Monday, April 5, 2010

TV Weathermen and Climate


A number of you asked about the NY Times story that reported on a George Mason University study that roughly a third of polled TV weathermen don't believe in man-caused global warming (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/30/science/earth/30warming.html). Specifically, 27% answered in the affirmative that "global warming was a scam." Only half thought that global warming was occurring. In contrast, nearly all Ph.D. and research meteorologists believe that global warming is occurring and will be highly significant. How can this be? I should note that this national poll is not representative of Seattle, where virtually all of our TV weathercaster contingent believe human-induced global warming is a serious issue.

A key question you should ask is this: what is the scientific background of TV weather folk? Do they have the education or experience that would allow them to provide an informed opinion of this or other science matters?

The truth is that most TV weather presenters or "weathercasters" don't have college degrees in atmospheric sciences or meteorology. My own rough estimate is that perhaps 1/4 have at least a B.S. in the subject. Very, very few have graduate degrees (M.S. or Ph.D.) in the field. The weekend weather folks generally have less real background than the weekday evening weathercasters, with the morning weathercasters a close second. TV stations obscure this lack of education by calling their presenters "meteorologists" and sometimes using impressive titles like "lead meteorologist", "head meteorologist", or "senior meteorologist" without any basis in real knowledge.

Let's be honest here, a B.S. in atmospheric sciences is the absolutely minimum background required for someone to have an informed view of the climate subject. A person with a B.S. degree has had calculus, physics, a good course in atmospheric physics, a class in atmospheric radiation, and quite probably one in climate. This is not even close to the education that someone in graduate schools gets and particularly someone working in the climate arena. So quite frankly, 75% of the TV folks don't have the knowledge base to provide a truly informed decision. The rest may be good communicators and fun to watch, but I wouldn't put much credence in what they say on topics outside their educational experience.

I should note that here in Seattle our TV weather contingent is quite strong. Jeff Renner, Shannon O'Donnell, M.J. McDermott have B.S. degrees in atmospheric sciences from the UW and deep experience. Rich Marriott has a M.S. Steve Pool has co-worker Scott Sistek with a UW B.S. and I tutored Steve for several years in the subject. Rebecca Stevenson has been studying the subject through Mississippi State and sat in on my senior forecasting class.

One of the arguments presented by the weathercaster doubters is that since we can't forecast skillfully more than approximately a week ahead, how can we predict climate a half-century from now? But the type of prediction is completely different: in one we are trying to predict the exact configuration of the atmosphere at a particular time, while in the other we are predicting climatological statistics average over extended periods of time.

So global warming claims are like anything else: before you trust someone's opinion, better insure they have the background to make an informed judgment. Don't get me wrong, M.S. and Ph.D. types can make mistakes or overhype global warming issues, but at least they have the background to truly understand the details of the subject. This is not some elitist argument as suggested by a few of the comments below--this is a complicated business and it takes a substantial investment in time and knowledge to master the details.

40 comments:

rickleduc said...

I think we're actually a cut above the rest of the country regarding our TV weather folks, going all the way back to Ray Ramsey and Harry Whappler(sp). Nevertheless, they're still just talking heads with a finite amount of time to convey their message. After all, we need to know which movie did better at the box office or how to clean our gutters or how to stay cool when the temperature gets over 80. Local news, ugh!

Michael said...

It is nice to see that our local contingent are well credentialed...

rickleduc said...

I think we're actually a cut above the rest of the country regarding our TV weather folks, going all the way back to Ray Ramsey and Harry Whappler(sp). Nevertheless, they're still just talking heads with a finite amount of time to convey their message. After all, we need to know which movie did better at the box office or how to clean our gutters or how to stay cool when the temperature gets over 80. Local news, ugh!

Kenna Wickman said...

Hi Cliff,

These polls asking whether or not scientists (or people who pretend to be scientists like many TV weathercasters) "believe" in something like global warming or evolution miss the point. And drive me nuts.

I once asked a good friend of mine who is a well respected paleontologist how he responds when people ask him if he "believes" in evolution. His response was that he doesn't believe in anything. Instead, like gravity, he observes and measures it. One doesn't "believe" in gravity. One experiences it and wishes not to directly measure its acceleration while cleaning the gutters!

I wish the media and more people would understand the difference between belief systems and evidence-based fact and true things. Instead, we've had such belief systems as creationism and now more recently in Texas, global warming denial creeping into places where they shouldn't be such as science textbooks and school boards.

It could get very absurd. Imagine if this type of thing creeped into mathematics. It did - look up
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indiana_Pi_Bill

KW

Paul said...

Thank you, Cliff.

The New York Times article was a poor piece of faux balanced journalism.

Paul Middents

SteveM said...

