13 February 2021

Why Crazy Snow Forecast Go Viral on Social Media

Posted by Dan Satterfield

Ctsy. Cameron Siliga

There have been some rather outrageous snow forecasts floating around online this winter, and in the last few days, many have been from Oklahoma and Texas. Make no mistake about it there is a major snow event coming there, but TV forecasters in Oklahoma City posting snow totals 5 days out is certainly beyond the science (and perhaps a good definition for the word irresponsible).

You tend to get strong pushback from the public when you point this out, and any meteorologist will tell you any snow event is likely to bring a serious uptick in rude comments on Twitter and Facebook. I ban more people from my pages in a snow event than any other time, but somehow I see an increase in followers because people really want to know if it is going to snow! 

Why Are People So Rude About Snow Forecasts?

The answer has nothing to do with the location of the dendritic growth zone or the thickness between 1000 and 700 millibars.

It is all psychology.

 The Psychological Term is Confirmation Bias.
Here is how it works:
Most people want snow (the reasons differ). Some want a snow day from school or work others, like me, believe there is no such thing as too much snow.
Since everyone (yes, everyone) tends to seek out information that confirms their biases, we ignore snow forecasts that do not fit with what we want to be true. If you like snow you will tend to accept information that predicts a lot of it without looking critically at the source. It may (and often is) from someone with no expertise in atmospheric science at all, but no matter it goes viral. On the other hand, people tend to ignore information (perhaps very reliable information) that predicts little or no snow. If you hate snow you do just the opposite!
Snow lovers predominate and they rabidly share the online maps with the most snow, and meteorologists like me who forecasted 2-4 inches of it get angry emails from folks after the storm, wondering why we only got 2-4 inches of snow when “you all were forecasting at least ten inches!”
The rude letters and emails are another effect: cognitive dissonance. You get angry if when you see information that conflicts with what you think/want to be true. This is why I get a lot of rude comments from some people during snow events. This also explains why my friends who work in climate science get really crazy letters and even death threats. 
So What do We Do?

Well to start with you realise that everyone (including you and me) suffers from these biases. You watch yourself and try to get the most reliable info possible by seeking out those with a lot of expertise in a certain field. I would also recommend reading the book The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols. Not understanding how you think wrong leads to all kinds of bad things happening. Can you think of a few in the news recently?

Well, there is Oklahoma, which has millions of doses of Hydroxychloroquine. Maybe, because someone there suffers badly from confirmation bias!

There is one thing that science has yet to explain and I have low hopes for any breakthrough. We will continue to posts a forecast for our areas and immediately get the same question: How much for my town?? (I always reply with the same forecasts I just posted!)

One last thing: There’s far too much rudeness on social media. IMHO the best way to fix this is to no longer interact with those people. I think if more people did that, we just might see less of it. That does not mean you cannot disagree but you can do it in a respectful way. Quit following people who often post information that is wrong or overtly biased. Those who do not seem to have the temperament to do social media well will soon find themselves rather isolated, and this can be a powerful inducement to behave better! Just my two cents.