Silly (Prediction) Season is Upon Us Again

It’s that time of year when the news media gets a free fluff piece to eat 30-60 seconds of air time or throw up a random post on their site to generate clicks/shares, and make it seem like they actually did some work.

That’s right – the Farmer’s Almanac (and Old Farmer’s Almanac) have come out with their Winter predictions. Actually, maybe only one of them has. I’m not really sure and I don’t really care. I just happened upon this article and started reading. You don’t have to click that link though, as I’m about to break down this gem below.

Before we begin, I should note this article is written by Dave Crawley, a reporter for KDKA in Pittsburgh, PA who appears to focus on community events. So, this seems like a nice, easy piece for him to write. His bio indicates he has won the Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in broadcast news writing. I’m just going to leave that there.

Let’s begin…

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — If you liked last winter, you’ll love this one – at least according to the Farmer’s Almanac, dating back to 1818. The pages are full of warnings of snow storms and bitter cold.

As has been mentioned in this space before (probably long before since it’s been a while), predicting seasonal weather months in advance is largely a futile effort. Also, the Farmer’s Almanac (and the Old one , too) are largely unreliable even if they turn out to be just as accurate as anyone else. This is because all predictions like this are generally unreliable. (Seriously, look at last year’s NOAA Winter Outlook and the subheading to the article: “Repeat of last year’s extremely cold, snowy winter east of Rockies unlikely.” Whoops.)

Also, note that while February was very cold in Pittsburgh last year, December and January combined were almost exactly normal. In addition, snowfall was less than 6 inches above normal. Outside of the February cold (and it was awful – almost 13 degrees below normal for the month), the Winter was rather normal. The previous Winter (2013-14) saw almost 20 more inches of snow.

Then there’s the “Old” Farmers’ Almanac, which goes back to 1792. Alas, they both have the same outlook.

Alas, they’re both pretty meaningless.

How many times have you heard forecasters say, “Most of the snow will stay to the south of us?”

Probably not as often as they’ve heard forecasters say, “Most of the snow will stay to the north of us.” I mean, it is colder to the north of Pittsburgh, climatologically-speaking. So, you would expect those areas to get more snow. My guess is that it’s fairly common for snow to fall in places like Cleveland, Erie, and Buffalo while a wintry mix, or just plain rain, falls in Pittsburgh. (That’s also been my experience living here the past few years.)

Well, we went to “the south of us.”

In fact, it was in Washington, Pa. where we asked local residents what they think of that long-range, snowy forecast.

Wait. You literally got in your car and spent the gas/money to drive south and ask some people about a Farmer’s Almanac prediction? Where exactly did you go to ask these people? (Note: the article doesn’t say because of course it doesn’t.)

“They were right about last winter,” one man said. “I think they predicted the same thing.”

Does anyone know what this means? Who was right – Farmer’s Almanac? So who predicted the same thing? Or is that meant to imply they are predicting the same thing for this Winter? I’m so confused.

Also, it wouldn’t take much effort to tell whether or not a prediction was right. Just find out what it was, then find out what actually happened. Would it have taken that much effort? No, it wouldn’t, because I’ve already done it. The snowfall was slightly above normal while temperatures were below normal, so I guess their prediction of above average snowfall with cold was right for the 2014-15 Winter. Of course, the convenience of simply predicting above or below normal without putting a number on it means you’ve got a 50/50 shot.

“Last winter was really bad,” a woman added. “So I’m hoping it will be a little bit better this year.”

Again, it really wasn’t that bad outside of the temperatures in February. Snowfall was pretty close to normal. It could’ve been worse. It has been worse. 1977-78 was 1.5 degrees colder for the December through February period with 15 more inches of snow. I’m sure there were others, but that’s one that always sticks out in my head.

Meteorologists don’t put much more stock in Farmers’ Almanacs, saying that a system called El Nino may make for a warmer winter.

“A system called El Nino”? Really? This guy won an award named after Edward R. Murrow? How can you have not at least heard of El Nino? And how do you know Farmer’s Almanac isn’t considering the most influential ocean cycle in their prediction? (Here’s a guess: they are probably considering it.)

Also, “a warmer winter”? I’m not sure about that. Pittsburgh sits right on the dividing line between above normal temperatures to the northwest and increased snowfall to the east during typical El Nino Winters. The last Winter to be heavily influenced by El Nino was 2009-10 when Pittsburgh received their 3rd-highest snowfall on record: 77.4 inches. I’m not saying that’s going to happen this coming Winter (remember, predicting this stuff is silly), but it’s worth noting what has happened in the past.

Nevertheless, a supporter says, “I kind of believe what the Farmer’s Almanac says. I believe in farmers. Those old-timers know what they’re talking about.”

Holy shit. This is all kinds of amazing.

I’m going to set the religious undertones of that statement aside and move on to the notion that farmers are writing this almanac. By all accounts, farmers are not writing the almanac, nor are they heavily influencing the predictions contained within it. Rather, it seems the almanac is written for farmers so they may plan ahead for the end of the current growing season and beginning of the next one. The Old Farmer’s Almanac lists its editors, none of which claim to be farmers. Gardeners? Yes, but that seems like a hobby more than a job since, you know, their job is to edit The Old Farmer’s Almanac. These editors primarily hold degrees in English as well as the humanities and social sciences.

This isn’t to say that someone with a non-science degree cannot conduct science. Of course they can, just as someone with a science degree can create art. And, in reality, the Old Farmer’s Almanac is conducting science. They record information about the weather, tides, stars, and Sun in an effort to predict future weather. It’s just that science has advanced well beyond these methods.

When it comes to “old-timers,” don’t for one second believe that meteorology doesn’t have its fair share. The field is full of people who will be happy to remind of how things were done “back in their day” before all this fancy technology came along. They have their tried-and-true methods that they’ll still apply. Are they any more accurate? Probably not, but they feel more comfortable sticking to their process.

Some don’t need an almanac to know which way the wind blows.

Personally, I’d recommend an anemometer.

“If you start hitting cold spots, look out, it’s coming,” one man says.

Again, what the hell does this mean?

Others are hoping the forecast is right

“Winter’s my favorite season, so bring it on,” another adds.

Do these people have names? How hard is it to just ask someone their name and write it down so you don’t have to keep using “one man/woman said” and “another says”?

“I’m prepared for it,” says another. “I’m a rancher myself, so I’m ready.”

He found the bar, right? That’s really the best explanation for where he’s finding these people.

Ready or not, here it comes. Unless it doesn’t.

This is actually the most appropriate line in the article.

In totality, this article is a classic example of lazy journalism pandering to the lowest common denominator. Don’t bother fact-checking or researching anything to try to enlighten your audience. Don’t bother finding alternative viewpoints to help the reader think critically about the topic. Just grab some quotes from some people at a bar (allegedly) and throw together an article to publish.

Of course, maybe a Farmer’s Almanac prediction doesn’t deserve much better anyway.

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