There was nice article in the March 18 Economist on the science of global warming. Perhaps Dr. Mass can comment on the accuracy of the article, but it does a good job laying out the reasons for some of the uncertainties in the context of the strong science being done on the subject. Here's a link: http://www.economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=15719298

BAP said...

I love that you used a picture of Sonny Eliot for this post! I grew up in Detroit, so he will always have a special place in my heart.

jservais said...

Well, that was as knee jerk a solution as I've ever read in any right wing journal. They disagree with you and so it must be because you are better educated than they are. Problem solved. We liberals are soo right and soo educated and soo open minded. Cliff, you did not even go near any real reasons for their different opinons. But, judging from the first 5 comments, it is what makes your readers happy.

mainstreeter said...

Slide rules should be used by our Seattle TV weather folks so the next event won't go unnoticed by the Seattle School board.

Josh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert said...

In our irrational political environment I think the weather casters politics or more likely the station owners politics are more important than science.

Check out this excellent article on climate change politics.

http://www.
spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,686697,00.html

Bob

garyLambda said...

Like the other posters said, who cares what scientists "believe". Beliefs are irrelevant in a scientific discussion. Either the data supports the theory or it doesn't.

A much more interesting article is over on raw story on the money being spent to cover up the science, by non other than the Koch brothers, who incidentally own Gas, Oil and Coal productions:

http://rawstory.com/rs/2010/0331/koch-brothers-slammed-funding-climate-denial/

Follow the money not the polls.

iTodd said...

The report by NY Times (Among Weathercasters, Doubt on Warming) seemed a bit sensationalist compared to the actual survey (National Survey of Television Meteorologists About Climate Change: Preliminary Findings). As Cliff points out, the NY Times should have investigated the credentials of the "television meteorologists". What the NY Times doesn't mention is that, among TV weathercasters, two of the three least trusted sources of Climate change information are political leaders (less than 4% either somewhat or strongly trust) and mainstream news media (~18%) (with religious leaders somewhere in-between). As if we really needed a study telling us people don't trust politicians, right? But maybe the most interesting result of the study the NY Times didn't address is that TV weathercasters are more likely to trust climate change information from climate scientists (73%) and peer-reviewed science journals (90%)than from other TV weather forecasters (53%). Take home lesson: people who want reliable information about climate change, people are most likely to trust those who are actually knowledgable about climate change.

Josh said...

"Let's be honest here, a B.S. in atmospheric sciences is the absolutely minimum background required for someone to have an informed view of the climate subject.

I agree with 90% of your post except the quote above. As an author on plant entomology said- "A science-based, Western system is generally assumed to get people closer to the way things "really" are and therefore to possess more value. Underneath this belief is another, deeper assumption that the use of such a system will result in sufficient understanding to allow effective control over nature and disease."
Just like doctors talking down (or in medical tongue) to their patients, saying "just trust us we are the pros" science can be as extreme as anti-science. In other words "you don't know anything about spirituality because you don't read our bible" whether it’s a Qur’an, Old Testament, or physics books from the UW bookstore. I would like to show that I am not taking away the years of study and dedication of climate scientist. These are the people we should be using as a resource and not actors on the news who didn’t make it in Hollywood.

Jeff said...

It stuns me that anyone questions the fact the we're getting warmer; all it takes is thermometers and time. It's nothing like the task of determining WHY this is happening (although it should be fairly clear to everyone by now, some choose to ignore the clues). Strangely, we have enough historical data to show the recent upward spike in temperature. How on earth could anyone question this!? It leaves me flummoxed.

Andrew said...

Ph.D. don't cut it anymore with me regarding 'global warming'. Given how some Ph.D.'s have already colluded with others to bias their results in favor of a desired result, I am less inclined to listen to them as well. 'Global warming' is far more about religion than it is about science. And that is just sad.

I am educated enough as an engineer to know that what we don't know about the earth's climate far exceeds what we do know. Let's tree our planet's climate like science, let's stop worshipping Al Gore and mother earth, and start focusing on how we can persist our species beyond just the one planet.

VanLeer said...

Okay-- so polling TV weather-casters nationwide may offer little more credibility than polling math teachers. But please...a B.S. in Atmospheric Sciences is a climate license? Climate scientists globally are specialists in geology, biology, chemistry, geography, etc. Understanding climate science as well as we do today would hold little credibility if we didn't have historical data from the rock/ice record or detailed quantifiable ecological changes. The climate issue is interdisciplinary. Acknowledge it as such.

VanLeer said...

Okay-- so polling TV weather-casters nationwide may offer little more credibility than polling math teachers. But please...a B.S. in Atmospheric Sciences is a climate license? Climate scientists globally are specialists in geology, biology, chemistry, geography, etc. Understanding climate science as well as we do today would hold little credibility if we didn't have historical data from the rock/ice record or detailed quantifiable ecological changes. The climate issue is interdisciplinary. Acknowledge it as such.

james said...

