Sunday, April 20, 2014

Thoughts on Easter

Today, Easter Sunday, the social media are full of posts proclaiming the resurrection of christ jesus.  This outpouring of rapturous excitement over a mythical event nearly 2000 years ago provides justification for this blog post of mine.  They're entitled to believe whatever they wish, and are free to proclaim those beliefs however they choose, at least here in the USA.  So am I.  Hence, this is an occasion for me to discuss a particular aspect of this belief system.

I've already posted a web essay that provides an extended position statement, so I won't repeat all that here.  Keep in mind, the goal of my essays and blogs isn't to "de-convert" anyone from their beliefs (everyone has been "converted" to their religion - most often by their parents - no one ever was born with a particular religious belief), but rather to suggest that faith-based religions are irrational.  Every rational person knows there's no way to provide absolute proof of the existence of the abrahamic deity often referred to as "god".  Why is that?  If the putative deity exists, I'm told by believers, it chooses to avoid giving any tangible evidence of its existence (although it was quite willing to do so 2000 years ago, for some reason!), so that nowadays believers must accept it purely on faith (i.e., belief without evidence).  Evidence would apparently make it too easy!  Why is that?  Why should this deity work so hard to make it difficult to believe in it?

Every rational person also knows there's no way to provide absolute proof of the non-existence of said deity.  This is often a response from believers when their belief in a deity is challenged, who usually go on to commit the logical fallacy of claiming that the inability to disprove something constitutes proof of that something.  What we're really talking about is evidence, or more properly, its non-existence.  The evidence I see is basically consistent with the non-existence of a deity.  The burden of proof falls on the person making the claim, not someone who disbelieves the claim, especially in the absence of compelling evidence for the claim.  If someone were to provide convincing evidence, I'd be willing to change my mind.  Would believers do the same?  In many cases, it seems, they assert vigorously they would not!  I have another web essay on this topic, so I'm going to leave it at that, here.

What I really want to comment on this Easter Sunday is my continuing struggle with how otherwise intelligent and rational people are willing to embrace irrationality.  I'm not talking about fundamentalists who interpret scriptures literally and accept those scriptures as literal truth.  Fundamentalists must somehow rationalize that the literal words of scripture are contradictory, full of logical and historical errors, and sanction all sorts of behavior we would consider immoral.  I'm not going to dwell on this here.

Most christians in the US have interpreted many parts of the bible as metaphor, parables, songs, etc., and rationalized biblical words in various ways (e.g, 'Just how long was a "day" in the Genesis story of creation?'), no doubt at least in part because it's pretty clear that science contradicts those literal words, with a lot of evidence to back up the scientific understanding.  Believers have labored hard to find a way to accept 'magical thinking' even though they know magic is not real.  Unlike religion, science makes no claims to complete understanding, but what understanding it has developed since the Renaissance is solidly rooted in evidence - evidence that scientific understanding works in the real world, not just within the confines of a collection of writings from barely-civilized late Bronze Age tribal members of 2000+ years ago.  Is there a conflict between science and religion?  You bet there is!

The challenge that a rational believer must resolve is that clash between rational and irrational - you either develop your opinions and beliefs based on logic and evidence to the maximum extent possible, or you accept belief in the absence of evidence (faith).  Religious belief creates a cognitive dissonance with reason and evidence - a clash that must be resolved.  Many rational christian believers apparently solve this challenge by compartmentalization:  science and rationality hold sway in many (if not most) elements of their life, whereas in the religious compartment, faith and irrationality dominate.

Why would people do this?  I'm not qualified to provide an evidence-based answer, but I can at least speculate, so long as I admit I have no evidence.  Thus, I suspect otherwise rational people cling to their religious beliefs so desperately for many reasons:
  • Fear of death and the promise of eternal life.  
  • Threat of eternal punishment for unbelievers.  
  • Hope for a reunion with those who have died before them.  
  • Solace and comfort provided by a myth being used to control them.  
  • Social support from their religious 'tribe'.
  • Inertia of beliefs developed in childhood.
  • A way to explain tragic events in their lives. 
It's a willing suspension of disbelief in one compartment of their lives.  When I hear from an intelligent believer that nothing could ever cause them to waver in their belief, that's prima facie evidence of a closed mind on that subject.  I'm reminded of when some people are being told something they don't want to hear, they stick their fingers in their ears and go "La-La-La-La ... " to avoid hearing those words.  They're afraid to have their beliefs challenged.  They're afraid to admit their security blanket might have no rational basis, and so might be unable to provide security, save that of the placebo.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Can We Prevent the Coming Tornado Disaster?

