Skepticism

Suck it, groundhog.

Today I read this Boston Globe article effectively debunking Punxsutawny Phil’s rodent brethren. The writer, Michael Levenson, really went for blood, showing how the track records of the country’s various furry Nostradamuses aren’t much to brag about. Phil himself may hit 70% accuracy (in one statistician’s estimation), but Boston’s version should really just give up and find other work, possibly in the adult entertainment industry. (Fun fact: groundhogs are also known as land beavers.)

Considering that last week I ripped the Globe a new one for advertising pet acupuncturists under the guise of journalism, I figured this week I’d highlight a slightly more rational article. Thus ends my praise, and begins my rant.

Dear Boston Globe:

Why are you debunking groundhogs instead of con artists? Why? WHY? WHHHHYYYYYYY? Can we please take Mr. Levenson off the beaver beat and put him on the possible-con beat? Please? I mean, look at the sidebar on that article, where there’s a close-up of the little bastard’s eyes with a subhead reading “Punxsutawney Phil: Sage or fraud?” Can’t you just picture that with Sylvia Browne?

Ahem.

So to recap:

skepticism about fun, goofy things = good
skepticism about serious & potentially harmful things = better

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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17 Comments

  1. Sometimes I think it’s a shame that they’ve already made a movie called “Groundhog Day,” simply because while I LOVE the Bill Murray comedy, I think it would have made a better horror film. Consider:

    “Tradition says that if the groundhog doesn’t see his shadow, the winter is nearly over…

    But this winter, if you don’t see his shadow, you’ll never know that your life is nearly over!

    Get ready for six more weeks of DEATH!

    Just when you thought it was safe to go back to Punxsutawney… Groundhog Day, rated R”

  2. First off, I agree. Leave the rat with delusions of beaver alone. Second off, it’s not even a good debunking. You’d first have to carefully define what “six more weeks of winter” means. (Oh, dear I’ve been playing World of Goo way too much. I can see the sentences slumping and bouncing as they get closer to the right edge of the text box.) If winter only means snow then Boulder has had winter right up to June. This definition makes no sense. Supposing winter could be defined you’d still have to control the experiment. If the groundhog was 85% likely to not see a shadow and six more weeks of winter was 85% likely then you’d expect a pretty darn good hit rate. I say bah.

    If nothing else Ground Hog Day has given us a right funny comedy with Bill Murray and I’m okay with this.

  3. I saw a comic strip the other day where one character asked why we were ‘looking to an animal that can’t cross a road without getting flattened by a car for a long-range weather forecast…’

    IMHO, andyinsdca has the correct answer to why the media generally don’t go after con-artists.

  4. Has anyone besides me wondered how Groundhog Day came to be so famous in the first place? It’s bigger than Kwanzaa (that’s not saying much, but still). And yes, this was so even before the movie. Who does Groundhog’s PR?

    I’m working on a book about the personal experiences of atheists in America. Please visit my site, Not My God, at
    http://www.sarahtrachtenberg.com
    I look forward to hearing anything you have to say.

    Yours,
    Sarah

  5. At least Christians haven’t co-opted him yet. Perhaps because he’s just stupid rather than an actual ex-pagan holiday. So we will be spared the “War on Prediction” or “War on Weather”. However I will miss the War on Weather podcast special from Skepchick.

  6. I can sympathize with the groundhog. If Mayor Bloomberg had stuck his hand in my face, he would have drawn back a bloody stump.

    We have them all over the MD/VA/WV area. We call ’em “speed bumps.” I swear they are magnetized, because they are always found dead on the roads…

  7. Down here in WV some people call them whistle pigs.
    Never liked the little bastards, although now I’ll try to look on the bright side and think at least it isn’t Sylvia Brown and the like trying to gnaw up my garden vegetables.

  8. Around here, it’s all about the Great Groundhog Gale of ’76. It was a year before I was born, so anyone roughly my age just sighs heavily, shakes their head, and goes ‘not this again’ while our elders recap where they were that fateful day.

    Every year, my mom recalls calling my dad at work, wondering where he was. He was working at the Main St. store that year. That store hasn’t existed since I was 6, but I know dad was working there in ’76, because I hear the story every damned year.

    Winds were so strong, according to my 7th grade teacher, that he and another teacher would escort 1st graders to the corner, one at a time, holding their hands between them, and the wind would pick the kid up off the ground.

    My dad’s explanation about groundhog day made more sense than any talking head on TV or radio rambling incoherently about the event, and trying to come up with technobabble about cloud cover, or ambient temperature. “If the groundhog sees his shadow, there’s going to be six more weeks of winter,” he’d say. “But if he doesn’t see his shadow, it’s only a month and a half.” Brilliant. It’s so simple, it’s obvious. It makes so much more sense when you put it like that.

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