THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
by Barry Edelson
The Weather is Nigh
Early last week, people here were abuzz about the first snow of the season. "Big storm coming," was the common refrain. Indeed, a very big storm was at that moment doing mischief over the upper Midwest, and the unusually warm temperatures we had been having in the East were predicted to take a dive by the end of the week. But a look at the five-day forecast on the Weather Channel and the local cable weather turned up no mention of a snowstorm, or any significant weather at all. The blizzard afflicting Michigan and Wisconsin was headed to the northeast across Canada, nowhere near the Eastern seaboard. Any mention of snow on the airwaves must have been limited to headlines and teasers — "Big storm coming? Tune in at 11:00!" — because it was nowhere to be found in the actual forecast.
Nonetheless, a lot of people would not let go of the idea that we were in for some real weather. We were expected to have some rain overnight Thursday, with some wet snowflakes possibly mixed in. Total accumulation expected: zero. Even public officials drank the Kool-Aid: in response to this decidedly ho-hum forecast, New York City's sanitation crews were put on snow alert. Anyone who failed to listen to a weather report last week and had a good night's sleep on Thursday would have awakened to find the streets slightly damp and the air noticeably chillier than the day before. Not the remotest speck of snow. So much for the big storm.
What is it about the weather that turns otherwise reasonable adults into such blithering idiots? Every time there is the merest mention of snow, millions of people are sent into spasms of weather-induced paranoia. All winter long, people who in warmer months wouldn't know a cumulus cloud from a swarm of gnats, ceaselessly make pronouncements about pending calamities and raid the supermarket shelves for no apparent reason. "They say we're really in for it this time." And on what do they base their carefully calibrated analysis of the prevailing atmospheric conditions? Clearly not on the actual atmospheric conditions. All a weather forecaster has to say is, "There's no sign of snow any time in the near future," and someone you know is guaranteed to hear only the word snow: "They just said something about snow!" It doesn't instill confidence in the teaching of critical thinking skills.
Let us be clear that we are not talking here about the relative unreliability of ordinary weather forecasting. It is perfectly sensible to take a seriously dire forecast seriously. If a tornado is really bearing down on the farm, you would be a fool to turn your back and continue to enjoy the afternoon. But it is also perfectly sensible to pay scant attention to a weather event that is days away and more than likely never going to materialize. But that's not how modern Americans react to the weather forecast. No, what's we're observing is wholesale acceptance of unscientific speculation, media-stirred hyperbole and commercial manipulation, as if they were the gospel truth.
Forecasters regularly sow panic only for the sake of their ratings, in the expectation that we will all stay riveted to our screens in the run-up to a blizzard, hurricane or other looming disaster. The Weather Channel is a business, after all, and viewers equal money. Moreover, fear sells. Consequently, forecasts more than two days out are frequently a total bust, but you won't ever get a mea culpa from the weather industrial complex. When have you heard an on-air weather person admit that he was just plain wrong: "Say, folks, remember that Iowa-sized swarm of locusts we might have mentioned a week ago? You know, the one that sent you screaming into the night? Well, funny thing about that…" One would think that long experience of overhyped and more than occasionally dead-wrong forecasts would make skeptics of us all. How many times do we have to be told that armageddon is at hand before we realize that, even if it is, the purveyors of doom on television aren't the ones we should turn to for reliable information?
Inexplicably, the opposite seems to be happening: the more hysterical weather forecasting becomes, the more we believe it. We have become the unwitting handmaidens of the weather sector, spreading misinformation and anxiety to everyone we know. These excessive reactions are beyond the reach of ordinary argument. It's not a simple matter of playing "Telephone", with the weather story getting more distorted with each telling. Nor is this simply the common human inclination to want to be in the know, to set oneself up as an authority even when one obviously isn't. Without our noticing, meteorology has entered the realm of faith-based phenomena. Somehow, weather forecasting has acquired many of the characteristics of a religious cult: the adoration of an attractive figure in nice clothing; the uncritical acceptance of mysteries that sound preposterous when you actually try to explain them; the inspiration to take irrational action that is not always in your own best interest; the imperviousness to reason; the unshakable adherence to dogma despite serially inaccurate prophesies; and so on.
