Thursday, March 27, 2014

"Hyping" the forecast?

I've been hearing the word "hype" bandied about in the context of weather forecasts recently - This begs the question of the meaning of the word "hype" ... from

hype: verb (used with object), hyped, hyp·ing.
1. to stimulate, excite, or agitate (usually followed by up ): She was hyped up at the thought of owning her own car.
2. to create interest in by flamboyant or dramatic methods; promote or publicize showily: a promoter who knows how to hype a prizefight.
3. to intensify (advertising, promotion, or publicity) by ingenious or questionable claims, methods, etc. (usually followed by up ).
4. to trick; gull.

Presumably, the implication when people refer to forecasts being "hyped" is that some forecaster is inappropriately exaggerating the threat posed by some event.  This seems to suggest definition #4: a "trick" to fool someone, presumably the users of the forecast.  The questions are if and why a forecaster deliberately would imply a greater threat than s/he actually believes will happen. A deliberate intent to deceive seems improbable to me in most cases.

If you disagree with the forecast, however, that's an entirely different issue.  Prior to an event, it's far from impossible that opinions regarding a weather forecast could vary.  We only know afterward with certainty who was right about the forecast.  If someone typically overforecasts the intensity of weather events, that should be evident in the verification.  [If no verification is done, that's a clear signal of a lack of commitment to forecast quality.  Never trust a forecaster who doesn't make known his/her verification statistics!] I've known forecasters prone to see disasters looming on the forecast horizon to a far greater extent than was justified by subsequent events.  Others are disposed to excessively conservative forecasts - downplaying rather than hyping. 

If the intent is not to deceive but rather to stimulate a response to the threat posed by the forecast event, is that necessarily wrong?  When a forecaster sincerely believes a forecast event poses a major threat, why not dramatize the putative impending event?  Severe weather in its many forms poses a real danger and people have a right to be informed of what could happen - they also need to know something about the uncertainty of the forecast, in order to make proper decisions for themselves about how to react.  The forecast may not be accurate, but I see no reason to infer some sort of bad intent from that.  This falls under definitions #1 and/or  #2, as I see it.  Does disagreement justify the pejorative description of "hype"? 

Given the widespread apathy generally evinced by weather forecasts, perhaps some exaggeration is called for?  To me, this represents a line that should never be crossed by an ethical forecaster.  Exaggeration of the threat beyond the forecaster's perceptions of what the actual forecast calls for is not ethical.  There might indeed be some temptations to exaggerate:  to stimulate a response from an apathetic audience, to magnify the event for the sake of making the forecaster seem important, to increase viewer ratings, and so on.  None of them justify this sort of action, which I would put in definition #3 - unethical forecast actions.  If a forecaster wants to be trusted, they should never exaggerate the threat posed by the weather.

Forecasting is inherently vulnerable to second-guessing, especially when the uncertainties have not been included as an essential part of every forecast.  Inevitably, it's not possible to get all the details right in a forecast - every forecast is wrong to a greater or lesser degree, and some users may be inappropriately upset about the finite capabilities of forecasters.  They should know better, but that doesn't stop them.  When forecasters take heat from other meteorologists for drawing attention to the dangers associated with the event they're forecasting, simply because there's a difference of opinion about the forecast, that's overdoing the criticism, in my book.  Let those who have never busted a forecast cast the first stones!  Don't assume an ethical violation without due cause.