Facts Are Meaningless, Hurricanes Are Not

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One of my favorite Homer Simpson quotes is, “Facts are meaningless. They can be used to prove anything.”  Over on Wikipedia, “Spin” is defined as, “a form of propaganda, achieved through providing an interpretation of an event or campaign to persuade public opinion in favor or against a certain organization or public figure.” While “Hype” at Dictionary.com, is defined as “to intensify (advertising, promotion, or publicity) by ingenious or questionable claims, methods, etc.” Public relations departments spin facts into hype and misdirection countless times each day. Who among us has not learned to read the fine print of any claim from your favorite car manufacturer, cigarette company or diet commercial? Who among us doesn’t approach almost everything we see with at least a modicum of doubt or hesitation? For every fact, a counterfact.

But can we blame or prohibit spin or hype (we certainly can’t muzzle Homer!)? As a consumer, it’s up to each of us to be our own watchdog and make buying decisions carefully, as determined by how each of us decipher the facts. Caveat emptor.

What about your favorite meteorologist? If the forecast calls for thunderstorms on Saturday, do you assume a twist or a spin or a misdirection of the facts? Is it hype to lure you to tune in again? Probably not. After all, what’s the motivation to twist, spin or misdirect? You’re not buying the forecast so why wouldn’t the meteorologist lay it all out there for you? In reality, you are buying the forecast but that’s a story for another blog.

From inside my locker at ImpactWeather, Homer Simpson reminds me daily of how facts can be misinterpreted. (Photo: Dave Gorham)

From inside my locker at ImpactWeather, Homer Simpson reminds me daily of how facts can be misinterpreted. (Photo: Dave Gorham)

The hurricane forecast, however, is a different animal. Where a thunderstorm impacts a neighborhood, a hurricane impacts a geographic region with perhaps millions of people in its path. On the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts, television meteorologists battle amongst themselves to be the top-rated weathercast, and news stations rely heavily on their weather team and their hurricane prowess to vault them to the top position in the all-important ratings. Some are very worthy of the position; some less so. Like Ram wants you to buy their truck, your local news station wants you to tune in. What part of the hurricane forecast do you believe?

Dr. William Gray and Dr. Phil Klotzbach are two of the recognized leaders in long-range, seasonal outlooks for the tropical Atlantic (their 2014 report can be found here). Dr. Klotzbach, on numerous occasions has been a speaker at our ImpactWeather Hurricane Symposium. Not television meteorologists, they are researchers free of advertising dollars and television ratings. Do you believe their report?

Oh, I see. It’s not about spin, it’s about science. Who could believe a six-month seasonal report, no matter the numbers, when it seems meteorologists struggle with the lowly three-day forecast. If Drs. Gray and Klotzbach predict a busy season or a quiet season, does it matter? Is it hype? Is it spin? Is it meaningless?  Isn’t the “science” of meteorology part science, part black magic and part theater. Therefore, until a hurricane knocks on your front door, you have better things to worry about.

Here’s a fact. As of today, it’s been 3,116 days since the last major hurricane (Saffir-Simpson Category 3 or higher) struck the U.S. Mainland. Typically, busy season or quiet, a major hurricane strikes our coast at the rate of twice every three years. The last Category 3 or higher storm to reach the U.S. coast was Hurricane Wilma, on October 24, 2005. That’s almost nine years ago.

You could spin that and say that the hurricane season is only 180 days, so that instead of two Cat 3 storms every three years, it could be two every 540 days (180 x 3), or one every 270 days. Would that get your attention more than the “unspun” number? You could also hype it by saying, “This is the year because we’re so overdue!” Or might you still say that until a hurricane is moving into your neighborhood, facts are meaningless because they can be used to prove anything.

At ImpactWeather we have a dedicated team of tropical meteorologists who want, above all else, their forecasts to be accurate—both the day-to-day and the long-range seasonal ones. We don’t have television ratings, but we have clients. If we hope to maintain (and increase) our client list, our forecasts have to be accurate and to-the-point while remaining free of spin and hyperbole. However, an accurate forecast is only part of what we do. We also have an obligation to our clients to help them understand how the forecast relates to them and to help them plan for, respond to and recover from any tropical threat.

One of the ways we do that is with the ImpactWeather Hurricane Symposium. Now only a week away, the symposium assembles speakers who are experts in their fields of meteorology, business continuity and disaster recovery, as well as speakers from major corporations who have lived through a tropical disaster and have lessons and best practices to impart. You can learn more here and sign-up here.

Another way we do that is with the ImpactWeather Timeline Tools. The actual forecast is one thing, but the Timeline Tools are designed to help a client dig into the storm and produce objective guidance from which to make real decisions. Guidance that will help drive phase changes in response plans and help determine when to turn off the lights and evacuate (or, just as importantly not to evacuate).

Facts are facts. Some are meaningless, some are spun, some are hyped, but some stand on their own. It’s a fact that the last Category 3 hurricane was 3,116 days ago. What does that mean to you?

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