What’s the big deal about an apology? Turns out – quite a bit

By: Gary Szatkowski

Some of you will know right away what I am referring to when I reference an ‘apology’.  And some of you won’t.  If you want to understand the context, or just take a trip down memory lane, google the phrase ‘Gary Szatkowski apology’.   Don’t hit enter twice; you may crash ‘the Internets.’   And don’t rush.  I’ll wait right here until you are done.

OK, up to speed?  Yeah, that apology.  It went somewhat viral.

So, why bring this up now?  Well, quite a few people have commented about the apology over the past 15 months.   I’ve seen references in multiple presentations at different professional conferences.  Even some people in the National Weather Service had a comment or two about it.   But what have I had to say about it?  Well actually, essentially nothing.  Until now.  So if you’re interested in my commentary about the apology, about the context around it, and how it relates to social science, you’re in the right place.  And you’re also getting in on the ground floor.

So, beep, beep, beep, let’s back up the truck and put this thing into a broader context.  Here we go.

I come bearing fantastic news; I come bearing terrible news (yeah, it’s the same news).  WE WON!  Yes, meteorological community, we won.  Congrats, and condolences.  What did we win?  We have the power.  Yes, we have the power.

What power?  Or perhaps more fundamentally, what is power?  You can either take another break and watch multiple episodes of ‘House of Cards’ or ‘Game of Thrones’, or you can accept this working definition.  Power is ‘getting another person to do something.’  I could spend another 100 (or 1000) words expanding or further defining that concept, but I won’t.  And you are free to agree or not, but for the purposes of this discussion, that’s the definition.   And using that definition, we most certainly have the power. 

In the old days (near the beginning of my career), you could get schools to close (maybe) based on a forecast of a snowstorm, but quite frankly, not much else.  And now, as we rapidly approach the end of my NWS career, the world is much different.  Issue a certain type of forecast (or briefing package, or warning text, etc.) and watch the world react.  Social media goes crazy (yes, that’s a low threshold), but the rest of society reacts too.  Not perfectly, but they most certainly do react.    Schools close, businesses close, public transit shuts downs, travel bans are imposed, States of Emergency are declared, airlines move their aircraft and flight crews out of harm’s way, etc.  And all before the first snowflake falls, or the first hint of hurricane force winds arrive.   Oh yeah, that is some serious power.  That is some great power.

And we know the phrase that goes with that (variously attributed to Voltaire or Spiderman’s Uncle Ben – there is some Joaquin-style ensemble spread for you.) 

‘With great power comes great responsibility.’   And with this phrase comes some of the critical context regarding an ‘apology’.

And why do we have ‘the power’?  Well actually, we earned it.  Ignore the silly trolls; ignore the comments of people who are determined to be ‘otherwise’ (vs. ‘weatherwise’).  We earned it because we got so good, that people actually expect us to get the weather forecast right.    Those are some very expensive decisions that I listed above that people take based on a weather forecast.   And while there will always be ‘silly money’, the ‘smart money’ has figured out that betting against the weather forecast is a losing proposition.  Not a sure thing, but the ‘smart money’ has figured out that if you bet with the weather forecast, you’re going to win more often than you lose.  And that most certainly wasn’t a true statement early in my career 30+ years ago. 

So for the sake of this discussion, I am proposing that getting the weather forecast right has become a societal norm.   That leads to some very interesting conclusions, and also leads us into a world much different than not so long ago.

I mentioned early on that a number of folks had comments about the apology.  But one thing didn’t happen.  No one asked me a very important question.  The question?  ‘Gary, have you previously offered an apology for a weather forecast?’  For the answer to that question is ‘yes’.  My apology in 2015 was not the first time I have been at that particular rodeo.   Let’s chat about that earlier event and the lessons learned. 

treatedTweetGS

A trip down memory lane.  Actually, in social media time, ancient history. I’m talking about the time three years before Facebook, five years before Twitter.  Yes, the winter of early 2001.  Whatever else it will be remembered for in the Delaware Valley, it will be remembered for a crawl at the bottom of a TV screen, right at the end of ratings sweeps, leading to warnings about an impending ‘Storm of the Century’.  Much chaos and confusion ensured, but by the end of the forecast process for the upcoming event, all the local TV meteorologists, as well as the National Weather Service offices (local and national), jumped into the deep end of the pool and forecasted incredible amounts of snow.  And then the storm arrived.  And it barely snowed.  Over the course of several days, as the anger of the local population reached white hot intensity, an interesting thing happened.  Local TV meteorologists started to apologize.  I apologized.     And the white-hot anger of the general public began to ebb.  Out of the chaos, anger and misery, I filed away a piece of information.  Hopefully, never to be used.  The piece of information: Don’t wait to apologize.   If forecasting catastrophe strikes again, apologize early.  Short circuit the anger before it even gets close to the white-hot stage. 

