Saturday, March 5, 2011

If They Were Betting Men (and Women) ...

I was struck by something that FOX’s Erik Maitland said this evening. He prefaced his snowfall prediction with, “If I were a betting man….” And that got me thinking. What IF he were a betting man? And what if forecasters had to put money on their own forecasts. Might it change the way they went about their work, specifically when it came to pronouncements regarding the timing and magnitude of snow predictions?

So picture a rather preposterous new reality sport called weather forecast gambling. It would all be pegged to a forecaster deciding the appropriate time to place a bet with an allotted amount of money (placing a bet, of course, would equate to issuing an official forecast). The idea would be that you hold off on placing your bet until you felt reasonably sure that you were making a good decision.

Here’s how it might work. A forecaster could win the most amount of money for a high-risk/high-reward proposition (i.e., successfully predicting an 8-inch snowfall seven days out); conversely, the least amount of money would be won if a snowfall forecast were made at about the time a snowfall was commencing. If the forecaster were unsuccessful with his/her bet, they’d lose their money. They’d have the option of playing it safe (i.e., waiting until the sure bet -- to the extent that exists in weather forecasting), taking a big risk (going "out on a limb") or going for something in between.

Obviously, this is very tongue-in-cheek (although if the NFL labor agreement doesn’t get settled, there’s going to be a lot of extra betting money sitting around), but it’s (somewhat) interesting to contemplate how differently forecasters might approach their communications with the public under a different set of rules.

Then again you could play "fantasy weather" and draft a forecaster ……


  1. I would be willing to bet (no pun intended) that there are 'pools' in some offices whether it be a private, media or govt office on the snow total forecast of a given storm or where the eye of a landfalling hurricane will be. Your comments are interesting as it puts a little more at stake. I think for most meteorologists their integrity and job/business are the most important factor (rather than a bet or pool), and typically it shows when publishing via on-air, online or in print.

    As many viewers and readers have commented, posting accumulations way out in advance like 4-7 days is doing a disservice to the public/viewers/readers as the uncertainty of the science of meteorology is just too great and most common folks on the street at least get that. A chance for a 'significant storm' with a chance of x, y and/or z weather types and potential impacts is far more useful than some numbers when beyond 48-72 hours. Just my $0.02 cents.

  2. DDwx,
    I certainly wasn't meaning to question the integrity of meteorologists. I do wonder, however, if competitive media pressures drives some to make assertions prematurely.

  3. I work in a accounting department for a company in St. Paul. A relatively smart bunch of people, or at least you would think. Here is a typical conversation over the years, but it even applied today.

    Co-Worker: "We are supposed to get a foot of snow next week".

    Me: (playing dumb since I am a weather geek in the closet) "Really, where did you hear that?"

    Co-Worker: "Oh, (insert broadcast meteorologist name, on insert station name)".

    Me: "Well, you know there is no way to know that this far in advance."

    I've been doing that for so many years now. Meaning trying to defend or explain to people the difficulty in forecasting or what the difference of just 100 miles can make on the track of a storm. I am wondering how much longer I am willing to put up that kind of defense.

    I'm also wondering if the average person takes a 5-7 day forecast and thinks nothing of it, do they start making plans based on an undeveloped storm, or is it just conversational water cooler talk?

    I guess the main point of this site - is to grade the forecasters, so now we see who can adjust best to what is (or isn't) happening. Yes, the storm can still pan out, but I would seriously suggest stations that put up a 7 day map with "Big Storm" listed on day 7 consider putting an (*) asterisk under the graph. With the (*) = we really don't know.

    The most conservative forecast so far has been the national weather service, which has not listed snowfall amounts, although they did have (and still do at this hour) have a graphic (weather story) showing heavy snow chances over the metro.

  4. How cool would it look on the big board in vegas,and they can have an over/under line as well,I can see it now Minneapolis 10inches,Douglas has the over and the conservative Kare 11 team has the under until 12 hrs before the event.
    Bill just for fun my brother and I have this friendly bet(usually no more then a 25.00 gift card to resturant of choice)on who will get the most snow at your home address,we start 11/15 and end 4/15 and we have point/inch spread,this year I gave him 24 inches,currently he has 58" to my 80",but if you add in the spread Im down 82-80,he lives in central new jersey almost every year I have won with the execption of last year(when they got those nor'easters and we had below average snowfall)they pretty much get their snowfalls during big nor'easters 20"+ as compared to us we get plenty of 2-6" inchers with a few big ones like this year,its just fun like an football game just that it takes 5 months to complete.

  5. I love it Bill. As stated early, the general public remember numbers or snow totals more than anything during the winter season. That is why a responsible weather forecaster must be very careful (or confident) of their prediction before they start throwing out absurd numbers.

    There are some fantastic forecasters that just have a knack for understanding what will happen before everyone else. Usually, these are the individuals who do their homework and take the time to disseminate all the model data and comb thru the results.

    Often, you can tell who does their homework and who does not. No one will always be right, but some will be correct more often or sooner than the others.

    On a side note, I believe you should give points to the forecaster who does NOT simply rip and read the NWS discussion and forecast. That happens a lot!

  6. Thought people would think I was off my rocker with this post. Glad to hear it resonated. (I'm working on a post comparing weather forecasting to judging the path of a golf ball....)

    MN WeatherFan: Totally hear you on that one! Funny how us non-mets end up having to defend the industry sometimes!

    Big Daddy: That's hilarious! I think you'll end up taking the prize this year, even with the NJ handicap.

    NovakWeather: It's hard for me to know who's ripping and reading.... what are some signals?

  7. @Bill -- Nope, your post is far from being off your rocker. ;-) I enjoyed it as it does hit on some valid points and some of that being the media pressure (higher ups) to say things a meteorologist/weather-caster may not normally want to say or post. At times, meteorologists especially broadcast have to walk that tightrope of getting information out but doing so in a manner not to be irresponsible and/or overhype. Tough.

    But, meteorologists are human and to have an in-house pool on a big storm is nothing new. You can say the same in many professions -- seems to be the American way. Look at college basketball tourney pools in March. ;-)

    As far as NovakWeather: 'rip and read' -- just read a NWS AFD or forecast and if you hear it verbatim and/or a graphic exactly matches theirs then you have your answer --- I recall a few years ago in one market a NWS fcstr quit writing detailed AFDs as he grew tired of it being read verbatim w/no credit given on-air by local broadcast weathercasters.

    BTW, this big storm just keeps slipping farther and farther south --- bad news for original forecast if this continues, BUT great news for those tensed up about Spring flooding.

  8. Mike Fairbourne will not be pushed around! What a classic exchange between veteran meteorologist and pushy anchor. He was pressed for model totals and refused to budge!

  9. A quick comment from a broadcast met. The biggest challenge is giving people a heads up and yet informing them about the challenges of the forecast. The challenge is that the public will always latch on to the worst case scenario. As an example if we say one small area could see a foot of snow... people from all over will hear that and all of sudden the whole state is getting a foot! Often times getting the public to actually focus and listen is harder than the forecast itself!

  10. Annonymous Broadcast Met,
    Good feedback. I'd suggest, however, that the mere mention of A NUMBER is going to suck the wind out of the rest of any message a met gives. That's a function of either human nature or a media environment (of which the met is a part of) that "plays" on the increasingly short attention span of the public. Either way, it's a predictable reaction, right? I think the solution is to detail things in generalities until specifics are reasonably known.