Saturday, December 28, 2013

A Sucker Born Every Minute ...

In these times, it seems superfluous to present more evidence regarding the old adage (attributed to P.T. Barnum) that there's a sucker born every minute.  Social media are rife with ignorant nonsense.  Television is dominated by shows of monumental vapidity sponsored by products preying on people's narcissistic concern for their self-image.  Gambling casinos hum with activity 24/7.  Politicians convince people to vote for things that clearly are not in the self-interest of those voters.  And so on ...

Nevertheless, I'm moved to provide yet another example: the marketing of long-range forecasts.  Virtually any respectable meteorologist knows that our ability to forecast the weather accurately in a deterministic way decreases with increasing lead time.  For those of my readers who don't know what 'deterministic' means, consider this product:

Note that the high and low temperature forecasts in this National Weather Service (NWS) product are given to within one degree Fahrenheit for each forecast time.  This conveys no information about increasing uncertainty in the accuracy of the temperature forecasts, so this is a 'deterministic' temperature forecast.  There might be various ways to show that uncertainty, but this sort of product simply makes no attempt to do so.  

It should be evident to most people that uncertainty increases with time over the period of the forecast, but nevertheless it seems that many forecast users are uninformed about this.  The product above is not a 'long-range' forecast, of course, being less than a week ahead.  Beyond a week or so into a forecast, the accuracy of weather forecasts is no better than what you would find if you simply forecast the local climatological averages for that date in the future - in technical terms, after about 8-10 days, the forecasts have no skill over a 'climatology' forecast!  A skillful forecast is one that is more accurate than some standard forecast method, such as random guessing, persistence (every day will be just like today), climatology, or whatever standard you wish to choose.  [Accuracy refers to the difference between what is forecast and what is actually observed.  Accuracy and skill are not synonymous!]

The same is true for the sky conditions and sensible weather forecasts in the product above.  However, observe that the weather forecast for "tonight" mentions a "chance" of freezing drizzle.  What does the word "chance" mean to you?  Do you think everyone interprets that word the same way?  This language is at best an attempt to describe uncertainty, but it uses words for which the meaning is unspecified.  The language of uncertainty is probability and a proper forecasts should always contain information about the uncertainty. 

In 2012, AccuWeather began issuing long-range forecasts out to 45 days, well beyond the 8-10 day limit of skillful predictability.  In those forecasts, no uncertainty information is provided, so to the user, the level of precision in the forecasts beyond the predictability limit looks just the same as the forecast for tomorrow, which is at best a deceptive practice, arguably bordering on unethical.

Recently, a study of the accuracy of the long-range forecasts from AccuWeather for selected cities was done.  That study shows what any meteorologist already knew:  AccuWeather forecasts exhibit no positive skill over climatology beyond about 8-10 days (or less) and in most cases show negative skill beyond that of climatology after that time. The important information that the uncertainty increases with time is not an explicit part of their forecast.  For NWS/NOAA forecasts out beyond a week or so, there's a different sort of product suite - see here - that provides a non-deterministic sort of forecast product.

Most users typically don't keep track of what the forecast was even a week ago, to say nothing of the forecast 45 days ago!  They also don't typically subject the forecasts to rigorous verification analysis.  Hence, they naively 'look at' long-range forecasts and perhaps even use them to make personal decisions.  It would be interesting to interview a cross-section of users of those long-range forecasts to ascertain their opinions regarding their value and how they go about dealing with the decline of accuracy with time in the forecasts.  It's hard to imagine how an unskillful product would be of much value to users ...

It seems that many people are at least attempting to use long-range forecasts somehow, and private sector companies provide their clients with what they want.  Unfortunately, such products are not what users need, which is a forecast with uncertainty information included.  When users aren't informed about forecast uncertainty, they have to guess for themselves how much faith to put in those forecasts.  Capitalizing on user ignorance by issuing deterministic long-range forecasts beyond 8-10 days is a shameful practice.  Caveat emptor - let the buyer beware!!

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Morale of Federal Employees

 A blog about the causes for low morale among Federal employees just came out from NPR.  I disagree strongly with the final take-away message of this blog regarding Federal employees:  ' "They're there for the salaries and benefits," he says. "They're not there because the jobs make them happy." '  I can't speak for all Federal agencies, but that statement is simply wrong about the majority of the NOAA employees with whom I worked.  I wrote my own web essay about the rewards for idealism in the NWS, and I believe it comes much closer to reality in ascribing causes for low morale in the NWS.

Management of Federal agencies is far from uniformly bad, but I believe most Federal employees who actually care about their work (certainly not all employees, but the majority in my experience) find their greatest frustration in the words and deeds of their own management.  NOAA managers have been singularly ineffective in acting on behalf of their agency's needs, have failed to enhance the ability of their employees to be effective at their jobs, and have created an atmosphere of fear in the organization whereby most employees with complaints and criticisms are cowed into silence by the threat of retribution.  The working employees, in their wish to serve the needs of the agency's customers, are being hampered constantly by their managers.

For an outsider, like the author of this NPR article, to come to such outrageous conclusions is seriously inaccurate, and insulting to thousands of Federal employees passionately dedicated to their jobs.  National Public Radio should be ashamed to have 'published' this piece.  It's extremely shoddy journalism and provides support to the canard that characterizes Federal employees as overpaid, underachieving parasites on society, enriching themselves while offering little or nothing of value in return.  Can such Federal employees be found?  Yes, of course - most of them in the ranks of agency management, with a small minority amongst the 'worker bees' (the employees who actually do the productive work of their agencies).  Likely there's variance in this respect within the broad spectrum of Federal agencies.

During my career, I had an opportunity to work part-time within a group of folks (in a Federal agency I won't name) whose job it was to provide a service.  Among the employees with whom I worked, there was a widespread attitude of contempt for the customers their group was charged with serving.  I don't know from whence this attitude came, but it pre-existed my arrival and I naively accepted it as the standard for how I approached the job.  Our team manager became aware of this and called a group meeting where he proceeded to tear us a new asshole - rather than treating our 'customers' with contempt for not knowing how to do the paperwork, we were to provide help as needed to expedite the needs of customers, without the contempt and without the hassle.  I was ashamed of what we'd been doing because I'd been on the receiving end of similar treatment during my professional career and understood only too well how that made me feel.  Why did I not recognize this and behave differently?  OK - lesson learned.  No doubt that such attitudes can be pervasive in many service organizations, Federal and non-Federal.  However, the employees can be made to understand that such non-performance is unacceptable, if that's the culture at the top.  When top management is more concerned about other issues than customer service, then it's understandable that the agency might well be peppered with bad attitudes.  No doubt a lot of the negative perceptions of Federal employees stems from interactions with Federal agencies where customers were treated badly.  It takes very few experiences of contempt from a service organization's employees to produce a deeply negative perception, no matter how well the majority of employees perform.

Federal employees are an easy target.  They're typically not allowed to respond to what politicians (and their own managers) say.  Politicians love to demonize them as a force resisting whatever policy changes the politicians want to make - changes often more political than helpful and uninformed in the extreme about what the agency actually does and why it operates in a certain way.  Sadly, this NPR article only reinforces the view that Federal employees deserve to be targeted.