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A rant on “hype”

July 25th, 2008 - 6:48 am

[UPDATE: I wrote this post hurriedly and in something of a huff last week. Now that it's getting some attention, let me make myself a bit more clear: I certainly don't regard anyone who accuses the media of "hype" as an idiot or moron or anything of the sort. On the contrary, I agree — as I state below — that the media is often guilty of hyping hurricanes, sometimes egregiously so, just as they're often guilty of hyping all sorts of other stories. The media is a hype machine.

What I'm talking about in this post are the accusations that forecasters hype hurricanes. In my view, those accusations are usually incorrect or at least grossly exaggerated, based on faulty logic and preconceived prejudices. Accusing a weather forecaster of hyping the weather is a serious accusation, and should be backed up with actual facts and argumentation, not mere bluster. If all you've got is 20/20 hindsight and AGW conspiracy theories, that's not enough. If you can't make a good, well-supported argument in defense of the notion that a particular forecast (not just a news report, but a forecast) was "hyped," then you shouldn't level the accusation in the first place.]

*   *   *   ORIGINAL POST BELOW   *   *   *

Hurricanes are inherently unpredictable beasts. Their tracks and their intensities are affected by a myriad of factors, which cannot be predicted with absolute precision — as the National Hurricane Center and other responsible forecasters consistently remind the public.

Thus, when a storm threatens land, there is always a wide range of possibilities — right up until landfall — for what could happen. Maybe the storm will strengthen at the last minute, or maybe it will weaken. Maybe dry air will disrupt the circulation just before landfall, or maybe it won’t. Maybe the eyewall will track over a heavily populated area and cause widespread devastation, or maybe it will just barely miss that area, and will instead track over relatively unpopulated land.

Tiny, last-minute, utterly unpredictable wobbles and atmospheric circumstances determine which course each storm takes. As a result, it is literally impossible for forecasters to know, for certain, exactly what will happen. Hence the NHC’s never-ending emphasis on, for example, the forecast “cone” as opposed to the center-line track. Again and again, they remind us not to treat their intrinsically inexact forecasts as absolute gospel truth.

With each storm, forecasters present the public with a range of possibilities for what could happen. Often times, this range includes a handful of scenarios that would have dire, drastic consequences, and a boatload of other, friendlier scenarios.

Usually, the friendlier scenarios will ultimately occur. But, as anybody with a post-kindergarten education knows, it is generally better in life to assume, and prepare for, the worst — and thus be pleasantly surprised if things aren’t as bad as you feared — than to assume that everything will be just fine and dandy, and thus be caught off guard when the worst happens.

Even if there’s only, say, a 10% chance of a disaster actually occurring, the prudent, responsible course of action is to warn people that a disaster might be coming — notwithstanding that, 90% of the time, that warning will ultimately prove to have been unnecessary.

Only a complete idiot would deny that obvious necessity of disaster planning, right? Only a total moron would say that we should ignore the 10% possibility of disaster, and simply assume that the 90% scenario will occur, right?

And yet, now that hurricanes have become a political football, a bizarre and infuriating phenomenon occurs every single time a hurricane hits land but fails to adhere to the direst of warnings. Out of the blogospheric woodwork come the village idiots, complaining of all the purportedly overheated “hype” and “doom and gloom” predictions that were once again unwarranted. “The forecasters said it would be worse than this!” they jeer. “This proves they’re a bunch of alarmists!”

The distinction between “would” and “could” is totally lost on these people. No, forecasters didn’t say it would be a disaster; they said it could be a disaster. And it could have been. Did forecasters emphasize the worst-case scenarios over the less dire scenarios? Yes — as they should! Only with 20/20 hindsight is it possible to look back at a storm and know exactly which warnings were necessary and which ones weren’t. In real time, forecasters and disaster planners have to assume that the worst-case plausible scenario will occur. They have no choice!

Because worst-case scenarios are just that — scenarios, out of a wide range of possible scenarios — they usually don’t happen. Yet if forecasters were to choose the grossly irresponsible course of ignoring or downplaying the worst-case scenarios, and then one of those scenarios did occur, the forecasters would be rightly pilloried (including by these same village idiots, no doubt) for failing to warn and protect the public!

