Monday, 12 December 2011

Blame it on the weatherman!

Still don't know what to get that weather obsessed friend of yours for Christmas? Look no further than a new clothing range launched by the Met Office in collaboration with ethical clothing company Rapanui. The range, which depicts common weather symbols with light hearted alterations, such as a cloud symbol on top of an ice cream cone, highlights how embedded the weather is to the average citizen of the UK. 

As this soggy windswept isle battens down the hatches for a night of forecast gales across the south and west of the country, with 'be aware' severe weather warnings in place, one of the t-shirts in particular stood out.

The Met Office Heavy Blame Tee - Source: Rapanui Clothing
The Met Office Heavy Blame tee is accompanied by the following blurb:

"We love to blame it on the weatherman, especially on rainy days. As heavy rain leads to heavy blame, the public points a cloudy finger at our meteorological heroes. At the end of the day it's all in good fun, its part of our culture and this tee celebrates it!"

As someone whose research investigates this public finger pointing of blame toward meteorologists the acceptance of the existence of such a cultural phenomena by the Met Office is important. Not that it is something peculiarly new; for as long as meteorologists have had the knowledge to forecast reasonably accurately future weather systems, they have had to accept that the public will blame them when said predictions are incorrect.

Indeed the first attempts at providing the general public with weather forecasts in the UK were short lived when in 1866 a parliamentary inquiry led by Francis Galton, ruled that the forecasts weren't generally correct, that the service had no utility and should be withdrawn.(1)

By the post war years meteorologists experiences of forecasting to the general public had led to considerations of how best to communicate uncertainty and risk to the  man on the street. New services such as TV forecasting and high street weather centres provided the general public in the UK with a much more visual understanding of the forecasts, but alas blame still quickly emerged when forecasts went awry.

The most well known case of blaming it on the weatherman occured in October, 1987 when a storm devestated the south of England.  The Met Office TV forecaster Michael Fish (in)famously stating that, "earlier today apparently a lady rang the BBC and said she heard that there was a hurricane on the way. Well don't worry if you're watching, there isn't." The media and public severely attacked Fish and the Met Office's forecast- subsequently Fish has argued that his comment was taken out of context and that he was  made a scapegoat for the whole episode.

The complexities of how and why the public, media, or politicians direct blame to forecasts, forecasters or forecasting organisations are manifold- I've not spent 3 years researching such things for simple fun! Yet one thing which always strikes me is the number of times in these cases that the Met Office (or other forecasting body) has actually got the bulk of the forecast spot-on and in fact the blame has arisen out of a mis-communication of the risks and uncertainties involved in forecasting something as dynamic as the weather.

So maybe the Met Office should be less accepting of the blame it receives than its new t-shirt suggests? Instead considering why public forecasts contain very little mention of probability, risk, and uncertainty. Whatever they do, I'm sure the British publics' mantra will remain that sang by the late 90's Irish girl band B*Witched who so eloquently chirped, "wont blame it on myself, blame it on the weatherman."

(1) - Storm Warnings for Seafarers by M. Walker RMS History Group Part 1 in Issue No.3, 2009 and Part 2 in issue No.1, 2010

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