Recently, a photo taken from a AA baseball game shows a storm that is pretty close to the field and the players are still out on the grass in the open:

Some might think that's a tornado, but it's not ... it's an example of a so-called "shelf cloud" associated with storm outflow winds.  The primary danger to the players and fans in this photo isn't from a tornado but from strong winds and lightning.  A proper venue plan to mitigate those dangers would involve input from a meteorologist to provide a warning with enough lead time to protect the players and fans.  Such a warning could not offer absolute certainty, of course, and the venue operator may not wish to shut down the game, thereby losing profits, unless it's virtually certain that such action is needed.  Hence, the reason players are still on the field may be this profit-driven reluctance.

Note:  in baseball, I think it's the formal responsibility of the umpires to delay or call the game for safety reasons.  The referee has that authority in football.  Nevertheless, the venue operator no doubt bears some responsibility here.  There has been some improvement in sports venues to reduce the lightning threat, but this photo seems to suggest there's still a ways to go. 

Many of us meteorologists are concerned about the potential disastrous impact of storms on large venue activities:  ball games, amusement parks, concerts, and so on.  It's inevitable that a really bad storm will hit one of these events and cause mass casualties.  There are numerous examples of near-misses by significant tornadoes, for instance.  There's no reason to believe that good fortune will continue forever.  Rather, it's inevitable that a large venue event will be hit by a strong tornado.  It's frightening even to contemplate such a disaster.  Despite the efforts by some of us to heighten the awareness of this danger, the response has been less than overwhelming, as this image suggests.  What are the reasons for this reluctance to act on the potential for a disaster?

I've already mentioned the profit motive.  Cancelling an event hurts profits, and after all, the primary reason for an event is to make money.  It's my understanding that if such a catastrophe could reasonably be anticipated, it's the legal responsibility of the venue operator to have a mitigation plan and implement it.  Can this reasonably be anticipated?  I think I just did and I like to believe I'm being reasonable!

Venue operators must weigh the loss of profits against the potential losses through legal action after a disaster occurred for which the venue was unprepared.  I detect a bias in their responses toward ignoring the threat of those lawsuits in preference to those short-term profits.  And providing some sort of storm shelter for patrons could be expensive and remain unused for a long time.  For some events, it's hard to imagine any practical way to provide shelter for everyone.

In my experience, most people (not just venue operators) have no wish to learn about the real risks that confront them.  There's a lot of good information produced by the National Weather Service (and other sources, like FEMA) that's specifically intended to inform non-meteorologists about the threat from thunderstorms and severe weather.  Thus, the information is available.  Why might people not wish to learn about risks to their lives and well-being, thereby being prepared to take appropriate action?  I'm not a social scientist, and we have much to learn about human behavior, but I can speculate.  For one thing, many people have experienced storms and survived without harm.  A common phrase heard after the impact of a really bad storm is "I've never seen anything like that!"  People tend to assume their experience is much more representative of reality than it actually is.  If, in their lifetime, they've never been hit by a tornado, then without thinking about it, they can fall into the "normality" bias ... it's normal not to be hit by a tornado, so it's easy to assume that will continue forever!  People choose to accept myths as truth because they want those myths to be truth.

Rare events are inherently dangerous, because that rarity fosters complacency.  Why take the time and resources ($$) to prepare when you most likely will never have need for such preparations?  Never mind that someone experiences such an event virtually every year.  "It's not possible for that to happen to me!  It only happens to others!"  And commonly, after someone is hit, they say "My sense of security has been destroyed"  That sense of security was an illusion, not reality.

