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Mathematical Weather

The British public is about to be empowered in an exciting new way. 

I can’t wait.

This frisson of expectation stems from news that the Meteorological Office is to change the way it forecasts the weather by replacing the present apparently vague predictions with percentage ‘options’.  So, instead of telling us there is a chance of rain the MO will offer a percentage chance of rain, leaving the public to decide for itself what those chances are.  It will also give us a UV scale predicting the likelihood and strength of sunshine.

Confused?  Me too.

Evidently it all boils down to that fashionable shibboleth, consumer choice.

Edward Davey, the minister who oversees the Met Office, explains: “We do know that other countries use percentages to try to get that over.  On the website they are beginning to use a lot of probability data, fan charts and so forth, so this is the direction of travel”.

‘Direction of travel’ is presumably one of those silly emerging phrases, like the now popular ‘kick the can up the road’?  That in turn is a variation of the worn-out ‘run it up the flagpole and see who salutes it’.

A Met Office spokesman, Dan Williams, adds, “It would mean the public can assess the likelihood of what they do.  Instead of us saying it is likely to rain, it will empower people to make their own decisions based on the best information we’ve got”.

Being notably feeble in the science of mathematics, especially in the realm of statistics, I struggle to understand why asking us to play the percentages is more user-friendly than giving us a verbal probability.  And if the Met Office is using this innovation to transfer the interpretation of its forecasts to us, the consumers, then isn’t it merely relinquishing its primary predictive function?

Anyway, it will take much of the fun out of the weather forecasts, especially the fun of making fun of the weather forecasters.  For as long as I can remember the British have in a perverse way enjoyed the experience of the gap between the forecast and the reality. We’ve come to understand that ‘the occasional shower’ often means day-long torrential downpours.  Or that ‘sunny intervals’ actually means a five-minute glimpse of the sun in an infinite bank of scudding black clouds.

What will we talk about in the supermarket?  How can we possibly replace, “They say it might clear up later’ with ‘they say there’s a 40 percent chance it might not rain and a UV expectation of one-in-ten’?

Under the new scheme, ‘they’ are apparently not going to tell us anything.  When the barbecue is washed away in a flash flood it will all be our fault for making the wrong guess.       

The British secretly love their fickle climate and by extension their even fickler forecasters. 

Perhaps ‘they’ should think again.

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