How did this happen? Why is the weather now something we just accept as an article of faith, even when our faith in institutions generally has withered to the point of no return? Or maybe that's the problem: maybe we just need something to believe in, and since most of us don't understand science very deeply and couldn't do the math that keeps a weather satellite in orbit if our lives depended on it, weather forecasting provides just the right balance of fact-based reality and incomprehensible gibberish to keep us intrigued. Of course, most of the data used by commercial weather outlets to inflict terror on unsuspecting citizens while they are calmly going about their business is actually gathered and disseminated by the National Weather Service, a governmental agency, which is a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, another governmental agency. But never mind. We've already established that reasonable analysis of causes and effects will fall on deaf ears. Whatever the source, we soak up the bad news because it matters to us. The weather can never be a total abstraction because it affects our daily lives, but factors like the the temperature of the oceans and the tilt of the Earth's axis are just too complex for the average ignoramus to get his head around. We don't want to be bothered with a lot of technical details. Maybe weather prophets can get aroused by the barometric pressure in the eye of a hurricane, but you and I have better things to do. Just dazzle me with enough digital wizardry to convince me that you know what you're talking about, then tell me what's going to happen on my street tomorrow.
Bad Science, Bad Faith
One cannot help but wonder whether there is a God v. Science conflict at play here. Is this why so many people find it so easy to dismiss climate change — because science loses its ability to explain how the world works when it becomes hostage to human motives like profit and/or political gain? But wait, isn't that a contradiction: why would people who read disaster into every forecast turn a blind eye to the most cataclysmic forecast of all? Why would we fail to fall prey to foretelling of planet-wide desolation when we succumb daily to far less drastic prognostications? Perhaps this can be explained by the divergence between commonplace faithfulness and the more excitable variety. Few of those occupying the pews on Sunday mornings, worshippers who are perfectly content with the prospect of a better life in the hereafter as described by the respectable-looking gentleman in the pulpit, are the least bit inclined to follow the mad ravings of the miscreant who claims to have a space-ship, idling in the parking lot, that will transport them to paradise. Most of us want to be comforted by the knowledge that everything will be okay in the end, even if we are scared half to death in the process. The expectation of a very heavy snowfall can indeed be a little frightening, a tornado or hurricane even more so. The apocalyptic consequences of a rapidly warming planet, on the other hand, is just a purge too far.
In the end, does it matter that most members of our species can no more read a weather map accurately than explain Einstein's theory of relativity? The weather will happen to us regardless of the forecast, or to what degree we accept its veracity. All in all, some would argue, it's probably better that we are overly cautious rather than cavalier in anticipation of a major weather event. But if we add unwarranted fear and manipulation to the forecast, we are no more likely to be properly prepared than if we didn't listen at all. Moreover, our newfound worship of the word of meteorologists is not a hopeful sign for mankind's future development. One would like to think that a century and a half of liberal education has made at least a small dent in the widespread ignorance that has plagued human history. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson frequently says, proven scientific facts do have the virtue of being true whether or not we "believe" in them. For example, the Earth has revolved around the Sun for billions of years, even though most humans who ever lived were utterly convinced it was the other way around. But the evidence of our senses, however suspect, is sufficient for the mass of humanity that isn't inclined to probe any deeper into the mysteries of existence. The weather is obviously something we all experience with our senses, rather more directly than we would like to sometimes, making us somewhat more vulnerable to the claims of forecasting. When it does snow, we will testify to its effects, and banish all memory of botched forecasts until the next time.
By the way, has anyone seen my copy of the Farmer's Almanac?
November 16, 2014
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