Communication & Rhetoric of Science

Should I Stay or Should I Go Now? Clashing Perceptions in Severe Weather Communication


Currently on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric (NOAA) website, there is a heading at the top of the weather bar that asks for public comment on the usage of terms like “warning,” “watch,” and “advisory.” This appealed to me because not only am I a weather forecast skeptic, but I am intrigued by the awkward transaction of information between science and society, especially when communicating to compel urgent action.

This is especially pertinent when considering hurricane Sandy’s East Coast debut in October. Despite the impressive and effective forecasting capabilities the National Weather Service (NWS) displayed, the communication of Sandy’s threat was, though timely, mottled with ambiguous rhetoric.

The essence of the problem was the use of tired threat descriptions, such as “moderate” and “severe”. Most of the criticism aimed at the NWS is that they used the same nomenclature for Sandy that they had used for weaker, less devastating storms like hurricane Irene. Hurricane Specialist at the Weather Channel, Bryan Norcross, explains this conundrum in his blog:

The internal briefings from the NWS included language comparing Sandy to Hurricane Irene. During Irene just a year before, the flood threat was also characterized by the NWS as “moderate”, so you see the confusion. In the end, of course, Irene did NOT cause the type of flooding that needed an evacuation. The memory of Irene seems to have been a key player in the decision making.

Now, the NWS and NOAA are reassessing their criteria and rhetoric for severe weather. The way their doing so (NOAA in particular) is by asking the public for their comments on their use and understanding of forecast terminology.

For example, NOAA is considering shifting its use of “watch for ___”  to “potential for ____” (insert your favorite inclement weather), as well as “advisory of___” to “advises caution for ____”.

This shift in assessing meteorological phenomena reflects a deeper problem of not only clashing and varied perceptions reality, but how repeated use of a term actually conditions and constructs knowledge about the phenomenon. Scientists, in general, have taken for granted that their technical and ostensibly disinterested use of language is not suffused with the relativity of a particular culture or personal bias (for a more thorough explanation of this, Ken Baake’s book Metaphor and Knowledge: The Challenges of Writing Science is a must read). This results in the continued use of certain terms, despite their connotation outside the insular communities of scientists.

This can be problematic when needing to compel action, especially when danger is immanent. To harmonize disparate perceptions of a situation or a particular phenomenon, it is imperative to first recognize how language–regardless of its perceived technical disinterestedness–always and invariably reflects a unique subjective perception of some thing. It is a dynamic and messy problem, but–until recently–it is one that science has seen itself immune of.

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