10 September 2019

NWS Director and Chief Science Officer at NOAA Back NWS Hurricane Tweet; Who Wrote NOAA Friday Statement??

Posted by Dan Satterfield

In a (not really) surprising turn of events, Monday, the Director of the National Weather Service Louis Uccinelli and NOAA’s chief science officer publicly backed a tweet issued by the NWS office in Birmingham on Sept. 1st. That tweet (which was scientifically accurate) told residents that Hurricane Dorian would not be a threat to Alabama. It was posted after their phones melted with rumors that Alabama would be hit much harder than thought. While they had no idea where this had come from (I was told this by people working in the office)  they acted properly and quickly to dispel it and give the public the truth.

I have yet to hear from any meteorologist who disagrees with what they did, and while many news outlets have used wording that is perhaps more journalistic,  I stand 100% by my initial comments that the Friday NOAA statement was a lie. Intentional or not, it was an egregious misrepresentation of the science and the basic facts.

The statements today from Dr. Louis Uccinelli and Acting Chief Science officer Craig McLean disavowed the unsigned NOAA statement issued last Friday that criticized the Twitter post from the NWS office.

When I left work around Midnight the Friday before the tweet at 11 AM Sunday, I knew that Dorian would not impact the Gulf Coast. It was even more certain by late Saturday and even more by early Sunday. It seems unfathomable that the NOAA statement on Friday was written by someone with an atmospheric science background and whoever wrote it has no good science that can be relied upon to support it.

In addition to the statements by Dr. Uccinelli today, two past directors of the National Hurricane Center and two past directors of the NWS have also sided with the NWS in Birmingham. Dr. Uccinelli spoke at a weather conference in North Alabama Monday and Acting Administrator Neil Jacobs is scheduled to speak there Tuesday (today).

The Washington Post has reported that Jacobs was involved with NOAA Communications Director Julie Roberts in writing the NOAA Friday night statement that has been the subject of a firestorm of criticism. Rightly so and it will be interesting to hear what he has to say.

Side note:
A broadcast meteorologist wears three hats. He is the station scientist, meteorologist and also science journalist. I have tried to follow the rules of normal journalistic practice here in reporting this. This blog was started to give accurate information about Earth Science and while heavily political, this story is obviously fair game. My philosophy is to run this blog and my social media accounts like a newspaper in 1992. I’m the editor. I pick valid comments and try to pick valid criticisms. I also do what all editors used to do and toss the crazy ones in the trash.

My inbox has been full of people (98% Male) using old or non-pertinent graphics to bolster their belief that the NWS was wrong. It’s an almost comical example of grasping at the thinnest of straws to support an argument that deeply conflicts with your expectations or worldview. Everyone does it but a good scientist accounts for it.

Richard Feynman said the first principle is not to fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool. This is sage advice and I keep it in mind. In this case, I am relying on my knowledge of atmospheric science, forecasting, and journalistic standards to cover this. The video at the bottom of this post explains this very well. It’s about confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance. Before I wrote the first word of my initial post-Friday night I thought about this video and double-checked to make sure my recollection of the model guidance and NHC forecasts was correct.

It was.

Many broadcast meteorologists have been very quiet about this and likely out of fear of upsetting viewers in a starkly polarised America. In my opinion, though, journalism by omission is no different than biased journalism. I had to write about this.

I will keep doing so.

Note that my friend James Spann has also been very vocal about this and stood up for his hometown NWS office. An action that for obvious reasons likely cost him a lot of likes on social media. A big hat tip to the folks at the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang who’ve done excellent work in reporting this story. They are proof that having reporters with a good science background can be invaluable in reporting stories accurately. Jason Samenow, Matthew Cappucci, and Andrew Freedman have worked long hours and have produced the best reporting on this out there. See the Op-ed by three past NOAA Administrators in the WAPO just published here.

In the end, doing the right thing is always the right thing. This is why the public and private science community has come out so strongly in their defense. The public must have life-saving weather information free of political interference. The NOAA statement on Friday calls that into question and this is something that cannot continue. The person who wrote that Friday NOAA statement and anyone who insisted it be published has done great damage to NOAA’s reputation.

They should resign or be terminated.