While it's true, as some of the comments suggest, that the mere possession of an advanced degree doesn't guarantee the correctness of the possessor's opinion, it is also true, as Prof. Mass says correctly, by implication, if you don't understand the principles involved in assessing the evidence and forming of an opinion on any topic, you really ought not to be asked for that opinion. Sadly, that logic is rarely observed in the solicitation of opinions in our society, and certainly not by the "main-stream" media.

JP said...

I have a two questions:
1) The NYT article writes:

"Such skepticism appears to be widespread among TV forecasters, about half of whom have a degree in meteorology."

However Cliff writes:

"The truth is that most TV weather presenters or "weathercasters" don't have college degrees in atmospheric sciences or meteorology. My own rough estimate is that perhaps 1/4 have at least a B.S. in the subject."

Is Cliff Mass challenging the NYT article's claim that half have degrees in meteorology?

and question 2)

So many climate change deniers point out that weather forecasters do not have the ability forecast specific weather conditions more than a week out as reasoning that they cannot predict general trends decades into the future. Wouldn't it make more sense to look at weather forecasting of general trends like El Nino and La Nina which is a general weather trend more like what is being predicted by climate change?

garyLambda said...

What is also crazy about climate change deniers are statements that "because we don't know everything, we can't observe X, Y or Z."

ie. we don't know why last winter was colder than usual, therefore we can't observe that the ocean is more acidic."

That's just nuts. Anyone, PHd or not can look at the historical data from the NOAA website and see whether the planet has warmed or not.

http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/paleo/globalwarming/

Ask a group of people whether they believe the weather is changing is like asking whether gravity works all the time. It doesn't matter what they say, the data already answers that question.

The relevant question to ask is, knowing that the planet is warming due to increase CO2 in the atmosphere, are you willing to alter your lifestyle to spew less CO2 into the air? ie ride your bicycle to work?

That tells you whether the individual thinks that their own actions have any effect on the outcome.

Must read blogs said...

where is the hippy dippy weatherman?

32.5 East said...

Cliff says: Let's be honest here, a B.S. in atmospheric sciences is the absolutely minimum background required for someone to have an informed view of the climate subject.

Meaning that there is no reason to try to inform or listen to the views of anyone who lacks that degree? As jservais says above, it is better to address the holes in someone's argument than point out the alleged holes in their background. Though people who are paid by institutions that sell degrees are likely to have the view Cliff does.

OSNW3 said...

Have you seen this?!

Colbert Report on this article

Dave said...

I hardly ever weigh in on these issues but here goes!! The real issue in climate change is not if it is happening, it is how it is happening. Man made or natural?? Now, add money in to the mix and you have a recipe for real controversey. In the movie "The Great Global Warming Swindle", all one has to do is google the names of the "scientists" quoted and you will find that all had been under retainer from big oil, big coal, electrical power industries and surprisingly, big tobacco!! Follow the money trail, and real science does not have a chance!!

marksteelquist said...

Hi Cliff: Terrific blog; thanks a ton. So I've been thinking of the resistance to accepting climate change as real as a kind of surface tension of a competing value system. Your weathercaster/climate change post inspired me to google "would god allow climate change". Sure enough, lots of activity on the question. My hunch was that The American Devout simply cannot accept that their Big Guy would let us do this to ourselves. And sure enough, check this out: http://www.sindark.com/2009/08/03/would-god-allow-climate-change/. It's a blogger quoting Dick Armey. If you have a moment, follow the links. Armey is telling Congress and all his corporate clients to just ignore the hecklers because God loves His creation too much to let us mess it up. Of course you are probably onto this, but the deniers have no intention of using or responding to science on global warming. It hits them in an entirely different spot and we'll have to figure out how to change, sidestep or de-energize them in some non-science way, while of course keeping our own science tools sharp and focused. I guess this is where we need broadminded, wise policy makers working for us. Kinda like math books, right? Thanks again, Mark

AdrianS said...

poncho'd buffoons:

http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-september-20-2006/hodgman---hurricane-season

Gator said...

I don't agree with your statement that a lack of formal education is a good measure for explaining why 27% of TV weathermen think "global warming was a scam". Correlation is not causation.

Also, I would argue that Atmospheric Science/Meteorology departments may not be the best place to learn about climate change. Studies in Oceanography and Geography may be more important.

I recommend these 2 books by Wally Broecker, who essentially invented the term "Global Warming":

http://www.amazon.com/Great-Ocean-Conveyor-Discovering-Trigger/dp/0691143544/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpi_1

http://www.amazon.com/Fixing-Climate-Changes-Current-Threat/dp/0809045028/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1270678853&sr=1-1

mjgrota said...

