Why is the weather like your NCAA bracket?

BracketBallGlobeIn their book Freakonomics, author Stephen Dubner & economist Steven Levitt build on a central belief that “economics is a science with excellent tools for gaining answers, but a serious shortage of interesting questions… All it takes is a new way of looking.”

That’s been resonating with me since I read the foreword a couple weeks ago. So it’s in the Freakonomics spirit, that I pose the following question: “Why is the weather like your NCAA bracket?” I’ll also go as far as to suggest- “And why should you start cutting the weatherman some slack?”

Meteorology is the “interdisciplinary scientific study of the atmosphere,” and thus, the meteorologist is one who studies therein. Meteorologists, or as the 6:00 news has come to endear them to us, “weathermen,” utilize a myriad of tools that combine existing trends, data, and countless if/then scenarios to help forecast future conditions, all in the name of helping us predict what we should wear; if we should load up on bread, eggs, and milk; or if they’ll be school tomorrow.

The key words to focus on (and they are synonyms) are “predict” and “forecast,” both essentially defined as “to state or make a declaration about in advance, especially on a reasoned basis.” You may notice that nowhere in there does it say anything about a prediction or forecast being as a matter of fact. These are educated – albeit strongly supported – guesses. Meteorologist use the best (ever-changing) information available to them at the time to make as accurate as possible guesses.

Why is it that when things don’t go exactly as the weatherman says, we tear him to pieces and call for his job? Conversely, why don’t we hold the Vegas odds makers to the same standard when their 2-point Super Bowl favorite turns into a blow-out for the other team? Why don’t we hunt down the sports gurus with torches and pitchforks when our March Madness bracket gets blown to pieces after we followed their expert advice or favored the higher seeds?

The answer is simple: At the end of the day, the game still has to play out. In sports, experts and amateurs alike make educated predictions about the outcome of a particular game or series of games based on the best possible information available to them at the time (sound familiar?). And as sports has taught us time and again, with so many moving pieces and variables, anything can happen. What people fail to understand, or perhaps just choose not to accept, is that the same goes with the weather. Super computer after double-doppler radar can model weather patterns until the cows come home, but at the end of the day, Mother Nature is invariably going to play out how Mother Natures decides to play out.

So next time the weatherman calls for a chance of snow, and nary a flake touches ground, remember this- of the 8M+ registered tourney brackets on ESPN.com, 3.3% of them predicted Mercer University over Duke in the first round. Duke was a “lock,” right? Well guess who ended up winning. So cut your weatherman some slack, will ya?

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