Saturday, February 16, 2008

Everybody Talks About It

Mark Twain famously said, "Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it."

T. Foster Lindley, my old Philosophy teacher, used to tell us, "Everybody talks about the weather precisely because nobody can do anything about it."

A friend, Peter, has offered the opinion that "the only purpose of local news is to keep you entertained and interested until the weather comes on."

I agree with all of them - particularly Professor Lindley - which is why I believe that the following story could actually be true.

On a bright, sunny summer day at about twelve noon Karl looked out his office window and noticed that (1) there were considerably fewer people out-and-about than you would normally see on such a beautiful day, and (2) most of the foot traffic was carrying umbrellas.

Karl had been the only local TV meteorologist that morning to forecast rain - a source of much embarrassment to him. So his first reaction was to feel pride at the amount of faith that his viewers apparently still had in his weather reporting ability. Followed by a feeling of "I won! I won!" as exemplified by the small percentage of weather-appropriate pedestrians in the crowd. But then he began to wonder about the common sense and sanity of the parasol-packing populace. It had been at least six hours since he had put out his unintentionally false prognostication - four hours for the late sleepers.

Didn't they notice that there had not been a single cloud of any kind in the light blue sky - not just cumulonimbus or nimbostratus, as he like to call them, - but nada, nil, zippo, zilch. No freaking clouds at all! Don't these people look up at the sky? Don't they have windows at work?

And what if they did, and decided, "You know it doesn't look like rain" and were wrong - what was the worst that was going to happen to them anyway? They're in the damn downtown anyway - five seconds away from shelter in any direction."

"What is wrong with these people?" Karl wondered. "Don't they think for themselves?"

So he tried an experiment. About two weeks later, on a similarly promising beautiful weather day, he deliberately mis-forecasted the very high likelihood of extremely severe thunderstorms, fifty mile per hour winds, and downpours of rain. It was a Saturday and there were several outdoor events scheduled - town picnics, antique shows, art exhibits, etc. In spite of the fact that these activities mostly did not begin until afternoon, by which time everyone who was planning on going to them could have seen how wrong his forecast was, attendance universally dropped by over two-thirds from years past.

He definitely felt that he was on to something - so he decided to ratchet it up a notch. On another weekend day when he was scheduled to do the weather morning, noon and night he decided to not only give a fearful forecast in the morning, but to stick with that forewarning at noon, and in the evening to act as if it had actually happened the way he said it would. He supported his after-the-fact forecast with made up temperature and precipitation numbers, and he reprogrammed the radar images to support his hoax.

Not one viewer complained. Instead everyone basically accepted his heartfelt explanation that "a few fortunate localities just dodged the bullet", and stayed tuned in for the "five day forecast later in the broadcast".

The news director Karen was however apoplectic - not about the inaccuracy, but instead about the fact that she hadn't been forewarned and therefore was not able to get reporters out on the roads to provide satellite coverage of the weather events that were in fact happening only in her weatherman's imagination.

If Karen had known about it the day before then she could have scheduled all of the journalists' locations and stories at that time, and she and they could have slept in the next day.

The fact that each correspondent would be narrating exactly the same view of the same news - that the particular area from which they were reporting had indeed been blest not to be blasted by the bogus bad weather was not a problem. It would, after all, be backed up by several people on the street interviews. Viewers just loved these stories - in fact the news ratings had gone up fifteen percentage points for the five days immediately following each of Karl's previous fibbed forecasts.

And the reporters loved reporting them. They got to wear cool baseball caps, and the stories, always being basically the same, were pretty much a cinch to write - basically one of the "off the rack - fill in the blanks" story templates they had learned in journalism school. And best of all because they too "just dodged the bullet", they never got wet.

Win - Win!

So first once, then twice and finally three times a week the station ran an impending weather disaster story package - complete with warnings several days in advance that were broadcast on the screen-bottom message crawl and via program interruptions.

The stations ratings continued to soar - and attendance by people at outside events plummeted. So much so that most retail businesses decided that it just wasn't worth it to even open on "storm days", especially since their sales on the day immediately preceding the impending disaster more than made up for it. And since employees didn't get paid for not being there - the business's profits went up.

And the viewers themselves were never happier. Even though they outwardly complained more than ever, it turned out it was more enjoyable to not be able to do things because of circumstances beyond their control, than it was to do them and run the risk of less than complete satisfaction.

Win! Win! Win! Win!

Everybody was feeling happy, except for the meteorologist who masterminded the whole megillah.

Not having studied with Doctor Lindley, Karl thought that most people wanted the information from the weather forecasts in order to enable and empower themselves. Apparently not. To add to Karl's angst and confusion, because he had brought so much happiness to so many people, he was actually being hailed as an authentic hero. And his methodology of misleading meteorology, which in other circumstances would have been reviled and criticized, was instead being publicly praised and widely emulated.

"Of course the end justifies the means," my old professor would have said. "That's what ends are for."

Here is one of the forecasting tools that Karl might have used.

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