More Information is Usually Better

How many jokes have you heard about weather forecasts over the years? Atmospheric phenomena are inherently tricky to predict. Even with measurement networks, satellite imagery, computer models, and years of experience, the forecaster may call for a 70% chance of rain, yet we find our day drenched with sunshine under partly cloudy skies. Weather forecasters have a difficult job, and probably need a thick skin and sense of humor to survive the forecasts that don’t pan out.

The map shows locations of National Weather Service offices and forecast areas across the United States. Each office prepares forecasts for its designated area using resources like those mentioned above. Regional and larger-scale weather patterns generally move from west, southwest, or northwest towards the east, along with the jet stream, so it seems like offices east of the Rocky Mountains would have an easier job than those on the Pacific Coast. After all, an office in the Midwest, for example, could draw upon ground observations from hundreds of miles in every direction to tell them what might come their way. Offices on the Pacific Coast have no surface-level observations to their west (or upstream, so to speak) except for offshore deep-water buoys and ships at sea. This relatively large blind spot must make their work a little more challenging.

What would happen if the weather offices west of Missouri, for example, decided to report only weather their forecasters like? Most people (except perhaps for photographers) don’t like ice storms, so what if they chose not to report freezing rain? Forecasters in Missouri may be able to figure things out in time to forecast an ice storm, but maybe not. Regardless, it would be so much better to have the upstream observations help inform their understanding and their forecast. More information is usually better, at least when it comes to forecasting the weather.

More information is also usually better when it comes to understanding the news and, by extension, developments in our country’s politics and policies. Corporate news companies sometimes suppress information (e.g., the Hunter Biden story in October), sometimes omit part of the information (e.g., identities of groups rioting in Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis, Chicago, and New York over the past six to eight months), and sometimes sensationalize part of the information (e.g., reporting the highest number in a range of Covid-19 cases rather than both the high and low numbers with the uncertainties they reflect). None of these practices help us become informed citizens.

What do we do, knowing that news we hear or read is often incomplete, distorted, or both? This is where our critical thinking skills must come into play. We need to ask questions: What is the context of the story? What information might be missing, and where might we obtain it? Does the story put the best construction or worst construction on developments, and why? What political or financial interests might affect the reporting? What other side (or sides) to the story do we need to be able to understand the full situation? What kind of world view or limited expertise (two very different things) might affect the information we receive?

No news reporting gives us all the information we should have, and much of it does not give us as much information as we would like. Some say this lack of good-quality news reporting could be one of the biggest long-term threats to our country. We need good, complete information to be able to participate as responsible citizens. On the other hand, there was never a time in history when news reporting was perfect, or even completely objective. Therefore, the burden is on us to research, ask questions, and keep an open mind (although not so open that our brains fall out!) before we reach or share our conclusions. 

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