Looks So Easy

By: Mark Fox

I remember it because I was extremely unhappy with the rain. The rain canceled the scheduled baseball game at Strickland Park in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Never heard of it? Can’t blame you, as most baseball games for 9 and 10 year olds rarely get any press. While we were unable to play the game, an F3 tornado moved through town about an hour after our game, cementing a fascination with severe weather that remains to today.  Had I been older, I may have been one of the American Legion team which took shelter in the dugout at their ballpark at Couch Park. (http://stillwaterweather.com/stwfriday13thtornado.html)

StillwaterTornado

June 13, 1975 Stillwater tornado via Stillwater NewsPress

From that day forward, I have been fascinated by weather.. Since I also had a dream to play professional baseball, I was able to combine the two. After all, you can’t play if it going to rain. So, why not learn more about the patterns about when it will rain? While the pro scouts hopefully saw the dream, they also saw the (lack of) talent. Thus, my professional career is in meteorology and not as a catcher with the Texas Rangers.

Why bring all of this up? I’ve also been amazed at the similarities between weather forecasting and the game of baseball. Leo Durocher was quoted as saying “Baseball is like church. Many attend, but few understand.” Substitute the word weather for baseball, and the quote remains just as profound.

I remember our tornado delayed makeup game a week or so later. For whatever reason, I was playing right field that day. No big deal, except I wanted to be Johnny Bench, and if I wasn’t catching, I didn’t pay attention. The ball got hit my way, and as the runner went from first to third, I had no idea what to do with the ball. Throw it? Where? Hold it? That doesn’t seem right.  All of these things were going through my mind as the game induced panic set in, and the runner scored.

If you have ever seen, or been in, a little league game, you know what happened. The player is perplexed and doesn’t know what to do, and the crowd is yelling all sorts of advice, and not all of it was good. I remember someone yelling “throw it.” (My thoughts were: “Great, throw it where? Tim isn’t at first base, throwing it to second doesn’t seem right, I can’t throw it all the way home.”) Our team was in the third base dugout, so I couldn’t understand what he was trying to say.  I wanted to hear Dad’s advice, but when I could finally pick out his voice, it got lost in the sea of noise.  Unfortunately, I also remember the coaches “advice” when the inning was over. When the ball is hit to you, just throw it to second base, “it’s just that easy.”

The more I think about baseball and weather, the more I am convinced that we meteorologists are either the coaches or the crowd, while the people who need to make quick decisions based on weather are the ballplayers. In baseball, the coach or managers have a strategy, but it comes down to the players to make decisions which control the game.  Meteorologists have a strategy with the expected weather and have the most control on the message about how people should perform if they are affected by the weather. Ball players at a high level know how to remove the crowd noise from their performance. Players that are not experienced, look for any clue to know what to do, whether that be from a coach, or from Mom and Dad in the crowd.

Allow me to take the analogy one step farther: some meteorologists are the coach, some are the crowd. The players are the various public: some know exactly what to do, and some are looking elsewhere for actionable advice once in a warning and/or perceive themselves to be in danger from the weather.  Meteorologists are providing the advice and the information, yet the players control whether or not they take protective action. Most people in my area of North Texas know what to do when severe weather hits in theory, but are trying to listen to all of the crowd noise: some telling them to take cover, some telling information that just doesn’t make sense to them.

When I watch a game, I am pretty quick to notice when the players or managers do something “wrong.” I have been told by Mrs. Fox that there have been occasions when I have loudly yelled advice to the TV, in the hopes the message would somehow get through. This is human nature, to a point. From a distance, the game is pretty simple. You know what to do, you know what should be done, but you are not actually in the game. It looks so easy.

While we are at it, I’ll admit, I have seen radar signatures from various parts of the country and wondered “why is there no warning on (storm x).”  I’d argue that most of us do this, not only at sporting events, but while watching along with weather. I know I am watching the radar closely when a supercell or tropical system is moving close to a city.  The question then becomes when do we add our voice to the crowd?

Each of us must make the decision to add to the conversation either during the weather event, after the weather event, or to keep quiet. From the crowd, giving advice is easy. As a player, especially one in a potentially life or death situation (a far cry from a young right fielder not knowing where to throw a baseball), clear, actionable advice is needed. As the weather community, what are we yelling at the players? Is it clear information about what the threats are? Is it crowd noise that will get lost? Is it better to be technically correct in what we say, or is it better that the players get the information they need to protect their life?

With weather, meteorologists have the information and the advice for the public to play the “game.” The game is being played by the various publics, sometimes by people who have no idea that they are the players. Not convinced the weather community is the crowd and not the player? Check out a twitter feed the next time your local weather forecast office issues a tornado warning. (As I’m writing this, there are at least 3 different tweets about tropical development in the Gulf in 384 hours, complete with pictures of the model output. This was not the motivation of this post, however.) What about the social media posts that say “(community x) take cover!” Take cover? Where? At this point, several studies suggest that the human response is to seek additional information, especially those from trusted sources: What does my family say? Did the TV met just say my city? Is that video now, or earlier today? All I hear now is noise.  

In my opinion at least, this is us yelling advice to an outfielder who doesn’t know what to do with the ball. In a baseball game, the run scores. In life, the stakes are much higher.

