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Future Imperfect
Predicting the future can be a tricky matter. Everyone wants to know what’s going to happen there, but it’s really hard to find out before we arrive — which is why predictions are in such high demand. This also explains why there’s not much of a market for predicting the past.

It should also be said that any projection involving human activity is particularly chancy. The current political season is adequate proof of that. Even Nate Silver, chief stat man at the FiveThirtyEight probabilities website, pronounced himself “humbled” by the rise of Donald J. Trump. Whether you’re predicting politics, sports, or the longevity of Hiddleswift, the human element adds too many variables to permit a reliable call.

Purely scientific forecasts are another matter, at least theoretically. Predictability is what the scientific method is all about. Only data is important; every effort is made to eliminate the taint of human stupidity and prejudice. It is impossible, of course, to screen out the dreaded observer effect, to say nothing of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which I will say nothing of. Generally, though, science has proven to be pretty solid oracle.

Weather is an area where, in theory, we should be pretty good at predicting. Science and the observance of real phenomena are at the very heart of meteorology. The quality of the science involved and the density of factual input has gone way up in recent years. So why do their forecasts suck?

Okay, “suck” might be a little strong. I’ll give them this: they’ve gotten “the sun will rise tomorrow” right for as long as I can remember. I don’t wish to appear ungrateful for that perfect record of prognostication, but it’s only fair that we talk about the less-than-perfect, too.

Take last week. On Monday, the forecast for my small mountain community included a high temperature of 75. It eventually topped out at 94. Fine. I understand that conditions can change, and that the slightest alteration in the mix of phenomena can throw off even the most careful projections. That said, what about Tuesday? 76 was predicted; my final high reading was 94. I was beginning to suspect a trend, but when the weather page told me Wednesday’s high would be 77, I still chose to believe the experts. We ended up hitting 100.

I know: “Ohhh, poor baaaaby.” And believe me, I know exactly where you’re coming from because I was born there. I admit that I was not really harmed by this misleading information. If the mistake had gone the other way, and the temperature had turned out to be balmy rather than broiling, I probably wouldn’t have complained.

But hear me out. These predictions appeared in a newspaper…as news. This is what is going to happen, they seemed to say. You can count on it because our job at the newspaper is to print reliable information so people can make good judgments about their day-to-day lives. These figures aren’t the product of some BS artist like Nate Silver, they are the end result of a careful scientific inquiry. You can take them to the bank, they imply, and deposit them in a nice, safe money market fund.

But no. They were wrong — by a lot! Three days in a row! No correction was ever printed. No attempt to explain the enormous disparity was ever made. No refund was posted to my account. And not a word of apology was uttered.

This whole experience has been an epiphany for me. I’m not sure how it will affect my relationship with meteorologists, my local daily, or newspapers in general. This much I do know: if they tell me the sun will rise tomorrow, I will believe it when I see it.

Please Note: Tim Eagan will read your comments but he is currently not publishing them.

Trump supporters are people who know what they believe.
~ JC, Bonny Doon