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Jailed for forecasting the weather incorrectly?

Published on 15 January 2012
Updated on 19 March 2024

If a new law is adopted, South African independent weather forecasters who get it wrong could face imprisonment. Although, according to the Daily Telegraph article, the law has specific local context of reinforcing the state’s monopoly in weather forecasting, it opens many questions….. What about the responsibility of government weather forecasters for their mistakes, especially mistakes with grave consequences for society? Are they immune because they are ‘official’? What about professional responsibility in general? What about the responsibility of those who did not alert society about the financial crisis or even contributed to it by their actions, whether intentionally or out of negligence? What about the moral responsibility of the army of experts and academics whose social function should be to see beyond the here and now and alert us about coming problems? What can be predicted? If it is not possible to make a reliable weather forecast (natural science), how can we forecast financial markets or political developments? Instead of addressing us with overconfidence, should experts and professionals accept the objective limitations of predictions in both natural and social systems? According to Kahneman in his seminal book Thinking, Fast and Slow, if they show any doubt, experts are likely to lose our trust.[1] Humanity seeks certainty even when it does not exist. Have we moved far from the old joke about the Indian Chief and the weatherman?

Winter was approaching and Indians asked their new Chief if the winter would be cold or mild. The new Chief did not know old tricks and could not provide the answer. Just to be on the safe side (precautionary principle) he told his people to start collecting wood for a cold winter. But at the same time he went to the city to ask the weatherman for advice. Not knowing the exact answers, the weatherman told him that the winter was likely to be very cold. So the Chief went back to his people and told them to collect even more wood in order to be prepared for a very cold winter. In a few weeks, he went again to the city and asked the weatherman how he could be so sure that the winter would be so cold. The weatherman replied: ‘The Indians are collecting firewood like crazy.’
  Regardless of the coldness of the winter, both the Indian Chief (unofficial) and the weatherman (official) forecasters will do the same for the next winter …..

[1] Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011: Penguin UK) discusses the limits of rationality in human decision-making as well as various ways to mask this limitation and preserve ‘cognitive coherence’ and feeling that we are rationally ‘in control’.  

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