by Whit Gibbons

November 30, 2008

The weekend after Thanksgiving is too late to write about turkeys and too early to write about reindeer. But weather is always with us, so I have decided to revisit some of my musings on weather and the hapless people who try to forecast what the weather will be.

Once I begin talking about the weather, I invariably come to one of my pet peeves: the foolishness that millions of people engage in every day when they check the weather forecast. Note that I among those millions. When it comes to checking the paper or watching TV to see what's in store for the next day or the upcoming weekend (or more accurately, what the forecasters say is in store) I am just one more in the herd.

Inevitably when I'm writing about the weather I mention my cousin Steve, a meteorologist who asserts that "nowcasting" is the only reliable weather report. (Nowcasting means forecasting the weather for about the next six hours. Within that time frame experts can indeed predict such meteorological events as specific showers and thunderstorm with some degree of accuracy.) Steve can cite meteorological research documenting that the prediction that the weather tomorrow will be exactly like it was today is more likely to be right than any other predictions that are made. So why do we all keep checking the weather report and paying attention to it? As Patrick Young (whoever he might be) has said, "The trouble with weather forecasting is that it's right too often for us to ignore it and wrong too often for us to rely on it."

Want to verify just how unreliable long-range weather forecasts are with a simple exercise? Check the newspaper and tape those five-day projections on your refrigerator each day for a week. Five days later line up what happened today with what was predicted five days ago. You will find the forecast about rain or sunshine was right about as many times as it was wrong. Flip a coin and your chances will be as good at predicting whether it will rain or not rain five days from now. This is of course an excellent school project for a science class or a lesson on probabilities.

My skepticism about the arcane art of predicting what clouds and wind will be doing more than a hundred hours from now notwithstanding, like many people I like to talk about weather--past, present, future. Despite the undeniable fact that we have absolutely no control over the weather, finding someone to exchange thoughts with on this topic is never difficult. Yet many a barbed comment has been made about people who enjoy talking about the weather.

Among those who thought weather talk was inane and boring was that consummate wit Oscar Wilde. "Conversation about the weather," said Wilde, "is the last refuge of the unimaginative." Kin Hubbard, an Indiana humorist, said, "Don't knock the weather. If it didn't change once in a while, nine out of ten people couldn't start a conversation." Perhaps the most hurtful comment for those of us who find weather fascinating came from Thomas Fuller, a British physician who died in the 18th century. "Change of weather is the discourse of fools." Harsh words. And though I have no way of knowing whether my conjecture is correct, I'll bet that even Fuller sometimes discoursed about the weather.

Any wild animals that based their activities on the misguided belief they were able to predict the weather eventually left no descendants. That kind of thinking no longer exists in the animal kingdom, if it ever did. Except of course for us humans. We persist in thinking that with better radar or new meteorological instruments or more careful scrutiny of past weather patterns, surely this time we will be able to make an accurate long-range weather forecast. And who knows, maybe someday we will. But that day has not arrived. Nonetheless, despite a lifetime of confirmation that a long-range weather forecast is absolutely meaningless, I will pick up the newspaper tomorrow morning to see what the weather report says is in store for this week. The odds are good that you will too.

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