America has this curious strain of anti-intellectualism that sees expert opinion on any topic as somehow suspect. While skepticism is a good quality when practiced in moderation, what Bertrand Russell referred to as ‘heroic skepticism’ that takes a stance in direct opposition to expert opinion, such as that human-caused global warming is not happening and that hence climate change is a fiction, is foolish.
What is even worse is the idea that expert opinion is not just wrong or misguided but that it is a deliberate fraud, being manipulated to mislead the public in the service of nefarious agendas We have seen this idea being advanced by right-wingers in the case of global warming and we also see it in the case of hurricane and other extreme weather forecasts. The two issues are linked. Climate change is predicted to create more frequent and more severe extreme weather events. So those who deny the reality of climate change have a vested interest in downplaying the predictions of severe storms even if they lull people in storm-prone areas into a dangerous sense of complacency.
David Titley, a professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University, writes that the very open way that weather forecasting is done nowadays makes fraudulent data manipulation impossible.
In 2016 conservative news blogger Matt Drudge accused the federal government of hyping the threat as Hurricane Matthew approached the U.S. coast, purportedly to play up possible links between extreme weather and climate change. I explained how this not only was false, but that it would be impossible for the National Hurricane Center to manipulate hurricane forecasts in a political manner, given that all the raw information is accessible to anyone today with an internet connection.
Apparently, Rush Limbaugh did not read the article, for he has made very similar claims regarding forecasts for Hurricane Florence. A simple reading of warnings and key messages from the National Hurricane Center (NHC) shows a very different reality.
For hurricanes, the federal government produces one official forecast from either the National Hurricane Center for the eastern Pacific and Atlantic oceans or the Joint Typhoon Warning Center for the western Pacific and Indian oceans. This forecast draws on computer-based weather forecast models, an assessment of the storm’s real-time characteristics, and the knowledge of a highly trained typhoon duty officer or hurricane specialist. It would be obvious instantaneously if it deviated substantially from observed conditions, or from a blend of the computerized forecast guidance, without providing some meteorological or physical explanation.
This level of transparency is fairly new. As recently as the early 2000s, there were significant and sometimes emotional debates within the weather forecasting community over how much computer modeling data and information from weather observations should be publicly available in real time. Some forecasters worried, and still do now, that users could misinterpret individual pieces of data or second-guess official forecasts. Over time, however, consensus has grown in favor of making all the data available to anyone interested, so that everyone can see how forecasts are put together.
If U.S. government forecasters appeared to be disregarding either observations or reliable forecast models without explanation, weather enthusiasts would quickly point this out on social media, and major news media would pick up the story. We don’t see this in headlines because it doesn’t happen.
The same is true for climate change models. These are done by a huge number of scientists working all over the globe and that makes fraud almost impossible to pull off. But the ‘heroic skeptics’ will use the occasional cases of scientific fraud that involve just a few scientists to unjustifiably extrapolate to large scale science. This can result in absurdities such as the North Carolina legislature passing laws that set the amount of sea level rise because they did not like the predictions of the scientific community.
When North Carolina got bad news about what its coast could look like thanks to climate change, it chose to ignore it.
Hurricane Florence: over 1m ordered to evacuate in Virginia and Carolinas
In 2012, the state now in the path of Hurricane Florence reacted to a prediction by its Coastal Resources Commission that sea levels could rise by 39in over the next century by passing a law that banned policies based on such forecasts.
The legislation drew ridicule, including a mocking segment by comedian Stephen Colbert, who said: “If your science gives you a result you don’t like, pass a law saying the result is illegal. Problem solved.”
But dire predictions alarmed coastal developers and their allies, who said they did not believe the rise in sea level would be as bad as the worst models predicted and said such forecasts could unnecessarily hurt property values and drive up insurance costs.
As a result, the state’s official policy, rather than adapting to the worst potential effects of climate change, has been to assume it simply won’t be that bad. Instead of forecasts, it has mandated predictions based on historical data on sea level rise.
Too bad the legislature did not pass a law saying that hurricanes could not hit the North Carolina coastline. Then they would have been spared today’s storm.