Friday, January 22, 2016

On "busted" forecasts, building trust, and expectations

Have you ever tried to predict the final score of a sports game - basketball, football, or even low-scoring games like soccer - before it began? Probably not, though you may have put money, or maybe just a handshake, on the final score - either an over/under or against the spread.

How hard is it, for example, to predict the total number of points that will be scored in a basketball game before the game begins? I'll even give you a buffer of 5-10 points for a "right" answer. Even right before the game, you don't know how individual players will perform, how external factors will be involved, how the game will be called by the referees, let alone a freak injury to the star player.

And if you have money or your reputation on the line? The stakes grow higher.

It's similar for your local meteorologist trying to predict the amount of snow your backyard will receive. Sure, we have pretty good stats on the factors (players) involved, the predictability can generally be quantified, and we can use history as a guide. But sometimes the key player (an upper level low for instance) suffers a broken face ala Mike Conley. Or more likely, the key player under-performs versus what you would expect for any of a number of reasons, as the "deformation zone" did this morning.

And like the gambler, the stakes are high if you have enough people that rely on your opinion to make decisions that are important to them.

This is not a commentary of excuses. It's not even really a commentary of "reasons." It's more to get a few things off my chest, which maybe I should keep to myself but here they are anyway.

Before I get too far though, I will start by apologizing. I know, I don't have to. But I need to, if for no other reason than to clear my conscience. You don't have to accept it. It doesn't both me one way or the other. It's your problem if you want to hold a grudge, not mine. But I still feel like I owe you an apology because you made plans that either were or weren't necessary, you had hopes and expectations that were dashed, or you had trust in a stated outcome, even if that outcome was caveated (which it was).

If there's one thing I strive to do more than accurately predict the weather, it's to earn and keep your trust. I teach my kids that trust is hard to gain, but easy to lose. I spend hours poring over computer model data, reading and learning to refine my skills, studying social media trends and technique, and diligently answering your questions and comments or anticipating them so I can answer them in a blog before you ask.  Trust is as big a deal to me as nailing a forecast. I work very hard at both. Part of maintaining that trust, in my opinion, is admitting when you are wrong. I was wrong (at least partially considering the entire area I was forecasting for, but maybe for your backyard, completely).

My dilemma, or maybe it's not actually mine, is that some of you have expectations that, honestly, can't be met. Just like you can't predict the final score of a basketball game before it tips, I can't tell you how much snow you'll get in your backyard! It's that simple. No amount of money poured into technology or brilliance of atmospheric scientists with PhD's will produce a computer model that can do that anytime in the near future! (Side note: Though the ultimate position of the axis of heaviest snow didn't quite extend into the metro as far as I predicted, nor did it produce quite as much snow as expected, there were 3" snow reports on the Shelby/Tipton border, which is literally just several miles from those of you who claimed to get "nothing." Higher totals weren't much farther north than that. That means the forecast wasn't actually as bad as your perception of it. But that's not my point here.)

There are also those that seem to not be happy unless the worst happens. In predicting and communicating the weather, we as a weather industry will almost always err on the side of caution. Not to the extent that we're crying wolf intentionally or "hyping," but making sure that the array of possible outcomes we communicate reasonably include some of the credible outliers. There are those who get mad because they didn't get the snow on the highest end of the range or insist that because "it didn't happen at my house" it shouldn't be discussed. I have 3 words: "bless your heart."

Providing all reasonable outcomes allows decision makers (including each of you) to prepare for that outcome. We would rather over-warn than under-warn, because under-warning has much more dire consequences. It's the nature of the business. (Side note on "hype": we don't hype on MWN. Hype requires that I am overstating because there is something in it for me. The services we provide, by and large, are free. I gain nothing, but stand to lose a lot of that trust I talked about above, by overstating intentionally.)

Finally, the other problem that is not mine, but that I have to deal with in this business, is the preponderance of comments that are shared electronically that most human beings would never share to another person's face. We feel like we can hide behind an online "persona" or type whatever we're thinking without filter. I understand it and occasionally have been guilty of it myself, but I try hard to make sure that I don't "share" something in print that I wouldn't say if the person were standing in front of me. Asking kindly for an explanation as to what went wrong with a forecast is one thing, but passive-aggressive statements and outright blame for something I have ZERO control over is uncalled for. Again, "bless your heart."

Some will say, "Well you chose your field and chose to make yourself 'available' to the public by getting on Twitter and Facebook, that's what you get when you screw up!" No, I CHOSE my field because I had a passion for it long before Twitter had been invented. I CHOSE to be on social media because I felt like I had something valuable to offer and it was a means to offer that service. I didn't choose to be thrown under a bus. But, I realize, sometimes that comes with the territory. Meteorologists that have been in the field for any length of time gain a thick skin. We know when we're wrong before you do most of the time because, as a whole, we are as passionate about what we do as any career out there. We judge ourselves before you judge us. Ask just about any meteorologist why they do what they do and it's because they LOVE their job and couldn't imagine doing anything else. When things don't work out, we work to figure out why so we can do better next time.

One last comment: to those who have taken the time to write a note of appreciation or encouragement today, or any other day, THANK YOU. It's why I do this. Together, we'll shake off the haters. :-)

Thanks for reading and for placing your TRUST in My team and I work hard to provide the very best service possible, but there are definitely times we mess up, and I can guarantee you there will be more! In this business, they are called "opportunities to learn and grow." Someone much more powerful than me is in control, I just try to predict the outcome!

