“Masters of Uncertainty”


Phaedra Daipha’s recent (20105) book Masters of Uncertainty: Weather Forecasters and the Quest for Ground Truth (University of Chicago Press) is worth picking-up, if only to appreciate and better understand the odd practice-world of weather forecasting inhabited by individuals whose weather predictions feature so prominently in local and national news, and, also, because frequently their prognostications shape the timings of our daily comings and goings (especially when we trust them too much or too little). Here is an interview with Daipha to give you a hint of what’s in store for the book.

For social theory buffs, and especially for sociologists trained in organizational studies, cultural studies, and science and technology studies (like I was), this is a real treat. The bibliography is packed with the usual suspects: everything from heaps of Abbott, Fligstein, Barley, and Gieryn to Latour, Goffman, Giddens, and March, without forgetting Orlikowski, Perrow, Weick, and Vaughan. And there are many more I could gladly highlight.

As we all know, “reading the clouds” is both knowable and unknowable depending upon the horizon-line and your tolerance for error. Surely some elements of the trade have stabilized over time like the 5 or 7 day forecast featured above or the map-based presentation of weather patterns (precip, temp, wind, etc.), although they are far from standardization (i.e., just readymade deliveries each day for viewers).


Best part of the book in my opinion was hiding in the tail end of the subtitle. The notion of “ground truth.” Without going into the full detail of how forecasters foretell the weather (as Phaedra’s book demonstrates, you need a book-length analysis to do that!), it does becomes clear that much of what is cobbled-together (various sources of data, modeling outputs, etc., which Daipha insists on called “collage” and for very good reason — she has a paper on that too in Sociological Forum) happens in practice that is relatively habitual. What’s great is that Daipha then reveals a stunning (to me, anyways) bias in the literature on routine human behaviors (esp. in organizational settings) which indicates that habits are bad, bad things that, in effect, turn human brains off (she is smart and a bit funny about her choice in quotes on this topic — my favorite is page 201) and routined or habitual behavior is typically depicted as the ontological counterpoint to what one might refer to as purposeful, intelligent, or meaningful behavior. Well, Daipha shows just how inaccurate such a model of human behavior is when applied to forecasting practices. A high point in the book to me.

Also, forecasting practices temporally occur in an environment (situational/contextual in both immediate terms but also set within trends, standards, institutionalized behavioral standards, etc.), but they are not determined by the “raw materials” available to the job. This is because these raw materials, when collaged together in various formations, afford the forecaster that steady confidence that is much needed when those forecasts are performed for home audiences. This temporal element (and weather is often so very time-sensitive) when combined with the habitual collage practices mentioned previously dovetail together to produce the notion of “ground truth” (or what seems justifiably accurate enough to serve as a legitimate forecast on the ground at that very moment, even if — because weather is “unpredictable” — the same forecast may acknowledgeably be deemed as inadequate or untrue at a later time/date when the forecast meets the present moment in which it was estimated to represent). This especially interesting to me given my recent work on scenario planning and some similar issues with the theoretical underpinnings of understandings of “the future” and forecasting and so on.

4 thoughts on ““Masters of Uncertainty”

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  3. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p041svq3
    New ideas about volcanoes, earthquakes and other geological processes that both enrich and threaten us. Jack Stewart is joined by four leading Earth scientists in the city of Yokohama at the 2016 Goldschmidt Conference – volcanologists Tamsin Mather and Michihiko Nakamura, plate tectonics expert Carl Spandler and seismologist and Nature magazine editor John VanDecar.


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