The NYT has a nice article about the challenges of predicting hurricane intensity. A researcher pointed out it's difficult to get inside a storm to measure wind speeds and so:
it is not enough data to plug into a numerical model and yield a forecast that has a high degree of certainty.
I had the TV on most of the weekend, and there was around-the-clock coverage of Irene. I did not hear a single instance in which the forecaster (or broadcaster) provided information on the level of uncertainty of any of the predictions they were giving out. This would typically involve talking about probabilities or margins of error.
In other words, the experts admit that their forecasts are highly uncertain but the news report them as if they are 100% certain. We keep hearing comments such as "Irene will remain a Category 1 hurricane when it arrives in New York around Sunday morning and the maximum wind speed is expected to be around 70 mph."
The experts tell us the wind speed number is highly uncertain, and they quantify this uncertainty. Look at this Friday evening release from the National Hurricane Center, for example.
In the section labeled "wind speed probability table for selected locations", I looked up New York City. There was only a 5 percent chance of "sustained wind speeds (1 minute average)" of over 74 mph while there was a 56 percent chance that the wind speeds would be below 39 mph!
The press release is difficult to read, requiring readers to translate time, speeds, etc. to normal scales. However, if you are on the hurricane beat, there is no excuse for not spending the time to understand these data and conveying this information to citizens.
As discussed in Chapter 1 of Numbers Rule Your World, how much things vary around the average value is very important information not to be missed.
[Update, Sep 2]
Larry Cahoon, a reader of the blog and the book, emailed me about this post, and he makes several good points. In my original post, I didn't make these clear. It is in the hurricane wind speeds that the reporting failed; when it comes to the projected track of the storm, the reports typically include information on uncertainty. In addition, I'm complaining about the reporting of the science, not the science itself. Here, in Larry's words:
I read you piece on the error reporting for Hurricane for Irene and would say you have missed much of the reporting or the quality for the forecasts for the storm.
Perhaps I see more of the quality stuff as my main source for hurricane watching is the National Weather Service through http://www.hwn.org/ .
The discussion piece put out with each forecast is particularly interesting and reveals the weather services concerns with their forecasts in considerable detail. The error in forecast track is plotted at http://hwn.org/stormpulse_atlantic.html and is easy to see. This is picked up by many in the media and is sometimes referred to has the "Hurricane Cone."
The other area where the error in the forecast track shows up in the plots of the "spaghetti models" which seem to have been pickup up by a number of media outlets and even the major networks. A Google search of the phrase will give you many hit and some go into greater detail and discuss the impact of some of the forecast tracks.
There were areas where the media here in MD failed - mainly on wind forecasts that seemed to assume that the winds were of a uniform speed at a given distance from the storm regardless of which direction from the center of the storm someone was located. That was clearly contrary to what the weather service tell everyone.
What I have failed to see are good discussions of the accuracy of the wind speed forecasts. Although I did see a piece in the last two days discussing the National Hurricane Center's concerns with the quality for forecasts they are able to give for wind speeds.