There’s No Stupid Question. Stupid Is If It’s Not Asked.

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I'm Talking About Disasters At Roosevelt Middle School| Photo by Matt Bryers

Over my 37 years as a Television Meteorologist I had many questions thrown at me. They varied depending on the age and education level of the questioner. Speaking at schools was one of my favorite activities. The youngsters could come up with some really challenging questions. You have to be quick on your feet because you want to give them a good answer, but it also has to be correct. The worst thing I could do is to give a wrong explanation that the student would believe as factual. This was way before the birth of the worldwide web and social media so I felt the pressure to be as accurate as possible. I still do some public speaking, but to smaller groups and not as often to youngsters.

I’m Talking About Disasters At Roosevelt Middle School| Photo by Matt Bryers

I spoke to and with a group of youngsters here in Eugene a while back at Roosevelt Middle School. One of the problems with the questions my television viewers would ask is that they had simple enough answers, but the person asking the question often won’t believe the answer. When I worked in Eau Claire, Wisconsin back in the 1970s I had a viewer call complaining about the fact that the amount of rain the National Weather Service reported for that day didn’t match what was in his rain gauge. He asked me why that was. I explained that the more than one inch rainfall difference between the Weather Service gauge and his gauge occurred because rain doesn’t fall from clouds like water from your backyard garden hose. The same cloud doesn’t necessarily continue spreading the same amount of rain as it moves. Also clouds develop, dissipate and then can reform. He was having none of it and kept yelling at me over the phone for at least 10 minutes. He ended the conversation by hanging up on me. It just goes to show that even the simple factual truth can be a bone of contention for someone who won’t believe it.

Another situation happened when I was working in Wisconsin. I was speaking to group of lower grade elementary school students. When it came to the question and answer session at the end of my talk I answered many simple questions. One student, however, stumped me. I wish I could remember what the question was, but there were so any questions I couldn’t remember which one it was. It took only a few seconds for me to give an answer. Not remembering the question isn’t as important as remembering that the answer was as yet unknown. I was honest with this youngster who asked a question that was way above what you would think would be his knowledge level. That’s why I really wish I knew what question he asked. I’d like to know if we know the answer today.

J. Marshall Shepherd
Dr. J. Marshall Shepherd | Photo by youtube.com

An article posted on forbes.com highlights the topic of these kinds of questions. Written by Dr. J. Marshall Shepherd, Senior Contributor, and published November 10, 2019 the article is titled “Six Questions People Ask Meteorologists – And Ones They Probably Should Ask.” I found this interesting to get the perspective of the kinds of questions he mentions. Shepherd has worn many hats including a scientist at NASA, professor at the University of Georgia, and former president of the American Meteorological Society.

The number one question on his list is one I have heard more times that I’d like to count “Why are meteorologists wrong all of the time?” He explains rightly that that is an “inaccurate assumption.” I know from my experience that the public often doesn’t understand how the weather works and the terminology we use. Shepherd quotes a previous article that he wrote “Meteorologists are able to predict, with up to 90% or more accuracy within 2 to 5 days, how a complex fluid on a rotating planet with oceans, mountains, and varying heat distribution changes.” The public often considers the forecast wrong if it’s not the weather they wanted even if the forecast itself was accurate.

Me On TV
Me On KVAL-TV Many Years Ago (Taken from Videotape Playback) | Photo by Tim Chuey

The second question for him was “Which channel are you on?” Shepherd was not a Television Meteorologist and he explained that “only 8-10% of meteorologists work on TV.” There are a multitude of other positions available for meteorologists. Just listing a few we can start with forecasting for businesses. Federal Express (FedEx) has a whole team of meteorologists to forecast weather conditions at ground level and in the skies all over the world for the airplanes and trucks they use to deliver all sorts of goods. Commodities brokers have meteorologists on their staff to give predictions of long-term weather trends that would impact crop success or failures to help their clients decide where to invest their money. That is just he beginning of a very long and growing list of opportunities.

The third question is “Is it going to rain in two months in ____, I have to go to a ____?” He responds with the simple answer of I don’t know. I have had people over the years ask about the weather conditions for their wedding in 6 months or their cruise next summer. I usually explained there’s no way of knowing now, but when we’re about 10 days away from your event I can count you down day-to-day with what the updated forecast looks like.

Climate Change
Climate Change | Image by mrgeogwagg.wordpress.com

Question number four is “Do you believe in Climate Change?” Here is Shepherd’s response. “Science is not a belief system like the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus. Once I establish that with the person asking the question, I proceed to explain the consensus science and assure them that scientists know climate changes naturally and always has (we know that statement is coming). I then explain the concept of anthropogenic climate change on top of the naturally-varying climate system. It is not “either/or,” it is “and.”

Models
North American Model vs European Model

The fifth question is “Why is the American model so bad? That is a weather programing computer model that the U.S. developed. There are other models and the most accurate one seems to be the European model. Our scientists have been working constantly to improve that model. As an example, the National Weather Service and  National Hurricane Center m meteorologists study al of the available models when preparing their forecasts.

The sixth and final question he lists is “My son or daughter loves clouds, storm chasing, and hurricanes. Do you think he/she is going to be a meteorologist one day?”  Shepherd answers that question by explaining the various scientific and mathematical disciplines that are involved in becoming a meteorologist. Quoting again” I also tell parents that there are certainly other ways for students to activate their weather passion in related majors, volunteer spotter programs, and so forth.”

That gives you just a small sample of the kinds of questions we get asked all of the time. If you have an interest in meteorology as a career have no idea what to do next please contact me and we can find a way to get you connected to the sources you need to checkout.

Let me know what you would like me to talk about or explain. You can comment below or email me at: [email protected]

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