Someday, and I can't tell where or when, a 'perfect storm' of factors will result in a bad storm hitting a large event venue and mass casualties will result.  Then, the lawsuits will fly, and fingers of blame will be pointed.  We could reduce the chances that it will be a disaster by proper mitigation plans and measures.  Can a coming disaster be averted with mitigation plans and preparation?  Yes, of course!  The question is, however, will that disaster be so averted?  The jury is still out ... sad to say, it may take a disaster to cause much movement toward mitigating the potential for more disasters.  We humans tend to learn lessons the hard way.

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.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Tribute to Liz Quoetone

Today, on the 89th anniversary of the deadliest tornado in US history, a friend and colleague - Liz Quoetone - succumbed to cancer.  Her passing seems sudden and shocking to those of us who knew and admired her.  Liz was the embodiment of service to our profession of meteorology, and affected the lives of many, many people in a positive way.  She was a person passionately devoted to training operational meteorologists how to deal effectively with severe weather and has, no doubt, indirectly saved many lives as a result of her training.  Moreover, Liz was a deep thinker, who could cut to the heart of the issues of effective operations, and proposed innovative new approaches to operations that made use of the latest research.  Whenever she spoke on the subject, it was wise to shut up and listen!  

All of her huge professional contributions aside for the moment, Liz was a delightful person to be around.  She seemed always to be upbeat and looking forward to her next opportunity to enhance someone else's life.  Which she did frequently.  With the news of her passing, my biggest regret is missed opportunities to tell her how much I appreciated what she was doing and how impressed I was with her accomplishments.  And simply to say that it was a pleasure to be in her presence.  If we all could try to say occasionally what positive things we think about our friends and colleagues, the world would be a better place.

Liz Quoetone leaves this world a much better place for her having been with us.  May her close friends and family be able to take some solace from that.  They have my sincere condolences.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Building codes - brutally violated!

Today, I learned that an investigation of building construction practices in schools hit by the 20 May 2013 tornado in Moore, OK showed the schools were egregiously in violation of building codes.  Seven children died in the Plaza Towers school.  So how can this be happening?

The sad fact is that to anyone with any knowledge of construction practices, doing damage surveys virtually anywhere across the USA will understand how pervasive building code violations are in this nation.  When I participated in the FEMA Building Performance and Assessment Team (BPAT) survey of damage in Moore after the 3 May 1999 tornado in the company of a team of civil engineers, I was appalled by how widespread building code violations were in the rubble of the damage tracks I walked.  I have seen similar things outside of Oklahoma.  It's truly disgraceful how bad construction practices are in the USA.  And they have not changed appreciably since 1999, sadly.

Rural construction often is done in the absence of any local building codes.  But in most communities, local governments have adopted the standards of the American Society of Civil Engineers, more or less verbatim.  Through most of the US, the standard is that structures built to code should suffer no structural damage in winds of up to 90 miles per hour.  It can be argued (and I've done so) that in the tornado-prone parts of the USA, this requirement should be upgraded to match those in hurricane-prone parts of the US eastern and Gulf of Mexico coasts (120 mph).

But, as has been suggested by Tim Marshall, and by my own experience in damage surveys, many if not most structures in the USA aren't even built to that minimal code!  I repeat - how can this be happening?  It seems to me that there are at least three reasons for this blatant disregard of public safety.

Reason #1:  The builders have no financial incentive to build homes properly.  Homeowners typically have no clue about how to evaluate the structural integrity of their homes, and likely never paid any mind to what was actually going on at their homesite when the home was being constructed.  Building to code takes extra time and incurs additional cost for materials.  The builders often seek and are granted "exemptions" from various aspects of the building code by the community politicians.  Homebuilder profits increase when corners are cut and the code violations accumulate.  And some of them simply take outright illegal shortcuts to pad their profits. 

Reason #2:  There's no builder accountability for building code violations.  If the builder is sued for negligence, the company declares bankruptcy and there's nowhere to go for financial redress via the law.  The owner walks away scot-free, perhaps to form a new company and resume the same practices, without penalty.  Corporations and LLCs are created specifically for their executives to avoid personal liability for the practices of their companies.  The company assets can be seized, but the owners are free of accountability.  This is wrong in the case of builders, and needs to be addressed.  Repeat violations should result in the owners being charged and prosecuted as criminals!

