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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Reputation, weather and climate

Dodgy long term forecasts spoil the reputations of good short-term forecasters

Though I am writing this from Texas, from tomorrow I will be back in the UK and I have been checking the weather forecast for my home at the Met Office's excellent website.

By excellent, I mean both clear and accurate. I find the Met Office's forecasts for a day ahead very good and the ones for up to five days ahead pretty reliable and the ones for 30 days ahead mostly not worth reading. That is not a criticism; it's a fair reflection of the unpredictability of chaotic systems: short-term certainty rapidly decaying into long-term luck.

Which is why I wonder what the excellent Met Office weather forecasters feel about the way their organisation's leaders have got them into dire reputational trouble, by obsessively trying to pretend they can forecast climate as well as they can forecast weather. Weather people, are you not getting just a bit disgusted with your climate collagues? By predicting a "barbecue" summer that was a washout in between two "mild" winters that were colder than average, did they not committ the cardinal sin of weather forecasting -- long term overconfidence? And drag you down with them?

This reputational trouble is deepening. December was the coldest in the UK since records began in 1910 with an average of -1.7C [-0.7C in England, and the CET series is longer and has a colder December in 1890.]. The Met Office is now claiming it privately told the government in October to expect severe cold. Yet at around the same time it put this image on its website, clearly predicting a mild winter:

 

 

Was it really saying one thing to government and another to readers of its website? How very convenient.

Autonomous Mind has this to say:

Ask yourself is this: Does it seem reasonable or probable that the publicly funded meterology department of the UK provided the government with a secret forecast about exceptional cold, at the same time it was publishing the opposite forecast to the public, but did so because it was previously ridiculed for getting seasonal forecasts wrong? And that the government conspired to keep it secret, took no action to prepare to keep the highways clear and maintain a safe driving environment and let its Winter Fuel Allowance budget be used up with only a fraction of the winter gone?

Where is the logic in the Met Office thinking it would avoid ridicule by telling the public on its own website that there was a circa 80% probability of a warmer than average winter if it was actually predicting the exceptional cold as it claims to have told the government?

If I ran the Met Office, I would tell it to get back to its knitting: concentrate on short-term weather forecasting and deny any expertise on climate. The reason it won't is money: the Met Office gets huge dollops of grants from taxpayers to study climate. And it is chaired by an ideologue on the subject, Robert Napier.