Critics are holding forecasters to an impossible standard. When it comes to issuing warnings of disasters that are realistically possible but (of course) not guaranteed to occur, forecasters are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

Why does this make me so angry? Because those who unfailingly, thoughtlessly and relentlessly snark at forecasters (and, ahem, weatherbloggers) for these “incorrect” predictions — never mind that, in most cases, what actually occurred was within the predicted probability cone, so the predictions weren’t actually “incorrect” at all — are more than just ignorant idiots (though they are that). They’re dangerous idiots, because they give aid and comfort to the fools who, when subsequent storms threaten their lives and property, ignore warnings of imminent danger.

Wrongfully debunking “hype” that was actually fully warranted is incredibly damaging because it degrades the credibility of hurricane forecasters in the eyes of the public, for no good reason, and encourages things like this: “Nearly one-fourth of people in areas affected by Hurricane Katrina would refuse to evacuate for a storm if told to, a survey released Wednesday by Harvard University found.” If you ask those people, when a storm is bearing down, why they refuse to evacuate, I guarantee you that one commonly cited reason would be that forecasters overhype storms, and it probably won’t be that bad. This is a meme that has real consequences. Deadly consequences.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not laying the blame entirely at the feet of the “debunkers.” Could forecasters do a better job emphasizing the would/could and will/might distinctions? Absolutely. Of course, in issuing their real-time warnings, they need to be emphatic enough to get the public’s attention. They must strike a delicate balance between vigorous warnings and “crying wolf,” and in my view, they already do a better job than many give them credit for. But is there room for improvement? Sure.

Moreover, there are occasions when hurricane hype gets blown out of proportion — though I would argue that the media, not the forecasters, are usually to blame. Often, news coverage is more driven by the vagaries of news cycles than by the level of the actual meteorological threat. Thus, while some truly dire threats — like Hurricane Katrina on the Friday before landfall — don’t get nearly enough attention, other storms that don’t pose a particularly dire threat get more airtime than they deserve, with overheated, hype-ish rhetoric filling the news vacuum, simply because the cable TV stations need filler. (Think 2005′s Ophelia.) And the same thing can happen in the blogosphere as well. (Think 2006′s Ernesto.) So, yes, in that sense, “hype” is real.

However, demonstrating the existence of unwarranted hype — particularly in a forecast, as opposed to a CNN or Fox News segment or a Drudge Report headline — is far more complex than jumping up and down, screaming, “They said it would be a disaster, and it wasn’t!”

If you feel that a storm has been overhyped, fine — prove it. But you cannot prove it simply by comparing “predictions vs. actual events.” Instead, you need to remove the 20/20 hindsight goggles, ignore your knowledge of what actually occurred, and put yourself in the shoes of the alleged “hypers,” at the time when they gave the warnings in question. If you can demonstrate that, based on the information then available, the statements were unreasonable, then you’ve got a point.

But if you’re just reflexively claiming that a weather forecast was “hype” simply because it was ultimately not borne out, then you are encouraging a deceptive and destructive meme that is quite literally a menace to society. And you need to stop.

UPDATE: Welcome, PJ Media and InstaPundit readers!

One other thought occurred to me, in response to the people who insist that the media’s hurricane hype is driven largely or entirely by a global-warming agenda: why would you assume that AGW is to blame, when the media hypes everything? It’s not just hurricanes that are blown out of proportion by Fox News, CNN, the Drudge Report, etc.! They blow everything out of proportion! When they over-hype shark attacks, or celebrity gossip, or some inconsequential political story, or the latest “hidden danger” in your home, are those examples of hype also motivated by global warming?! I just don’t see why it makes sense to blame a behavior on a grand conspiracy when it’s actually completely normal, typical behavior for the people in question (in this case, journalists). They hype hurricanes, they hype Hillary’s pantsuits, they hype Anna Nicole Smith. Why should we assume a different motivation for the first example than the second and third examples? Isn’t it all more likely driven by the same things: sensationalism and ratings?

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