Looks like Cliff in the days he owned a comb!

mainstreeter said...

Meanwhile, a storm is brewing off the coast...

MarkM said...

Another kind of storm: Geomagnetic. Check out this great picture:

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn18735-earth-struck-by-most-powerful-space-storm-in-three-years.html?DCMP=NLC-nletter&nsref=dn18735

Null said...

The folks suggesting that people focus their critiques on the holes in skeptics' arguments rather on the skeptics themselves should note that people have been doing exactly that for decades, and yet skepticism and reason for inaction on climate change persist.

The past is riddled with the dismantled wreckage of inadequate alternate explanations for climate change, evidenced by the fact that the last bastion of climate change skeptics' arguments are "we don't know ENOUGH yet." Most of them are done suggesting that solar forcing alone is causing all the warming, or that we're not really warming, or that CO2 doesn't in fact cause any warming, or that the ph of the oceans is NOT actually changing.

And yet these arguments are regularly reassembled and trotted back out again and again, years after they have been so totally refuted that the original proponents have abandoned them.

There is a very simple reason for the persistence of GW/Climate Change Skepticism. We don't WANT to believe it. For most of us, it's not that we in fact find the evidence insufficient or vague, or that we have an alternative explanation for observed phenomena. It's simply that we don't WANT to believe it is true, because it is scary, it demands that we live our lives more humbly, and that we accept a massive amount of change.

Most skeptics derive their skepticism from fear, not from reason or evidence.

cornbread said...

Science Friday on NPR is discussing this topic today. 11am to 1pm on KUOW2 91.7 FM.

batguano said...

With all due respect, you sound like you are being an apologist for the meteorologists.

By all logic, the meteorologists should be saying, "We can't forecast 10 days from now, so predictions about 10 years from now hold no merit. The school's out. It could go either way." But no. Meteorologists openly *deny* that global warming is happening, or is not man-made. They claim *special* knowledge, not a *lack* of knowledge.

batguano said...

Meteorologists are using "inability to make accurate forecasts" as a way of getting the common viewer to go along with them in being skeptical of climate scientists.

But the actual basis for meteorologists' open hostility is the fact that Big Oil advertises on the channel/network that employs the meteorologist. Big Oil pays for the meteorologist's three houses and child support, so of *course* they will side against the science of man-made global warming. And the meteorologist best play along, because if they say "Big Oil is ruining the earth and is going to kill a lot of us," then that meteorologist will find themselves suddenly unemployable.

spocko said...

Be on the look out for weatherman turned right wing radio host. He has a book coming out this week. The people who published his book also publish the Swiftboater's book. They will be pushing this hard in all media.
He says the book is "bulletproof" so if you want to spend some time pushing back on nonsense you have an oppurtunity. He Wants to debate people.
I'm not going to name the book because his Google alert will pick this up and he will unleash his minions.

lamont said...

The thing about the a scientific education is that it starts with a lot of facts in isolation and builds up an objective picture out of the sum total of those facts. You have to get through some boring reading that is only fairly tangentially related to global warming in order to get the background to really understand it. Scientists have been willing to put in this work, which is the difference.

Most of the people in this thread have *not* been willing to put in the work. Its a lot easier to just play "follow the money" or play "gotcha" on a bunch of stolen e-mails.

A better start to this debate would be for participants to read something a little more dry like:

http://www.amazon.com/Earths-Climate-William-F-Ruddiman/dp/0716784904/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1270851952&sr=8-4

And for bonus points:

http://www.amazon.com/Paleoclimatology-Second-Reconstructing-Quaternary-International/dp/012124010X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1270852266&sr=1-1

I don't think you don't need to have a degree and be "approved" to discuss climate science, but you should *know* something about it in order to have an opinion about that gets taken seriously and do some work learning about it. Its fine to do that work on your own, but the internet is not a substitute for reading a book -- the internet is just a world-wide shouting match.

If your education on climate science comes entirely from the internet (including sites like realclimate in addition to WUWT) then you are just being opinionated while at the same time being intellectually lazy.

Warmbowski said...

Nice! Sonny Elliot!

jimad said...

Not sure how much anyone has to "believe" this stuff or not -- if one has *any* amount of technical background it isn't hard to go the the NOAA weather station data from one or another location in the US making measurements for say the last 80 years and see for yourself if temperatures are trending up or staying the same. Stick the data in say an Excel spreadsheet, make a chart of the data, and fit a linear trendline to it. Well, is the trend towards increasing temperatures, or are temperatures staying the same? Try it -- I have!

Todd Jensen said...

The point about weathermen not having a degree vs a PhD scientist is not that the weatherguy is an idiot or has no relevant thoughts but which one would you think might be better informed,on average? I suspect someone who has spent at least 10 years full time studying these things might have a more reliable view.