Predicting The Weather

Consider meteorology for a moment. It’s a pseudo-science in that it tosses around numbers but ultimately depends on intuition. The meteorologist will have several computer models based on a large number of variables and will choose the one the seems to him or her to be most likely. They also like to say things like “The chance of rain is 0% ” which is absurd. In probability theory 0% means that it is logically impossible. Similarly with the suggestion that “there is 100% chance of snow later today.” That would mean it cannot NOT snow, which is also absurd. Meteorology is a pseudo-science. There are many.

Don’t get me wrong, I love to watch the Weather Channel and see the folks there surrounded by all their elaborate equipment and their L.L. Bean coats telling us with straight faces that there is 0% chance of rain when I know that cannot possibly be the case. But they are pretty people even if they never learned the word “in.” They say things like “It’s raining into Chicago right now,” when we all know that they should say “It is raining in Chicago right now.” The word “into” suggests movement whereas the word “in” suggests place. The Weather Channel folks don’t know that, apparently. But then, they are meteorologists, whatever that means. It certainly doesn’t mean they are scientists, or even that they are well educated.

The pseudo sciences draw on probability theory and the notion that if we have numbers to support our claims, then we can call ourselves a “science.” This rests on the indisputable fact that the hard sciences (the REAL sciences) rely heavily on mathematics. I have a good friend who is a physicist and I once asked him what the latest developments in physics were. He answered that there hadn’t been many lately; the physicist must wait for the mathematician to develop the tools for them. But the social (pseudo) sciences abound in numbers convinced that thereby they will pass muster as real science. We are all suckers for numbers. Just think about the polls!

In any event, disciplines like psychology and sociology are pseudo-science because they have nothing more than probability to back them up, and probability theory is a mere shadow of the mathematical calculations on which the physicist and chemist relies. The latter yield certainties, the former not so much. Albert Einstein, for example, knew that his relativity theory was a certainty well before any experiment was devised to verify it. He knew it because the mathematics was correct and that was sufficient of itself. The hard sciences do not rely on probabilities, they rely on exact calculations. Prediction, when it is made, is certain– or as certain as experiments can be when devised by human agents.

In the end, we can still enjoy the pretty people on the Weather Channel with all their state-of-the-art, fancy equipment and their computer models predicting what will happen tomorrow “into” Chicago while, at the same time, we recognize the fact that they are playing at being scientists. It’s just make-believe, like so much on television.





9 thoughts on “Predicting The Weather

  1. Thanks Hugh. Being an actuary by trade, I am familiar with probability and risk management. In essence these weather models are driven by mathematics, but they are stochastic forecasts. What I mean by that they have used random number generators to play their models over and over again. The result is a distribution of results that they use to forecast the weather. The meteorologist can say we have a 95% confidence that the outcome will occur between these paths, e.g., but to get that confidence the variation is typically more spread out. If they say we are 50% confident then the variation is narrower.

    Yet, at the end of the day it is still a guess, based on their best modeling. It is better than a SWAG, but still a guess.

    • I think the point I was making is that we use numbers to disguise our ignorance. If I tell you that there is a good chance that Trump will get the Republican nomination you will have less confidence in my predication than if I say he has a 57% chance. Numbers have a pull that words don’t in our culture.
      Thanks for the comment, though. It is helpful (I knew you had been an actuary. I am impressed!).

  2. Accuracy of weather forecasting depends on the data. If the data is reasonably close, the differential equations that run in the super computers will generate a forecast that is reasonably accurate.

  3. Yes. I have been saying for years that in my next life, I want to come back as a meteorologist. I’m pretty good at making up numbers (I’m an English teacher). I’m also good at saying “partly sunny.” I’m guessing your tone is a bit more serious than I interpreted but anyhoo, just my 2 cents.

  4. Well whatever happened to the knowledge accumulated over the centuries of predicting weather by reading cloud patterns, moons, wind direction etc?

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