This article was previously published asAshford (1950).

The forecaster overheard snatches of conversation from the other end of the room: “A welcome increase in the general circulation … temperature slightly lower … pressure back to normal …”. For a moment he forgot he was lying in bed recovering from a protracted illness and imagined that the family doctor and specialist were two of his colleagues in the weather forecasting office. They too were talking about general circulation, temperature and pressure, and were also engaged on a difficult problem involving a large number of variables. Their approach was similar, fundamentally empirical but enlightened by some elementary theoretical considerations. From observation to analysis or diagnosis, from analysis to forecasting or prognosis – yes, this parallelism between the two professions might be interesting. After prognosis the doctor would proceed to treatment and the weather forecaster to – explaining why things had gone wrong?

“You'll be up and about in a few days now”. He looked up at his doctor's comforting face and felt better already. He needed a good chart-side manner himself – he had to instil as much confidence into his clients as the doctor. More than that, he had to be able to account for any errors sufficiently well to be able to instil equal confidence on the next occasion; it was easy for his customers to spot mistakes as his forecasts had to be so specific. “That's good. By the way, what will my temperature be tomorrow morning at 0900?” The doctor was taken aback. “Well … let me see. Your temperature should be – but why do you ask? It's not good for people who are ill to worry about their temperature. You settle down now and have a good sleep and your temperature will be much better tomorrow”. He wondered what would happen if he used that technique next time the local farmer wanted to know what the minimum temperature would be that night!

He slept well and was feeling cheerful when the doctor called on the following morning. But his temperature had gone up! “Well, doctor, what's gone wrong with your forecast?” The doctor was not amused by the flippant tone and replied rather abruptly: “You must have been worrying yourself. Unless … yes, this slight swelling might indicate a compression in your costoclavicular syndrome. I'd better call in my colleague for consultation again”. That sounded very impressive. He already imagined himself passing-off his next forecast-gone-wrong with: “The cyclogenetical activity has unfortunately increased and a super-adiabatic lapse-rate resulted in an enhanced rate of convective turbulent exchange”. That would convince anybody!

What was the fundamental difficulty about weather forecasting? Surely it was that no case was ever exactly the same as any past situation and the application of theoretical considerations to such complicated matters was seldom easy. He supposed that doctors had the same fundamental problems, but they had a much larger number of previous cases for classification and analysis than a meteorologist could ever hope for. And they had long ago realized that it was impossible for one person to be expert in all aspects of their science and had developed a system of specialization. Would weather forecasters ever follow this example? It would be very useful to be able to consult a specialist whenever an unusual situation arose; he thought of one of his colleagues who would make a very good anticyclonic consultant, especially if he could spend the rest of his career studying nothing but anticyclonic whims. On the whole though, he thought he would prefer to remain as he was, a general practitioner.

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It was easy for his customers to spot mistakes!

By this time the doctor had finished taking his pulse, looking at his tongue and sounding his chest. He seemed to be reassured. “You're very much better today but you had better take some M and B to get your temperature down”. M and B, peni-cillin, sulphonamides, streptomycin. How quickly medical science was progressing! Or so it seemed to a layman, but perhaps some of the advances were merely changes in fashion. Would M and B still be in vogue ten years hence, or would it have suffered the fate of many other drugs and medicines and have fallen from favour? Mete-orologists also had their fashions; only a few years had passed since many were pinning their faith on isentropic analysis, and somebody had recently remarked that fronts were a little out-of-date. But behind the superficial changes, both sciences were making solid progress, for example the remarkable improvement in the treatment of cerebro-spinal meningitis, and the success of the diphtheria immunization on the medical side and – but here was a difficulty, how could one measure the progress of meteorology? If the number of scientific papers published each year was any guide, meteorology was advancing more rapidly than ever before, but he doubted if the man in the street would accept this criterion. He would judge forecasters by the accuracy of their forecasts, just as he himself judged his doctor by the effectiveness of his treatment.

The doctor was putting on his hat and coat: “By the way, I noticed in the paper something about you weather chaps trying to make rain. One of these days you'll be taking a leaf out of our books by trying to cure the weather's ailments instead of being content with forecasting them”.

“Just what I was thinking, doctor. When that happens I'll stick to the old-fashioned naturopath school, which believes that nature puts things right herself in her own time if given a chance”.

“What other schools will there be? I suppose someone will start a preventative school by trying to prove that you can stop the formation of depressions by setting up atomic piles to introduce local heating in some strategic point in Greenland or elsewhere”.

“I doubt that, but we'll certainly have our homeopaths, believing that by dosing a hurricane with an atomic pill it will be possible to arrest its development”.

“Oh well, I must hurry off now. No more temperature forecasts today!”

The forecaster was rather worried by these thoughts of the possible increased future responsibilities of his profession; he sat up, shook his pillow and settled down more comfortably, determined to forget all about doctors and forecasters. He wondered what changes he would find when he returned to the office. Would he be able to do some work on long-range forecasting? The only extended forecasts he had seen since his illness had been quack statements in the popular press. Yes, meteorology and medicine alike had no shortage of unscientific practitioners! Both subjects were also favourite topics of conversation, at any rate in this country, and many people had their own pet theories about them. He had always laughed when his Uncle George had forecast a cold winter from the appearance of berries, and had paid even less attention to his Aunt Agatha when she told him how to cure his chilblains by drinking some special herbal tea, or to prevent rheumatism by carrying a piece of sulphur in his socks. He wondered what people would talk about if the subjects of weather and health became taboo; sheep for one thing. He turned over, closed his eyes and went to sleep.

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  2. Reference
  • Ashford OM. 1950. Sick leave. Weather 5: 217219.