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July 07, 2004

The Weatherman's Dictionary of Evasions

Posted by Digby Anderson

BBC weather forecasts don't tell you what you need to know, and tell you too much about Scotland, argues Digby Anderson. Here he examines the weatherman's Dictionary of Evasions.

In this household, the question of the moment is not Iraq or the proposed European constitution but whether we need to water the Little Gem lettuce seedlings today. To decide that we have to know if it will rain by this evening? Many other households are, I suspect, taken up with similar questions. After all it is attention to the daily round and the common task that keeps society on course. It is not that we want to evade our duty, and anyway, watering is not very burdensome. It is that Mrs A does not want to do it only to have the little seedlings subsequently swamped by a heavy shower. So it is reasonable - isn't it? - to expect those so charged and for such a charge so remunerated, to answer this simple little question.

But the weatherman on the BBC, Radio 3 and 4, won't do it. He is not averse to talking. Sometimes, he is even garrulous. He has been known to make jokes and, in that increasingly irritating BBC habit, to banter with newscasters and those presenting programmes immediately before and after his. He has no objection to talking about the weather. He might even explain whether it will rain. What he won't do is tell us whether it will rain by seven this evening in Woburn Sands. He will talk about "the Midlands and East Anglia" even "London and the South-East" but he won't tell us which of the two we are in today. He won't say what their boundaries are. And he won't say by when the rain is going to come. The expressions he likes are ones such as, "during the latter part of the day, occasional showers will spread to many parts of Central and Southern England". His weather "spreads" and "moves across" vast tracts of imprecisely defined areas in a piecemeal fashion "possibly reaching parts of the southern coasts by dusk". He tells everyone about a lot of Britain but tells no inhabitant of any particular part of the country what he needs to know in order to take care of his Gems. One does not expect an explicit mention of Woburn Sands. Even we provincial people know that weather comes in biggish dollops. If it is going to rain in Bedford or Buckingham we know it may well rain here though at a slightly different time. County-based forecasts would help such as "all counties east of Bucks and Northants will have rain before nightfall".

"Here" is a moveable matter. Provincial people are interested in more than their Gems at home in the spring. It would be nice, in the summer, to know whether it will be fine on Broadstairs beach next weekend so one can decide whether it is worth going down. One needs to know by Wednesday for it to be reasonably helpful. And it is no use, once one has arrived, being told it is about to be fine in Bournemouth or even Brighton. One is not in Bournemouth or Brighton: "Southern and Eastern coastal resorts" won't do. It is no help for him to ramble on about large scale tendencies and vague probabilities. Yet here's a selection of the Essential Forecaster's Dictionary of Slimy Evasions culled from just five real recent broadcasts: a few, could, should, maybe, generally, start off, eventually, rather (e.g. rainy), quite (e.g. sunny), also (followed by the opposite of what's just been said), perhaps, hovering around, mainly, more, some, most, widespread, edging towards, developing, a touch of, chance of, risk of, pretty much. Not much use for real people who have practical decisions to make - with pleasant or unpleasant consequences.

It will be claimed that the poor weather-man does not have enough time in his slot to help with these decisions. But he does. Unfortunately he prefers to waste it talking about things which interest him but not us, at least as far as our weather interests are concerned. What he wastes his precious time - which we pay for - on, is Scotland. Scotland is a place where, compared to Central and Southern England, no one lives and that means no one wastes his day freezing on the beach or has her Gems flooded away because of vague and unhelpful forecasts. Central and Southern England pays for most of the forecaster's salary and gets most of the pain from his failure to earn it. It is quite absurd to spend the same amount of time on Scotch weather as on South-Central English weather. But he often does, introducing this gross unfairness with the casual words, "For today's forecast I shall divide the country into three areas…" Sometimes he goes further and gives the entire listening population revolting details about what is happening on something called "high ground", usually in Scotland, thus "this rain (which may or may not fall on South-Central England) will spread over Scotland falling as wintry showers over high ground". What have the tiny population of these Scotch hills done to merit this extravagant and minute attention? Why does the mass of the population have to hear about the weather conditions of a few sheep?

Anyway Southern English people are not interested in Scotch weather be it up or down hills. It's a long way away and we don't even visit it much compared to Spain and France. Why don't we visit it? Because we already know what the weather is like there. We may not have mastered all the meteorological jargon but we know when weather is awful. We also know that modern Scotch people are deeply resentful of the English and of what they see as English intrusion into Scotch affairs. They themselves can't take kindly to being lectured on what times are going to be like on one of their prize hills by chaps from Broadcasting House, Portland Place, London.

Let the Scotch have their own weather back. Then the English forecaster can have more time helping with our Gems and beach trips. I remember a forecast I once heard in a sunny New York at 9.00am, promising a 90 per cent probability of rain in Manhattan at 1.00pm. At one, the skies obediently opened. I know, I know, climates on sea-surrounded smallish islands are more difficult to predict that on large continents. Maybe, the best that can be expected is an 80 per cent probability. Oh, and when forecasts are proved wrong, subsequent apologies are due. When the forecaster judges he is unable to predict the weather at a reasonable probability rate, this should be honestly expressed, 'We don't know what will happen today, so have your watering can ready and don't go to the pub this evening in case you need to refresh the Gems'. More generally, unless our forecasts can average 70 per cent accuracy for unambiguously defined areas and specific times, they are next to worthless. Of course, probability ratings and specific times and places would allow for accountability to the people who pay for the forecasts. And government organizations such as the Met Office and the BBC have yet to learn what accountability means.

Digby Anderson retired as Director of the Social Affairs Unit earlier this year.


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Its Scots not Scotch. Scotch is a drink.

Posted by: stu at September 28, 2005 03:12 PM
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