On Wednesday the threat of snow shut down much of DC. Very little snow penetrated the Beltway. In the wake of the “unnecessary” shut-down has come a blizzard of second-guessing.
I perceive three broad critiques:
Bad Intelligence Analysis (in this context called weather forecasting): From a late February blogpost by weather-geek Cliff Mass, “U.S. numerical weather prediction is lagging behind the European Center and others–a diagnosis pretty much universally accepted in my field. I listed some of the reasons: inferior computers, poor management, lack of effective leadership, inability to tap the large U.S. weather research community, and others.” (At the Cliff Mass Blog you will find thoughtful self-critical analysis of the weather profession specific to the Snowquester).
Poor Communication between Intelligence Community and Decision-makers: “We made our decisions based on, unfortunately, faulty weather predictions,” said Pedro Ribeiro, spokesman for D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D). “You can’t really blame the government officials for using the data the scientists gave them.” More self-critique from the Weather Gang, “Communication of uncertainty is something the entire weather forecasting community should strive to improve… One of the reasons, as we get closer to the onset of the storm, that we drop some uncertainty information is that some readers want to know the bottom line, without qualification. They view scenarios and percentages as “cop-outs.” Ultimately, there has to be a sweet spot, where we can effectively communicate uncertainty concisely and effectively while also presenting a most likely forecast. We’re constantly working to find that and came up short in this last case.”
Over-dependence on Signal Intelligence (weather models) contrasted with Human Intelligence (common sense): A reader comment posted on the Weather Gang’s blog, “Driving my car on Tuesday afternoon I listened to dire predictions of snow for Wednesday. Somehow I couldn’t equate the fifty six degree reading on my dashboard thermometer with the supposed 5-10 inches of snow set for the next day. Do weather forecasters ever engage in predictions that include going outside? Sorry, my mistake I referred to them as weather forecasters and of course we know it’s weather guessers.”
Meanwhile about thirty miles west of the Beltway– and admittedly a thousand feet higher — the snow accumulated to over ten inches and power was out for tens of thousands.
Uncertainty can be denied, but it persists. There is no “sweet spot”. Humans cannot communicate clearly enough for everyone to accurately hear. Many will not even listen.
Randomness is fundamental reality. Perceiving patterns is possible, but precise prediction should not — cannot — be depended upon. We have some important control along the margins, but we should not fool ourselves into overestimating our capacity. On a global scale a thirty mile margin is pretty impressive.
We will fail in both directions. This time we seem over-cautious. Some day soon we will seem neglectful. There are consequences both ways.
The readiness to self-critique demonstrated in this instance is encouraging. We should learn what we can. But it is a profound error — the ultimate in tragic hubris — for any of us to expect perfection of ourselves or others.