And that life lesson lay safely stored away, but not forgotten, for 14 years.  Until January 2015.  When another storm threatened, dire forecasts were made, and something much less occurred.

Over the past 15 months, there’s been quite a cottage industry trying to explain how the January 2015 storm was overall a very good forecast.  Like real estate, the three most important aspects of a weather forecast are location, location, and location.  So, if you were up in the Boston area, it was an outstanding and life-saving forecast.    If you were in the Philadelphia area, it would be the polar opposite of the Boston area experience.  If you were in the New York City area, it was something in-between. 

If you read the associated Tweets, you know the focus of my apology was for the Philadelphia and New Jersey area.   Now, that doesn’t mean that folks elsewhere were not welcome to also accept the apology if they felt it was appropriate.  I’m not going to draw some arbitrary line on the map, and if you happen to be on the wrong side of it, say ‘NO SOUP FOR YOU.  NO APOLOGY FOR YOU’.  If it helps, you are welcome to it. 

What happened in Philadelphia regarding the January 2015 snowstorm forecast?  We forecast up to 18” of snow in Philadelphia.  The official observation was 1.2” snow.  Some of the commentators have said that the forecast, even in areas where the snowfall was significantly less than forecast, helped with recovery operations.  Sigh.  When you receive 1.2” of snow, the only ‘recovery’ question you are dealing with is: Broom or Shovel? 

15snowpic

Snow falls on Spruce Street in West Philadelphia on Monday, Jan. 26, 2014. (Stephanie Aaronson/Philly.com)

I used the phrase ‘forecasting catastrophe’ earlier.  How does one know if one is experiencing a forecasting catastrophe?  One good rule of thumb is if your forecast snowfall amounts are off by an order of magnitude.  When ‘Plan for the worst, hope for the best’ becomes ‘Plan for the worst, hope we misplaced the decimal point’, you’re in serious trouble. 

So our society is now making some very expensive decisions based on the weather forecast, in the context of the relatively new societal norm that the weather forecast is expected to be right.  With this great power comes great responsibility.  When the forecast goes very wrong, people will become angry and quite frankly, it’s reasonable that they react that way.   I didn’t say logical.  I didn’t say accurate.  I said reasonable.  And when people are reasonably angry over something you did, an apology can be an appropriate response.  At least the way I understand social science.  And to the extent that any life wisdom has been granted to me.   

There’s a lot more to say about this particular event, and there’s certainly a lot more to say about these concepts in general.  But I’ve already said quite a bit for today.  So I’ll pause for now.  Thanks for listening.  Comments and thoughts are welcome.


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3 thoughts on “What’s the big deal about an apology? Turns out – quite a bit

  1. I can fix this with one word. Strikeout forecast and replace with Preparedness. Forecasts go bust all the time on the micro scale. What if during the ’15 storm everything materialized and then some? What if lives were lost? What if the area were crippled with a 3-4 ft blizzard? The onus isn’t on you Gary. It’s on the public. You report your observations in a preparedness package and the public takes appropriate action. If you do this, no one can say they weren’t prepared for all outcomes. The goal isn’t for you to be right or wrong. The goal has been and always will be for the public to prepare themselves for all possible scenarios. Public officials can always adjust based on current observations.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Does society ever thank you for all the ones you get right? It’s probably easier to be a scientist in a field with little to no public interest

    Like

  3. Wow,
    Didn’t realize that the latest apology was based on the 2001 storm which I really remember as well. It’s interesting in society that today, apologizing, is abnormal behavior. What you did was exactly the right thing to do. We all make mistakes in our jobs. Myself, I took down the MAC network for a local bank back in the late 80s for 2 days due to computer software maintenance misapplied. First thing I did was confess. Fixed the problem, then apologized to the bank CEO. Today, who knows what would have happened. This is a larger reflection of society. Your pending retirement is sad because you brought civility to the weather community. I hope others heed your remarks.

    Like

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