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NPR Commentary -- December 18, 1995

Weather Forecasting

by James Fallows

I love my wife, so I am trying to save her from a practice I find bizarre and dehumanizing. I am talking about a fascination with weather coverage, especially those on the Weather Channel.

Weather matters, of course, when it actually gets here. A sunny day is nice, a tornado is bad. But the growth of "weatherism" -- the increasing devotion of newsprint, airtime, and now a whole cable channel, to data about the weather -- is a social menace.

Why? Let me find my list.

Number one: Pointlessness. Tonight local weathermen will give their confident five-day forecasts for the temp and precip ahead. They won't go back and tell us what they were saying five days earlier about how things would turn out today. I love going back to look, and what I've learned is that you'll do just as well if you stick to this long-term forecast: for the next few months it will be cold, especially in the north. After that it will get hot.

Problem number two: Self-pity. Yes the wind makes cold days colder, and humidity intensifies the heat. But today's inescapable "wind-chill" and "humiture" figures are really just ways to impress ourselves with the hardships we endure. Why stop there? Why not new weather formulas to tell us how it cold we would feel outside if we had no pants on, or how hot it would feel in August if we were zipped up, at high noon, in a sleeping bag?

Number three: Lack of pity for others. There's enough weather in the world to create a disaster someplace all the time. Typhoons, floods, sinkholes. For the people involved these really are tragedies, but when we see a new one every night they become video wallpaper, spectacles. Meanwhile people in the Sunbelt follow the weather reports mainly so they can gloat at those stuck in Duluth.

Problem four: Erosion of individual initiative. People turn on the TV to see if it's begun to rain or snow. Unless you're locked up in a dungeon, there is a simpler way to find this out.

Number five: Damage to higher reasoning powers. Last week, on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, the Weather Channel ran a historical special on the role of clouds in the attack. "Weather, which made it all possible," were the final words. Each exposure to such thoughts takes 1 point off your IQ.

Number six: Philosophical danger: Weather reports makes us fret and worry about a future that probably won't ever arrive in the form we foresee. This distracts our attention from the time we do live in, the precious Now.

And number seven: Unseemly hubris. Our weather presenters are happy when it's sunny, apologetic when it's stormy, and in general act as if they are in some way responsible for the weather they describe. God or Mother Nature, take your pick, is not amused. He or she will strike them down for pridefulness, unless I get there first.

Copyright © 1995, by James Fallows. All Rights Reserved.
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