version of a psychic reading on a 1-900 number,” wrote Dennis Mersereau, who pens Gawker’s weather vertical, The Vane. “The Old Farmer’s Almanac is to meteorology what astrology is to astronomy.”

Out of frustration that some people actually take the Old Farmer’s Almanac seriously, Marshall Shepherd, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Georgia, penned a column for Forbes clarifying what modern weather forecasting actually is – in other words, everything The Old Farmer’s Almanac is not.

“[Weather forecasting] is a rigorous and quantitative science steeped in physics, advanced math, fluid dynamics, and thermodynamics,” Shepherd wrote.

My goal here is not to demonize Munoz or anyone else who might put stock in the Farmers’ Almanac (or Old Farmer’s Almanac) forecast. I personally enjoy reviewing the Farmers’ Almanac and the Old Farmer’s Almanac each year…for fun and for entertainment. I always have.

Rather, I’d like to stress (again) that the almanacs lack transparency and have no proven track record. They claim high levels of accuracy but have never released their methods in detail or published a peer-reviewed analysis of their skill.

If United Arlines or any other business seeks seasonal forecasting information, it should consult any number of credentialed private forecasting operations that do this professionally as well as the National Weather Service’s outlooks. And it must ask for and review their track records, while understanding that seasonal forecasting still only has limited accuracy.

More reading

Meteorologists smartly rip Old Farmer’s Almanac forecast for cold winter in the East (from 2015)

The Farmers’ Almanac outrageous forecast (from 2013)