Nobody in the weather enterprise has ever purposely been wrong with a forecast. Nobody. At the same time, nobody in the weather enterprise has had a sinister motive in questioning decision making. Everyone who makes a forecast is doing so to the best of their ability. Every warning is issued with good intentions as well. Similarly, everyone who is adding their voice to the conversation is doing so intending to help. I’m convinced that all of us who provide weather information is doing so to help someone, somewhere to make a good decision. What would happen if the entire crowd yelled to the outfielder “throw it to second base” What everyone would want to happen, would most likely happen.

Meteorologists will have opinions, and some opinions will vary. During an event, does it help someone make an effective decision, or does the opinion become noise? How does it look to someone that is in a tornado warning, when their social media feed is mixed with messages of “take cover now”…”big tornado possible’…and/or “I can’t believe they warned on this storm #hype”?

We can use the opinions to make it easier for someone to make a decision, or we can use the opinions to make it more difficult. If it is as easy as it looks: why are we all not on the same page? This article won’t, and isn’t intended to, solve anything. Hopefully, we can discuss and find ways to help the players improve their game. Our collective voice should be the strongest during times when folks must make decisions quickly based on weather information.

9 thoughts on “Looks So Easy

  1. Mark,
    Thanks for the interesting and certainly true article in many respects. With all the technology advances in the world of weather forecasting and reporting it seem there are more and more so-called weather experts now then ever before.. I do see it as a time to bring some of the various forecasting and reporting resources together. Hopefully to rebuild the publics confidence about the severe weather condition reports they are receiving and for them to understand being the reports are valid and not just one persons opinion.

    From personal experience I understand the “We” and “They” in this equation will need to be determined and it will take some work to bring all of the resources together and reading off of the same page or computer screen, if you wish. Perhaps it could reduced the number of false, although well intended, “take cover now” statements and also help reduce the number of wannabe tourist picture takers chasing tornados and clogging the roads when the dedicated volunteers are doing their reporting.

    Certainly a need and unfortunately not an easy answer or solution. But, not impossible!

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    • Thank you, Hal.

      Not an easy answer, or solution for sure. Even any possible “solution” is difficult because everyone who is commenting is doing so to try to help. The “we” and “they” are ever changing as well.

      Like

  2. DARN! You outed me :). LOL. In defense of whatever TV media will read your post (because I know there are times I’ve privately questioned a quick warning when the storm died 3 minutes later ) you also have to know the dangers of OVERWARNING considering that we are the ones who pass it on to literally hundreds of thousands… and stay on air ad-nauseum at the first crack of lightning. Too many warnings deaden people to the true meaning of a warning. What did a siren used to mean? I know too many people that do nothing now when they hear one. Truth be told, we’d be lost without you guys at the NWS…but as you said, weather forecasting is like coaching sports or like trading stocks. It’s just educated gambling. We all get same info… its how we interpret it that counts!

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    • Just curious… When you privately question a warning, do you talk with the WFO afterwards to see what they were thinking? And why do you go on-air through a warning that you don’t feel is a danger to the public?

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      • No, I don’t question them in a chat session. Sometimes it’s just a judgement call…as Mark mentioned, do you pass on 4th and one or run it? We are all human. And in today’s judge first and re-think it second society…I understand from their standpoint that it’s probably better to warn on a borderline cell than NOT to warn, because if heaven forbid someone gets hurt…we get to hear the dreaded line “it came without warning”!
        As for your second question, maybe I’m old school but I always believe in passing on public watches, warnings, and advisories from the NWS whether I’m a believer or not. I may temper one of those with my personal comments if I truly disagree (which is rare). There is just ONE National Weather Service (sorry TWC, there are no winter storm names or TORCON indexes!) that names storms and issues warnings. I believe we (as media partners) must respect that and be unified in the name of public safety.

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      • Trust me, Rob: If Evan has an issue, he lets us know, after the fact. It’s one of many things I respect about our media partners. Good, bad, ugly…they will work with us.

        Liked by 1 person

    • HA! I never even had you in mind while writing this.

      There are times when you should question a warning, with that time being after the event. And yes, over warning can be an issue, here and just about anywhere. When warnings are issued, we do want people to do something different with their lives for the next 20 minutes.

      There is some research (http://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/abs/10.1175/WCAS-D-15-0047.1 and other research) that shows many of us seek additional information before truly taking action. Does the noise affect the way people make decisions? (No, I don’t know either)

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  3. Good post — I see where you’re going, I’m just not sure I’m on the same page with who you define “we” as (“why are we all not on the same page”)… “We” consists of an expert in radar interpretation and warning processes (you), a TV meteorologist that remembered that class on Doppler radar (not interpretation) he took in college in 1985, the 13 year old who sees a triangle on GR2AE, and all parts in between.

    Which is the same reason the crowd at a baseball game screamed different suggestions for you throwing the ball in. Some said the cutoff man but didn’t realize he wasn’t there. Some thought you had Superman’s arm so wanted you to throw home. Some wanted you to just hold the ball so you didn’t throw it away. They all have different experience levels and knowledge of baseball – so your job is to weed out all those who weren’t trained in the field of baseball and hear just your coach. Hard to do on the fly 🙂

    The job of the public is to weed out all those not trained in radar interpretation or warning processes. Hard to do on the fly 🙂

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    • Thanks Rob,

      I left the we rather vague on purpose, as I don’t exactly know how to define it either. All of us, no matter the education/training level are the collective “they,” especially on social media. Noise is definitely an issue during events, and I hope there isn’t so much noise where it inhibits the ability for the various publics to make good decisions. (Still more questions than answers, for sure)

      Mark

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