Weather services and social science: the tail (re)-discovers the dog.

For the past year or so it’s been my privilege to be part of a National Academy of Sciences study on social and behavioral sciences and the weather enterprise. We’re in the process of concluding the study; the findings and recommendations will be a topic for another day. In the meantime, here’s some personal reflection prompted by the study and by some related reading during a vacation just concluded (as envisioned at the moment, this will be the first post of a three-part series).

For almost all of human experience (going back the order of a few millions of years, so a considerable time), experiencing weather conditions, anticipating weather changes, and weaving those into decisions and actions was a wholly individual matter. The entire process – the making of meteorological forecasts, the application of social science to provide impact-based decision support, and the decisions and actions based on all that – didn’t have these labels that we use today. It lacked theoretical foundation and analysis. It was flawed and imperfect in myriad other ways. Though not subconscious, it was not exactly accomplished with full self-awareness. That said, it was experience-based, seamless and integrated. Our ancestors would look at the sky, more or less frequently depending on what was going on, and plan accordingly.

This universal human thought process wasn’t incidental to human history. It mattered! Thinking and acting like meteorologists made us who we are today.

Just how strong was that influence? The anthropologist Clive Finlayson, in his book The Improbable Primate[1], gives us some idea. He puts forward the hypothesis that humans are brainy compared with our simian forebears because of the competitive advantage inherent in understanding the connection between weather and (patchy) water availability, and the concentration of food (game and plant life). He also argues that we’re lanky compared with those same forebears because being able to run quickly to seize rain-related hunting and feeding opportunities outweighed any self-protective advantages of being squat and chunky. Picture hundreds of thousands of thought processes like the following extending over a million years: That line of cumulonimbus on the horizon? It’s raining over there! The land is blooming, coming alive. Game – prey and predators alike – are gathering. The moment won’t last forever. We’ve got to get moving, join the party[2].

Fast-forward to the 1800’s. By this time, human beings were seeing meteorology and weather forecasting as a distinct, self-contained topic, suitable for study in and of itself. Progress was slow but accelerated greatly with the invention of the Victorian internet – the telegraph – which made it possible for countries and continents to assemble time synchronous (synoptic) pictures of weather patterns and track their movements. Many nations established weather services. Understanding flowered. A century later weather services would receive another big boost – this time from new observing tools such as radar and weather satellites, and from computing, which ushered in numerical weather prediction.

From the first, national weather services were very much organized and structured to provide practical benefit – usually captured in some mission statement referencing the protection of lives and property. In the United States, for example, the early years of the Signal Service focused on public safety, but gave explicit, special attention to the safety of sailors on the Great Lakes, support for cotton agriculture, and river forecasts. With time, other sectors such as fire weather and aviation have been added to (or sometimes subtracted from) the mix.

For their part, governments, the public and weather-dependent business sectors have always seen the utility of weather forecasts, but at the same time hoped for improvement. And improvement there has been! For most of the past century, the focus has been on physics. It’s been tacitly assumed that the key to greater utility of weather forecasts lay in improving the accuracy of the physical forecasts themselves (predictions of temperature, winds, and precipitation, etc.), refining the specifics of weather-event location and duration, and extending the time horizon of forecasts from hours to days to weeks.

In recent years, however, as forecasts of physical atmospheric conditions have gotten better, the picture has changed. In judging the value of weather services by evaluating decisions and actions of individuals, emergency managers; federal, state, and local governments; and private businesses in the face of weather forecasts, it is increasingly evident the factors limiting forecast value today are largely social. Limitations in risk communication – both the crafting of mass messages and their interpretation. The role of individual past experience in shaping response. The emerging role of social media. Demographics – including but not limited to special issues with the elderly, the young, the sick, underrepresented groups, pet owners. The overlay of competing daily concerns for attention: jobs, education, kids, healthcare. Environmental justice (or, more commonly, its lack or deficiency). Social context and governing policy frameworks, including the relative emphasis given pre-event hazard mitigation versus emergency response, and much more.

And guess what? As meteorological sciences have advanced over the past century, so have the social sciences also emerged as separate disciplines in their own right and moved forward. Psychology, sociology, economics, geography, communication, and many other disciplines have been born and flowered – and now have much to offer in the way of insights about how and why  we humans individually and in groups think and behave the way we do, including our  development of and response to information of all sorts, including weather forecasts in particular.

Whew! Get the idea? Any short listing of the social side of the problem such as the above fails to do the justice to the challenge. To expand focus from weather observation and prediction per se to protection of life and property isn’t just an incremental step or small extension.

It’s a giant, transformational leap. (Wow! That sure is a big dog…)

The next two posts will respectively look more closely at (1) the nature of this leap, and (2) the public-policy implications.


[1]You can find a recent LOTRW post on the book here.

[2] Please make allowances for the anachronisms – obviously none of this is the vernacular of the time…

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