When I moved to the Northeast Coast of the US, I had no idea that hurricanes (or earthquakes!) would be something that I needed to be prepared for. But here we are, once again, with a massive storm barreling down on us around Halloween. Long Island Sound has had its first ever Hurricane Force Wind Warning. Evacuations have begun, and all mass transit in New York City will stop running later tonight.
I’ve heard a lot of people complaining that the storm coverage is “just hype” to increase retail spending and feed the 24/7 news cycle. They don’t think the storm will be that bad. One person even suggested that the storm was being overblown to justify spending on NOAA, the federal agency that tracks hurricanes and other weather.
That one kind of made my mouth hang open a bit, since the amazing NOAA research and satellite imagery we have access to is exactly what allows us to prepare for bad weather and be safe. (By the way, if you didn’t know, there is a proposal to cut ALL of NOAA’s air quality monitoring programs. If you have asthma, respiratory illnesses, or, you know, breathe air, that program can be literally a life saver.)
It’s impossible for me to hear all of this without thinking of the recent Italian judgement that charged 6 geologists with manslaughter for not correctly predicting the severity of an earthquake. We have expectations that science can tell us what will happen with predictive models–but are our expectations realistic? There is always an element of uncertainty in models that predict the future, whether it is atmospheric or geological.
I can’t possibly predict how many ticks will occur from year to year, or when mosquitoes will arrive–but nearly everyone I meet asks me those questions. And is then really annoyed and disgusted with me when I say “I don’t know how many there will be.” I can give an estimate, but I can’t (and won’t) make a 100% accurate prediction.
The advice I give people can tangentially affect their health, by exposing them to different arthropod-vectored diseases. I can’t imagine being directly responsible making recommendations that affect millions of lives and lots of property.
Are you on the East Coast? What preparations have you made? Does giving storms silly names matter? If you were a forecaster and had to make the call, would you have everyone evacuate, even if there was a 50/50 chance you would be wrong? How can we explain probability to a public that doesn’t like math?
Also, everyone in the path of the storm please stay safe!
The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3pm ET.