Reason #3:  Code enforcement is not even marginally adequate.  Community politicians either don't care about building code violations or they may have been "convinced" by the homebuilders to oppose any attempt to strengthen building codes and/or code enforcement.  Code enforcement is limited by the need for multiple inspections as the structures are built, and inadequate staffing to do a rigorous job.  Code enforcers often join the construction industry in saying "Trust us, everything going on that you don't see is being done properly."  Unfortunately, the sad reality is that this is simply a monstrous lie. 

If you want your structure built to meet code, you essentially need to teach yourself what are proper construction practices and then be on-site every day as the builders work, to ensure they aren't taking code-violating shortcuts.  There are a few scrupulous homebuilders, but endorsements and certifications aren't reliable indicators of their commitment to proper construction practices.   You need to more concerned about structural integrity (and drainage, proper plumbing, and electrical) than about the granite kitchen countertop and the fancy fixtures in the bathroom.  Building in a saferoom as a storm shelter is much easier and less expensive when the home is being built than fitting one in retroactively.

If you don't have any idea of how your home was built, it's probably safe to assume it does not meet even minimal code requirements.  Likewise, the schools your children attend are probably in violation of code requrements - likewise for churches, workplaces, shopping centers, stores, community buildings, entertainment venues, and so on.  It's likely that finding and repairing all the code violations in your home (or other structures) would be so expensive, you'd never be able to afford it.  It's fortunate that the chances of your home being hit by the violent winds of a violent tornado are pretty small on an annual basis.  Most of the time, routine safety precautions will be enough to save your lives.  But every year, someone is hit by a violent tornado, and in some events, routine safety precautions aren't sufficient to save your lives.  Do you have an adequate tornado shelter?  Some unscrupulous shelter companies sell products that aren't sufficiently well-built to provide "near absolute" safety, so shelter buyers should do some homework and not accept claims at face value.

As it stands, there's little hope for a short-term solution to code violations.  The only way this can change even in the long-term is for concerned citizens to rally around the cause of putting some teeth into codes and code enforcement.  If we stay at "business as usual" the problem will never go away.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Some more thoughts about gun violence in the USA

The issue of gun violence continues to plague the USA.  Many so-called "gun rights activists" refuse  even to consider the possibility of enhancing gun control legislation.  For them, it's a black and white issue:  any proposal to increase the controls on guns is immediately resisted vigorously and rejected out of hand with no possibility of compromise.  No civil discussion is possible.

I've discussed certain aspects of this problem here and prefer not to raise those points again.  Recently, in some e-discussions, certain additional points have been raised and I want to discuss them.  It's pretty clear that those already engaged in crime (drug dealing, gangbanging, burglary, organized crime, etc.) can obtain firearms without any regard for gun control laws.  They're already breaking laws, so what concern would they have for laws governing legal access to firearms?  For sure, no laws will prevent them from arming themselves.

But what about gun violence perpetrated by people with no obvious prior connection to criminal activity?  These are "responsible" gun owners, with nothing on their record to suggest that they would use guns irresponsibly or to commit a crime - until they do so.  Someone I know has indicated that if they commit a crime with a firearm, they were "criminals" even before that criminal act!  This is incomprehensible illogic - how can they be criminals before they commit a crime?  The idea reminds me of the movie Minority Report!

So if we exclude from legal gun ownership the usual suspects:  convicted felons, diagnosed psychotics, children under some reasonable age (say, 18), known terrorists, gang members, organized crime members, etc. - then what we have left are people who have not yet forfeited the right to keep and bear arms legally.  Of course, some percentage of those not excluded will, in the future, commit crimes using firearms.  By what means might we identify such people before they go outside the law and obtain one or more firearms, ammunition, and other paraphernalia associated with using firearms for a criminal act?  Short of the pre-cognitive capability of those in the sci-fi movie Minority Report, the simple answer is, unfortunately, we can't.

