When Errorbars Hit Mainstream News
It’s interesting to me how science has come into conflict with the news in the past week. First we had the deflategate, where footballs mysteriously deflated during a playoff game, and then we had an over hyped blizzard.
The NFL recently hired physicists at Columbia to help make the case for science with the football fiasco, but I think that’s unnecessary: a few good experiments with temperature and friction and lots of measurements by lots of different pressure gauges will empirically demonstrate how much of a range we might expect from such things. In other words, understanding errorbars.
As for the blizzard, this article nicely articulates the science of weather forecasting and what went wrong. But what is interesting is that, in general, models have gotten much better, and in particular are good at predicting how powerful a storm is going to get. In this case the model got that right, but then the error came in figuring out exactly where the storm would travel and when.
Again, it’s a case of errorbars, and the public seems not to understand it. Or maybe they just don’t want to.
In fact, I heard quite a few people call in to ESPN radio over the past week trying to explain to the sports radio hosts what might be going on scientifically, only to be hung up on. The truth is, it’s not as interesting a story to think about it just happening outside our control. It messes with our sense of omnipotence and control.
This is bad news for society, as more and more things become “datafied” and as we assume that will translate into perfect information.