The “Social Media-rologist” Dilemma

| January 4, 2016 @ 7:22 am

Operational meteorologists are dealing with an issue that won’t go away, and seems to be more problematic every year. It usually begins with a flood of Facebook private messages and posts asking “is this true”. And, they share a link to a social media post with an eye opening headline about a big winter storm coming in two to three weeks for the southern U.S. Or, if not a winter storm, severe cold, ice, or a tornado outbreak. We all know these are the “sexy” parts of weather that gets the attention of people. And usually there is a really cool map with vivid colors that show the 2 to 3 week threat.

Snow-Panic

The truth is most weather professionals were drawn into the business by their experience with some banner event in their young life, like a snow storm or tornado outbreak. It was the case with me, and with others I know that forecast the weather for a living. Nothing wrong with being interested or fascinated with events like this. It is the core of who we are.

WHY A PROBLEM? So, what’s the harm of forecasting snow, ice, or tornadoes more than two weeks in advance?

*There is very little skill in a SPECIFIC forecast beyond seven days. Yes, we can forecast trends and the overall pattern sometimes, but even that ability is limited. I love looking at pattern recognition and teleconnections, attempting to resolve what the overall conditions might be like in 15-30 days, but there is no way I can tell you detailed weather information that far in advance. And, I have yet to find anyone who can.

The greatest thing missing in meteorology is humility. There are many things we don’t know, and many things we can’t do.

*Most of the 2-3 week “forecasts” are done by people not qualified to forecast the weather 2-3 days in advance. Most are young weather enthusiasts that, in their love for ice, snow, or severe weather, just “wishcast” by throwing out model maps they have pulled down on various sites promoting the weather they love and desire without understanding the limitations of using those products, or the science behind them.

In no way do I want to discourage young people learning about meteorology; they have a treasure trove at their fingertips with their phone, tablet, or computer. I could only dream about this when I was 13 years old. Nothing should be allowed to dampen their enthusiasm, and encouragement is what they need from older guys like me. Every Friday, I have a young person and their family in our studio for the sole reason of encouraging them, and opening the door for a potential future career in meteorology. Many incredible scientists have come out of those Friday sessions going back 37 years. And, most of them are sure smarter than I am.

But, young people need to understand a banner headline about a snow storm in three weeks in the southern U.S. can create a societal impact they don’t understand. More about that later.

*Let me point out there are some that are really good at developing long range ideas. Joe Bastardi is one of them; I have learned much from Joe over the years and love reading his products and hearing his ideas. Sure, he gets it wrong sometimes, but we all do. And, Joe understands how to issue his products without causing human weeping and gnashing of teeth.

On social media this weekend, after dealing with dozens of questions about a big southern snow next week, I posted a note on Facebook encouraging people to “think before they share”. I had a screen grab of a “clickbait” headline with the post; turns out that article was pretty well done, and by a college student majoring in meteorology. His followers came over in masses attacking me and my integrity/character; I have no problem with that since “if you dish it out, you have to take it”. That is just part of being in weather these days. And, please don’t go to his site attacking him or his character. His intentions are good, and this has nothing to do with character or integrity, it is about ethics.

His headline read “SOUTHERN WINTER STORM THREAT INCREASING SECOND AND THIRD WEEKS OF JANUARY”. He even draws a rain-snow line in the discussion… “The rain/snow line will probably be somewhere extending from Birmingham to Atlanta into Upstate SC and central NC.”

I clearly should not have used that guys headline since he is pretty qualified and his work was good. My bad. But, there is still an issue.

*Most weather enthusiasts don’t understand societal impacts of what they write. Write a good clickbait headline, and you can get thousands and thousands of shares. It will spread across Facebook like wildfire. Good for them getting all those likes and clicks, but do they think about the real human impact?

A mother with a child suffering from chronic kidney disease is scheduled for peritoneal dialysis in 2 weeks. After seeing the Facebook headlines, she begins to call wanting to reschedule for before or after the “snow storm” coming her way. A delay in dialysis could bring health complications.

A family has a long planned camping trip in two weeks; they cancel and due to the approaching “snow storm”. Desperately needed time away vanishes.

A rural county with very limited funding spends a significant amount of money on snow chains for police cars and rock salt and sand for road treatment for the coming winter storm.

A trip is cancelled to see an aging parent, who doesn’t have long to live, due to the potential for a big snow storm in 2 weeks.

These are actual examples of the cases I heard about this weekend from social media questions to me. No, dialysis isn’t being delayed, the camping trip isn’t being cancelled, money isn’t being spent, and the elderly parent will be seen. But there was serious consideration in each circumstance due to reading Facebook headlines on their newsfeed.

Could we have a snow storm in 2-3 weeks? SURE. But with the skill set we have now, nobody knows if the snow will come at all, or if it will be in Louisville, Nashville, Birmingham, Jackson, or Atlanta. The one thing we can tell is that the pattern looks cold next week (scroll down for the morning discussion and video).

The followers of social “media-rologists” become fiercely loyal since they hear what they want to hear, and use the stereotypical argument of “the weatherman on TV is always wrong”. And unlike those of us in the mass media, when the armchair forecaster is wrong they simply disappear for a while, or hang on to the few long-range forecasts that were correct as proof they’re the real deal.

Is the “TV weatherman” always wrong? Read this essay from Brad Panovich, chief meteorologist for the NBC affiliate in Charlotte. Of course we get it wrong sometimes. And, on occasional, we miss a high impact event. But long time readers know I bring it to the table and take full responsibility for when that happens.

I am asking three things here…

*For those that are qualified to write long range thoughts, please communicate uncertainty with clarity, and avoid “clickbait headlines”.

*If you are young person that loves weather, go for it. Write a discussion, tell a good story. But please don’t ramble into a territory that can cause a negative human impact with crazy 2-3-4 week snow storms and tornado outbreaks. You can learn responsibility at a very young age, that will carry you far in life. If you are local, send me an email and come see me. We will help get you started.

*For the masses, “think before you share”. I know this problem isn’t going away, but you can help by not sharing outrageous long range forecasts.

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About the Author ()

James Spann is one of the most recognized and trusted television meteorologists in the industry. He holds the AMS CCM designation and television seals from the AMS and NWA. He is a past winner of the Broadcast Meteorologist of the Year from both professional organizations.

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