Even if we somehow could prevent them from obtaining firearms, they might use some alternative weapon to cause bodily harm:  knives, bricks, baseball bats, hockey sticks, poisons, martial arts, etc.  However, guns clearly are brutally efficient killing machines.  The likelihood of killing someone you've attacked goes up considerably if you use a firearm rather than any of these alternatives.  Guns are tools and by themselves are mostly harmless (save for the relatively rare accidental discharge).  Thus, the usual argument is "Guns don't kill people.  People kill people."  But when people use guns to kill (even accidentally), they're far more likely to kill than with other weapons.  Suicide attempts with firearms are much more likely to be successful.  For me, at least, to say guns don't kill people sounds weak when you read how often people are killed with firearms in the USA.

I don't know the percentages, but I think it's safe to say that those responsible people who'll go on to commit a violent crime are in the minority.  Hence, I believe that a majority of people will, in fact, obey gun control laws, precisely because they're law-abiding people.  If we make gun control more strict, the net result will be to reduce/limit gun ownership, of course.  One of the many ways criminals in the USA can obtain guns is by stealing them from others or by buying them from those who steal them.  The widespread ownership of guns in this country means that thieves can obtain guns to sell on the black market in the process of burglarizing many homes where guns are kept.  Guns are a high priority for burglars precisely because they command good money on the black market, where many criminal potential buyers do their "shopping".  When a homeowner's guns aren't kept in a locked cabinet, they're readily accessible - thieves know where people usually hide their firearms and search efficiently for hidden weapons.  I know this personally, because thieves have stolen guns I owned.

The argument that law-abiding people arm themselves in self-defense against gun criminals makes it more likely that criminals will be armed!  In turn, this can convince even more people to own guns.  A society where most people own and bear arms is not a peaceful society!  It's a society, like that of Afghanistan, dominated by violence and death.  More gun ownership cannot possibly be a solution to gun violence, regardless of the claims of the gun rights activists!  Even arming the police is not a solution, in part because criminals can use equal or even greater firepower against the police, and police are known on occasions to use deadly force inappropriately.  Armed police (and armed citizenry) simply encourage criminals to be armed!  This is the logic behind the lack of firearms among most British police, in a nation with very strict gun control laws.

The prevalence of gun ownership in the USA also means that thieves are usually armed in the process of burglary.  They don't want to be cornered and captured by some homeowner with a baseball bat or a gun.  Thus, even the seemingly nonviolent crime of robbery is closely coupled to the threat of gun violence.  Personally, if gun ownership was even more tightly limited by new gun control legislation, I would gladly give up my guns.  I'm not so besotted with love of guns that I'd prefer to be shot down in a battle with police rather than to surrender my firearms.  Anyone who would choose that alternative as a reality and not just an empty slogan doesn't deserve the right to own firearms, in my opinion - such a viewpoint indicates a kind of psychosis.  The notion of armed militias fighting a noble pitched battle with an evil government seeking to restrict their civil right to own firearms is absurd and childish, and flies in the face of the firepower a government could bring to bear.  Ask the Branch Davidians ...

One thing I would like to see is the implementation of laws that include consequences for irresponsible gun owners - even those who've not yet committed violent crimes with firearms.  For instance, if you keep your guns in your house in such a way that your children (or burglars) can gain access to them, you have your ownership rights restricted.  If you accidentally discharge your weapon and someone is injured or killed as a result, your right to own a weapon should be limited.  Multiple offenses should lead to eventual prohibition of legal gun ownership.  Being irresponsible with firearms should be considered a criminal act - one with consequences!  Carelessness with guns should be reflected in your background, so when you go to buy a firearm and undergo a background check, that information would be there for the seller to see.

Our heavily armed society is taking us closer and closer to the Afghanistan model, with serious consequences for pervasive gun violence that threatens all of us.  Yes, I concur that stricter gun control won't stop criminals, but it might keep at least most otherwise responsible people from becoming criminals! 

Friday, January 31, 2014

What information does a weather forecast contain?

A colleague of mine said something years ago that struck me as insightful:  every model forecast ever issued was wrong!  Wrong in some way or another, to a greater or lesser extent.  Obviously, some forecasts are better than others, but none of them have ever been absolutely perfect.  His point was to suggest that human forecasters need to avoid basing their forecasts purely on Numerical Weather Prediction (NWP) model output - a notion with which I agree fully.  However, the same can be said of every forecast ever issued by human forecasters, as well!  The reality is that we can never predict the weather with absolute certainty.  I've not the space nor the inclination to go into the details of why this isn't just my opinion (maybe later) - it is, rather, based solidly in our scientific understanding of the atmosphere.  So, put in terms of the information content of a weather forecast of any sort, a weather forecast is not a statement of what definitely and certainly is about to happen in the future, in detail.

