By: Josh Eachus
Hurricane Patricia was the strongest hurricane “ever recorded” in the Western Hemisphere. Linguists and meteorologists would agree that leaving out the word “recorded” conveys a meaning that simply cannot be proven.
On Friday, as the storm was nearing landfall, meteorologists decided to debate this fact on the open forum of social media while a violent hurricane wreaked havoc on impoverished communities of Coastal Mexico.
In one of the more diplomatic conversations of the day, one meteorologist tweeted, “My thought is we can’t say what happened before we have records. Might, might not. Inaccurate to suggest we know.”
Another replied, “I understand, but I am camped out in social science land right now. Either message can convey the huge threat.”
These are both sound viewpoints. But, let me quote something I’ve already written: “On Friday, meteorologists decided to debate this fact on the open forum of social media while a violent hurricane wreaked havoc on impoverished communities of Coastal Mexico.”
Let me be clear in saying this discussion was necessary. The timing was not. Do emergency medical technicians or surgeons argue over terminology when it is crunch time? Why do meteorologists?
I will attempt to answer that. Meteorologists have been laughed at and scorned far too many times. Consider November 2014 when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo addressed a significant lake effect snow event by criticizing the National Weather Service, apparently ignorant of the fact that the National Weather Service warned of a potentially historic snowfall, days in advance. In August, forecasters took flak when Tropical Storm Erika fizzled because several residents of the Southeastern United States began preparing for impact. However, responsible forecasts never suggested anything contrary to what happened. Government measures were cautionary and proactive—the appropriate response when uncertainty looms.
With cracked self-esteem, the field of meteorology often operates within a glass house. Yet as Patricia approached Mexico, meteorologists openly criticized and even insulted one-another over the meanings of “ever” and “ever recorded,” simple semantics that can’t be proven to have bearing on the accuracy of a forecast or the lives at stake. Certainly misrepresenting the meaning of a watch, warning or an imminent hazard could jeopardize the quality of information and possibly lives, but that wasn’t the case with Hurricane Patricia. It just seems injurious to throw stones from inside of a glass house to your neighbor’s glass house across the street. It shows vulnerability and puts stones in the hands of outsiders.
Why can’t meteorologists fight this urge to openly debate during the “heat of battle?” There seems to be a small segment of the field that fancy themselves gatekeepers—ready to pounce on anyone else expressing a different or non-scientific perspective. Let we be reminded that Twitter follower numbers do not designate expertise, nor is the platform a scientific metric any more than it is a valid social metric. Essentially, these accusatory remarks populate an already crowded digital space with hapless noise at a time in which the focus should be on a humanitarian crisis. If nearly half of this digital effort was spent calling for support and inspiring outreach, perhaps forecasters could be a part of managing the aftermath. Instead, in the case of Patricia, online meteorologist chatter armed the masses with pitchforks and pointed them at colleagues.
This is why there are conferences hosted by the American Meteorological Society, National Weather Association and various Integrated Warning Teams around the country. These are settings much more appropriate to hash out disagreements over terminology.
Pointing fingers at one another on social media at that specific time is counter-productive and borderline insensitive. Did it cause any real harm? Hopefully not. Did it accomplish any resolution? Probably not. Then, why do it? Is it an effort to stroke a weather-savvy following earning stock or digital exposure? But, to capitalize on attentive eyes in that situation can’t be the most socially responsible move.
For the record, I agree that strongest “ever” is scientifically incorrect. I agree that sensationalism is harming the efforts of good weather information—I am researching that very issue through graduate study. I agree that is important to protect the integrity of journalism, our language and meteorology. Finally, I agree that meteorologists need to be sure the public fully understands threats at hand.
But in this case, the time wasn’t right. Hurricane Patricia was a benchmark storm that struck a relatively low populated area. Can you imagine if this debate raged during a U.S. landfall? Perhaps… no… hopefully it wouldn’t have, and the situation at hand would take center stage. The “ever” versus “ever recorded” case is just an example. Surely, we could all point to high impact weather events where communication spirals into madness–especially with social media affording a voice to all (not that that’s a bad thing). It’s just that meteorologists sometimes forget to step back, and look at the bigger social picture. In 2007, Karen Pennesi’s publication, “Improving Forecast Communication: Linguistic and Cultural Consideration,” suggested that sacrificing technical accuracy isn’t the worst solution if it evokes the desired reaction.
If the worst hurricane “ever” was said to be barreling toward my neighborhood, MY reaction would be to leave faster than one can tweet a snide remark.
Think about that.