July 12, 2008

On the Boxing of Broadcast Meteorologists

By Voss, Katrina

A witty, oxymoronic proverb from statistician George Box reads as follows: "All models are wrong; some models are useful." When I first heard it, the quoter-my husband-used it to refer to his work as a geneticist. The very concept of races among humans, he was explaining to me, was exasperatingly, annoyingly imperfect-and yet grudgingly utilitarian. Surely, every branch of science would like to claim the Box tautology as most fitting to its own field. So without apology, I'll not resist the urge to steal it from genetics (as my husband stole it from statistics) and declare it most fitting to forecasting, however unoriginal my thievery may seem. The very word models so aptly calls to mind those models forecasters use, half use, and often discard, in the preparation of a forecast. Indeed, such is the mark of a skilled forecaster: the admission that all the models are wrong.

Such is also true of meteorologists themselves-those who forecast, those who broadcast, those who teach, and those who write papers intelligible to but a select few. That is, like the Eta or the Global Forecast System (GFS), the models for people are wrong. And, like the Eta or the GFS, they are nonetheless useful. Anyone who has ever taken the Myers-Briggs personality test knows the catharsis of learning he is an "INTJ" or an "ESFP." If he is wise, he also knows where he strays from his model and how not to let this sliver of truth become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Still, there is much to be gained from shrewd pattern recognition, in the science and in the business of weather. (A forecaster once told me that when he blurred his eyes intentionally, he could discern hook echoes where his fellows often missed them.) Patterns, like models, work when we allow the edges to soften.

Perhaps I've been in a unique position to have worked at two companies where broadcast meteorologists and operational meteorologists labor together daily and in close proximity. Perhaps the schism between the two is more glaring when we're all stuck in the same building. I've seen the latter accuse the former of a whole host of meteorological transgressions, such as relying too heavily on quantitative precipitation forecasts and National Weather Service (NWS) discussions. I've seen broadcast meteorologists roll their eyes and cough on the secondhand smoke of what they regard as technical drudgery. I've seen behind-the-scenes meteorologists either feign or genuinely feel surprise every time a broadcaster position is filled by a witty communicator with a charming smile. Watch it from afar and you see elements of a Montague-Capulet saga.

Models for people-including those of people who work in weather- are useful and, perhaps more importantly, unavoidable, and the sooner we concede that, the better. Neither the witty-tongued, handsome showman nor the glassy-eyed, fumbling technician should be dismissed as merely a quaint cliche. Shine a bright light in one place and, inevitably, other places fall into shadow. True, the artist who is labeled an artist or the scientist who is labeled a scientist may become more of one and less of the other, if only for the confines of nomenclature. Still, in every tired stereotype, there is a grain of truth. Indeed, stereotypes may fade into anachronisms or reverse themselves altogether or be stomped out by relentless campaign, but until then, like Box's models, they will persist as long as they are useful. So when news directors choose broadcasters over bonafide scientists (with or without actually testing the assumed showmanship of the former or the ineloquence of the latter), can we fault them for following a model that often proves effective?

Once, after a kidney infection that caused my temperature to shoot to 105[degrees]F, I found myself complaining to a dermatologist when, three months later, my hair was falling out at an unusually rapid rate. After explaining to me that high fever can belatedly but temporarily speed up hair loss, he comforted me with the assurance that I would become too old for television long before I would become too bald. More accurately, as long as time continues merrily in the same forward direction, a broadcaster's face will always predecease his brain.

But the real tragedy of our work as broadcasters, forecasters, or academics is neither the eventual expiration of our faces nor that of our brains. It is our tendency to forget that a good product obliges both faces and brains and that often neither one face nor one brain will suffice. For all our different approaches and attractions to a field of science and inquiry (as yet in its adolescence), we are enriched as a community by a sort of market- generated crosspollination. To quote Julian Simon, "resources come out of people's minds more than out of the ground or air." For better or for worse, we are stuck in a unique arranged marriage. After all, biologists do not often work with broadcast biologists, nor do anthropologists with broadcast anthropologists. To make any marriage work, a little compromise-if only in attitude-goes a long way. While dyed-in-the-wool scientists must concede the relevance of packaging, broadcast meteorologists must not dismiss the advice of their more seasoned counterparts as bothersome scientific elitism. As long as forecasting and public dissemination of forecasts remains a collaborative effort, neither must look down his nose at the other. We might start by recognizing some usefulness of Boxian models of showy broadcasters versus puristic scientists, putting aside for a moment our inevitable recollection of some person we once met who was both or neither, to truly appreciate how these models might work for us. We can find a way to better respect each other's work.

First, there is something to be said for giving credit where credit is due. Unlike many of my broadcast meteorologist brethren, and at the risk of being labeled a traitor, I have shed no tears over the AMS's introduction of the Certified Broadcast Meteorologist (CBM) Seal. Indeed, it is high time the AMS extolled the virtues of operational and academic meteorology with a new kind of seal, distinguishing those who have plowed gleefully through hours of calculus. However, I strongly disagree with it as a replacement for the previous seal: Why throw out the baby with the bathwater? Why not offer both, making clear they honor different, and often complementary, educational backgrounds? Why not allow us broadcasters who have sought a form of higher education in the field of meteorology to be recognized? Why not allow those congruously qualified to obtain both seals?

Second, if the problem is one of titles, by all means, let us assign them appropriately, fairly, and consistently, as other fields do. An optometrist is distinguished from an ophthalmologist in that the latter is a medical doctor with three years of residency under his belt. Likewise, a psychologist is distinguished from a psychiatrist as the second is a medical doctor with the authority to prescribe drugs. The very names describe the length and focus of education. Why not distinguish by more careful taxonomy a broadcast meteorologist from a meteorologist (or even, a meteorologist from an atmospheric scientist)?

Finally, there is something to be said for letting the chips fall where they may. Fear not, meteorological purists, the same audience that clamors for glamour will not tolerate mere fluff for long. After all, a television broadcast is not a public service. It is a business. As with any business, if the product consistently fails, whether in style or in substance, the consumer will eventually abandon it for the competitor. Only so many times will the public- however one may fault them for their preference of American Idol over geopotential heights-put up with that rare weathercaster who cries wolf or falls asleep at the wheel.

To permit any effective exercise of our hybrid vigor, however, we must cozy up a bit to Box's box and not be afraid to think a little inside it. That is, we must not ignore the wisdom of proper division of labor. Here at AccuWeather (as was the case with my previous employer, The Weather Channel), there are forecasters who forecast exclusively, and there are broadcasters who broadcast exclusively. No one pretends that all broadcasters can forecast or that all forecasters can broadcast. And, of course, no one should pretend that broadcasters necessarily cannot forecast or that forecasters necessarily cannot broadcast, only that there is likely one or the other each does best. As Box so astutely noted, science would not work without the rigidity of models, and neither would it work without the ability to ignore, tweak, or supplant those models as needed.

KATRINA VOSS currently works as a meteorologist and holds the AMS Seal. She can be seen on English- and Spanish-language stations, including Univision's San Francisco, Fresno, and Monterey, California, stations. Other essays by Katrina Voss can be read in Free Inquiry magazine. She is also collaborating with a Pennsylvania State University anthropologist on a book about evolution, genetic ancestry, and society.

Copyright American Meteorological Society May 2008

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