Because weather has substantial impact on human society, it's obvious that people want to know what's going to happen weatherwise ahead of time.  I'm fond of saying "Yes, of course, and people in Hell want a glass of ice water!" - which I heard many years ago from a co-worker.  What people want isn't necessarily what they're going to get.  The fact is that we have never been able to provide that sort of information and there is every reason to believe we'll never have that capability.  That notwithstanding, our relationship to our users predominantly has been such as to perpetuate the myth that we can provide that with 100% confidence.  Users want something and we pretend we can give it to them.  Surely our users know by now that such a capability doesn't exist!  Their own empirical evidence is that we can't do it and that evidence is at least a contributor to the widespread notion that weather forecasts are inevitably and totally wrong.

If plausible bounds are put on what constitutes a good forecast (as opposed to a perfect forecast), it should be noted that these days, today's weather forecasts are correct (within those bounds) a high percentage of the time (e.g., for 24-h daily maximum and minimum temperatures within 5 degrees of the observed value, it's about 85% or better).  So our weather forecasts currently contain useful information (despite not being perfect), within some limits, out to about 7-10 days.  What you experience is usually fairly close to what we forecast most of the time.  Beyond that "predictability limit" of 7-10 days, our weather forecasts become no more accurate than what we would see if we simply forecast what climatology (i.e., the long term averages for a particular location, date, and time) says we should expect.  At that limit point, we say our forecasts no longer have any skill, relative to climatology.  The greater the lead time, the less accurate the forecasts (and the lower their skill), on the average, out to the predictability limit.

What I would like to have us do is re-negotiate the contract we have with the users of weather information.  We need to be able to provide them with whatever forecast information we have, including some sort of statement of the uncertainty associated with the information we have.  Let's put aside the existing relationship, in favor of putting information out that we actually have to capability to provide!  Now the language of uncertainty is probability, and I'm constantly being told that people don't want probability (the glass of water in Hell problem) or they don't understand probability.  You don't need to be an expert in probability theory to put it to good use, and many people are very familiar with the notion of odds (probability in another form).  What we are doing now, with the lone exception of precipitation probabilities, is pretending to provide absolute certainty.  The historical background of how Probability of Precipitation (PoP) was introduced is interesting but far more than I want to expound upon in this blog.  Whatever the problems are with PoPs, they are a far more meaningful way to express our forecast information than all the non-probabilistic elements in a weather forecast.  If we don't express our uncertainties, we are actually withholding information from forecast users!  That can't be a good thing, and it comes back to bite us, time and time again.

An analogy with sports is a fair comparison, at least to some extent.  Our predictions for who will win the Super Bowl in the pre-season have much greater uncertainty than the night before the game is actually played.  Even then, there remains some uncertainty, and reasonable people can disagree about the outcome right up to the time the whistle blows and the winner is known with absolute certainty.

Therefore, to answer the question posed by the title of this blog, a weather forecast contains the forecaster's best estimate of what that forecaster (who might possibly be an NWP model) anticipates is going to happen with the weather.  It's not a guess, but rather our assessment of the situation and what we believe is the most probable weather that will occur, at the time we issued the forecast, given the finite accuracy limits on the method used to create that forecast.  As new information comes in, that forecast can change, sometimes dramatically.  Our diagnosis of what is about to happen virtually never coincides precisely with reality, but at times we can get it fairly close, especially at the shorter lead times.

A weather forecast always should include information about forecast uncertainty and that is necessarily going to be more complicated to explain than just reading a list of numbers.  More information inevitably requires more effort.  If the user is going to make the best use of the information we reasonably can provide, the user must accept some of the responsibility to pay attention to the forecast, to learn what the forecast actually is saying.  If all you want is the numbers, then you've forfeited a good deal of the value the forecast is trying to provide.  The choice can be left up to the user.