Be safe and enjoy the snow day,

Erik Proseus
MWN Meteorologist


Unknown said...

Meteorologists are human, like everyone else. You all do an excellent job.

Eddie Holmes said...

My goodness Erik this was thought through and well stated! I've been in broadcast meteorology since 1977 and most of the time it was under-paid if paid at all!! What I want to echo is that every meteorologist I've met, whether government, academia or communications love the science and are driven by that and a desire to help folk with their weather sensitive plans. The two areas I have become thick skinned to and am sure you have is taking the "friendly" pokes that come our way. Secondly, as you mentioned, we know when the dynamics of a weather event are not coming together before the users of our product. We can't correct it before it goes on the shelf. We can't do a recall. We can hope that our users understand it is not a perfect science but,wow, it is so much better than when I began in the 70's. There are fortunately one or two heartless people that set unreasonable and unattainable expectations on a science that never will be flawless. Erik, I have known you personally and professionally for going on 15 years and I can attest to your knowledge, passion and integrity. Users of MWN are getting the best!

Eddie Holmes,
West Tennessee Online
Meteorologist-CBM WBBJ-TV, Jackson TN.

Beverly said...

Thank you for all your hard work. Appreciate you!!

Unknown said...

Eric, thank you for your blog entry. I know it's a hard job and most of the time the forecasts are close. It's almost impossible to predict chaos. I think most everyone's anger stemmed from the hype that the local tv channels all did. It was sickening for me to watch and listen knowing our pattern over the past few years of weather. Since finding MWN, I pay attention to your forecasts because as you've said in your blog, you've got nothing to gain by all the hype. I appreciate the work you do in trying to make right he weather forecasts that we receive. Yours is the most accurate I've ever seen. Good job, Eric!

Wayne C.
Cordova, TN

ct said...

I sure you had all kinds of words or statements thrown at you I for one claimed hype. But even though you have nothing to gain from forecasting the weather. Before there was social media the only thing we had was TV and I believe most weather person loves what they do there was and still is a lot of hype. I'm sorry for what I might have sent or said about this snow event. I will come back to this site for the most reliable weather I can get

Meteorologist Erik Proseus said...

Eddie - Coming from you, this is high praise. Thank you so much! It has been an honor and privilege to call you friend and colleague for many years. We share a common vision of service to others and passion for the science. Thanks again!

Wayne - Thank you also for your kind comments and for being a longtime follower of MWN! We all have our hits and strikeouts and appreciate your trust!

Joe and Beverly - thank you both so much as well! Appreciate you leaving those comments!

Meteorologist Erik Proseus said...

CT - Thanks for leaving your comments. There was no one individual I was referencing in this blog, so rest assured it wasn't directed at any one in particular! :-) Stay safe!

Glenna said...

I have to admit that I was confused this morning after all the hype, mostly from the networks. That said, it never occurred to me to shoot the messenger. It's not your fault, for heaven's sake, if the wind changes or whatever.

Wendi said...

<3 you guys! Come hold my hand, we can shake off the haters together! LOL! Hang in there, and have a great weekend.

Curt Davis said...

When it comes to reports of bad whether on the horizon I know a few things to be true:

1. Memphian's don't know how to drive when it rains or even snows outside.
2. People are looking for any excuse to not go to work.
3. Kids love a snow day.
4. You can blame not doing things bc of the whether.
5. The whether man will always get dumped on when the report doesnt match what actually happens.

annethomas said...

I'd far rather be more prepared than I needed to be than find myself in the opposite situation. Thanks for all you guys do to keep us safe and as informed as humanly possible.

Beau Dodson said...

I read your blog entry tonight, as it comes to my email each day. As always, you tell it like it is. The chips will always fall where they may. We do our best and the rest is up to nature.

I did not follow what happened down in your area. I was too busy dealing with what was happening in my forecast zones. But, I can figure it out based on what you said. There will always be haters. There will always be jealous people.

Ignore them. We learn from every storm. We walk away with a little more knowledge than before. And maybe we educate the public a little more, as well.

JamSidJon said...

Great article! I do find it interesting that so many people get upset if the predicted snowfall forecast is "wrong". It seems to never happen with rainfall totals, predicted overnight low values, or really anything else in weather. Weather has advanced so much in just the 30+ years of my life, and people take this for granted. I'm not one who blames the media for everything, but I do wonder if sensationalized winter storm coverage, particularly in areas not prone to getting snow, contributes to the negative reaction when the storm does't play out as expected.

Anonymous said...

I still love you, Erik. Keep up the good work! Joan Allison

Meteorologist Erik Proseus said...

Thanks to all of you for your kind comments! Greatly appreciated.

Beau - you are one that would definitely know from experience "how it goes" in a situation like this. It's one big learning experience!

JamSidJon - I thought about raising those same points but had more important points to make and it was getting long. :-) I do think that too much focus on "getting the shot" or "telling a story that draws eyes" contributes in a way. By and large though, the weather community themselves do a great job of focusing on science and impacts rather than "making a story" out of it. Their information can be skewed by the newsmakers. Tough job mixing science with news!


Kevin said...

Predicting the future is very difficult. To quote Master Yoda, "Remember, always in motion is the future and many possible futures there are."

Y'all do a great job!

Anonymous said...

Mr. Eric,

Always enjoy reading your blog and expert analysis of upcoming weather. You do an excellent job of explaining the weather and what factors you are considering for coming weather events. I trust your analysis and read your blog(s) when wanting more information about the weather. Thanks for making yourself available!