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old post: More than what is dreamt of in our philosophy–Snowquester goes bust



From 2013

I woke up Wednesday morning looking forward to the view from my window, anticipating an expanse of whiteness for the first time in over two years. Most local weather forecasters had predicted that DC would get 5-10 inches, with the first couple before I would wake up. Alas, the view was of pavement with grass poking up through what little snow there was. And so it remained through the day.
What happened was largely about psychology, and about one of my favorite problems, grappling with uncertainty.
As the linked piece suggests, the forecasters have a really, really hard time knowing where the temperature will switch from being cold enough for snow to cold enough only for really cold rain. But they can't really admit to it in public! The best forecast they could have made?"The best forecast for Snowquester was one we could not issue with a  straight face, and one most Washingtonians would have ridiculed: Rain,  sleet, and/or snow likely--heavy at times--with snow accumulations of   0-14 inches. In other words...."we know with really high certainty that it will be very, very wet.  But we don't know what form it will take." 
The forecasters knew that there was uncertainty "But," per the Capital Weather Gang, " we watered down some of this uncertainty information the day before the storm--a major communication error. Our headlines and lead paragraphs, for example, overstated our own confidence in snow materializing."
Why would forecasters water down uncertainty? My guess is because the people who pay the bills want certainty. Would you go to their website if they predicted 0 to 14 inches of snow?
That, in turn, begs the question--why do we demand certainty of the forecasters even when it's beyond their ability? Why don't we like forecasts that say "I only know a bit. Beyond that space, there are dragons"  (OK. I would like hearing about dragons. But you get the idea.)
The problem can be explained at many levels. I suspect Eddie Harmon-Jones would argue that uncertainty leaves us frozen (pun intended). The thought it might snow makes us want to hole up at home with warm beverages preparing to watch. The thought it might just be freezing rain makes us want to brave it to get to work to sit in the beautiful Asbury building till the ark is no longer needed. So which will I do?Perhaps neither very well, committed to neither. Certainty got me to commit to working at home yesterday. Sometimes commitment is what matters, and that to which we commit is less crucial. 
That's probably part of the picture. But I wonder how much is due to the stories we tell each other hear in the States. When we speak to our co-workers do we tell them that we might or might not be able to make something work. The phrase "Yes we can" rings in a way that "Mabye we can, but maybe not. We'll see" does not. Doctors are supposed to have sure cures, not questions. Students are expected to boldly tell their elders and friends where they will go to college, what they will study, and what great career will follow from this.  Has this always been the case?  Was "I don't know" more tolerable as a career path once upon a time? 
"And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
Maybe accepting that uncertainty we'll find our father's ghost (though then I'd suggest avoiding fencing matches). And maybe we'll go to bed wondering whether there will be snow on the ground in the morning rather than being sure of it.

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