The Skeptoid Blog’s volunteer contributors are spread out all over the United States and even the world. I happen to live in New York City, where we’re currently experiencing winter weather. The following story might strike some readers as too local and small beer, but I think it offers some valuable lessons.
I love cold weather and snow, though a lot of people don’t, understandably. It has been very surprising to me to see how exercised people get about the routine business of being chilly this time of year. And we just recently went through what appears to be an annual tradition: public shock and outrage at a blizzard. We a lot of snow overnight on this past Monday and Tuesday. The storm of exaggerated anger the weather incited was almost as much fun to watch as the kids running around pelting each other with snowballs.
All this really began on Monday, January 26, over the course of the day before the storm hit. The Weather Channel had followed their recent policy of naming winter storms, christening it “Juno,” and that morning the National Weather Service (NWS) published their forecast for Juno with a warning that the storm could be pretty intense and had the potential to dump a lot of snow all over the place. The forecast gave a range of values for what the minimum and maximum snowfall might be and what locations around the coast could be most severely hit. News outlets, the mayor, and the governor all seized on the most dire possible scenario: 24-36 inches of snow dumped on the most populous city in America. That morning, both the mayor and the governor made grave announcements about the terrors of Juno, tempered with platitudes about how we’ll all get through this together because we’re courageous and decent people, etc.
Plows were out in force that evening as the snow began to fall, cars were restricted from use of the roads starting at 11pm, and the governor shut down the subway and other trains—a first in the transit system’s 110 year history. Schools announced closures for the next day. Supermarkets were hit hard by panicked shoppers, with several reports of empty shelves. One friend remarked that she and her husband hadn’t heard the news and went to Whole Foods for regular weekly grocery shopping, only to find the place ransacked and empty. Another friend speculated that it’s a sign that cosmopolitan New Yorkers don’t keep any food in their homes because they eat out all the time. I took it to mean that people living here for long periods of time still think that the possibility of being snowed in for a day or two might be life threatening.
When citizens of the metropolis woke the next morning, they found not 24, nor even 36 inches of snow, but just shy of 10 inches at its highest accumulations. Most subway lines resumed service at about 9am. I went to work as usual and found much of the city desolate and empty. It was beautiful and a little spooky. Certainly most people could have made the same commute I did, so I was a little puzzled at the absenteeism of other people in the city. Turning on the news one heard the clarion call: outrage!
Although it seems that many New Yorkers simply took the day off to stay inside, warm and cozy, or else go to a park with the kids and play a little, you would think by the reporting that we were experiencing severe devastation. To be clear: many, many people were inconvenienced and there was some minor economic damage and injuries. Businesses lost money because they decided to close, and because customers stayed home. Two NBA games got rescheduled. Outside of the city things were much worse. Parts of Long Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut got walloped. One person died in a sledding accident on Long Island and another elderly man with dementia died of exposure when he wandered into the storm. There was significant property damage in parts of the Eastern Seaboard. New Yorkers, however, mostly just got an unexpected vacation and there were far fewer threats to life, property, or commuting than elsewhere outside the city.
The local government was accused of over-reacting and taking too extreme measures against a dud of a storm. (Contrast this to the criticisms they received almost exactly a year ago when officials were denounced of doing too little to prepare for that year’s blizzard. Both were probably equally non-issues.) So what happened? This is a lesson in remembering, digging, and thinking critically.
First, remembering: as I mentioned at the top, winter storms are almost always a hassle and I’d be willing to wager that people mostly over-exaggerate the amount of hassle such snowstorms are, and tend to forget how trivial they end up being. Remembering that we typically get a big storm every year, and yet survive, might go a long way toward dampening the hue and cry heard every January.
Second: asking more of the media in analyzing storm models. The prediction was described as the imminent threat of two-to-three feet of snow. But that was only part of the prediction. The model used for such predictions can be described with a sloped projection of probabilities, meaning a graph of how likely is it that this storm will drop zero snow charted all the way up to how likely is it that the storm will dump three-and-a-half feet. This graph was pretty steep, so a small variation could mean big differences in snow fall. Nonetheless, the model did not describe two-to-three feet as being the most likely forecast for New York. The model predicted higher snowfall to the east of the city, though how far east the storm would be was also graphed, and meteorologists predicted that it would come far closer to the city than it did. Where the storm was at its strongest (and it was an exceptionally strong storm), out on Long Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, communities got buried with snow. Ignoring the likelihood of an event and focusing on the most dire outcome possible is very often not the best strategy, nor is it ethical for news outlets to emphasize such threats at the expense of telling people what they could reasonably expect.
Which brings us to the third point: the news media (along with government officials) totally blew all out of proportion a superstorm in New York City. And the silliest part is that they first inflated the potential impact of the storm and then criticized officials with responding to their exaggerated claims of the previous day. Last year the mayor did too much, this year too little; in both instances he did basically the same thing for the same storm since there’s only so much one can do to mitigate nature. Any significant effects of the storm were treated by plows, shovels, and a resolve to go be uncomfortably cold and get some slush on your boots during the day. But we should demand critical thinking and nuanced descriptions from the media, rather than simplified forecasts and simplified remonstrations. People watch sports and professional poker and political elections: they can deal with descriptions of probabilities more complicated than either 1 or 0. With reductive descriptions of the world, such as those propagated by news media in this instance, it shouldn’t be surprising that voters often blame politicians for acts of God, but it’s also not good.
I moved to New York from Texas and have reveled in the cold every winter. My first year in the city we had a very big snowstorm, the municipal response to which inspired a great Saturday Night Live bit, which I like to watch again each year as the history of cold and outrage repeats itself once again. It’s currently snowing again outside. It’s really pretty. I can’t wait to get bundled up and go experience a winter storm’s frightful ability to make the city more fun.
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