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Fri March 2, 2012
Decoding The Allure Of The Almanac
There's been something wacky with the weather this winter, and many forecasters never saw it coming.
Among them was the Old Farmer's Almanac, the quirky, centuries-old mix of historical data, prognostications and folk wisdom. Millions of people consult the quirky, centuries-old almanac, which uses a secret formula to come up with its annual, year-long weather forecasts, even though meteorologists say it has a dubious track record.
This year's edition might have been off target, but that doesn't concern Connecticut native Ryan Tartisel, who says the almanac is at least as good as more mainstream sources.
"I've followed the weather very closely and the other forecasters seemed to get it wrong just as often," says Tartisel, 30, who works for a media company. "Usually, the almanac calls it with some degree of accuracy."
Winter Gone Wrong
The Old Farmer's Almanac predicted this winter would bring above-normal snowfall from New England to Georgia and across the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest, with below-normal levels of precipitation in drought-stricken Texas.
"Precipitation-wise, much of the country has been drier than average, with one exception, an area that includes Texas," says Mike Halpert, deputy director of NOAA's Climate Prediction Center.
In fact, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's outlook for this winter hasn't fared much better.
With all of NOAA's on-the-ground and in-the-sky resources, Halpert notes its long-term, 90-day forecasts are on target some 60 percent of the time. That's only about 25 percent better than random chance. "Not that good, but getting better," he says.
So nobody's perfect, but the Old Farmer's Almanac — first published in 1792 and not to be confused with the rival Farmer's Almanac that dates back to 1818 — has long trumpeted an 80 percent accuracy rate.
That kind of success rate would be the envy of forecasters who use less-clandestine methods involving super computers and advanced weather modeling.
"My guess is their success rate is more like half what they say," says Jonathan Martin, chair of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Department of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences. "It's Middle Ages in terms of accuracy."
Secret Formulas And Folk Wisdom
So why is it that every fall, as talk turns to the coming winter, the prognostications of the Old Farmer's Almanac are almost sure to be part of the discussion?
The almanac's editor, Janice Stillman, acknowledges that the journal's forecast this year was off. But she says that traditionally, its predictions are as accurate as advertised.
"Meteorologists can say whatever they want," she says. "But we use the same data as everyone else. There's no mystery about it."
Ben Radford, deputy editor of the science magazine Skeptical Inquirer, says mystery is actually a big part of why Tartisel and others might perceive the almanac as being more accurate than it actually is.
People are attracted to the idea that a 200-year-old secret formula locked in a simple black box could outdo the weather geeks, says Radford, who has written books that examine urban legends and claims of the paranormal. So they tend to remember when the National Weather Service gets it wrong but forget when the almanac does.
There's also what psychologists call confirmation bias, he says, which is "basically remembering the hits and forgetting the misses, or in some cases forgiving the misses."
"It's the same with astrology columns," Radford says. "You can look at your horoscope each day for a month, and if you later ask someone about it, they will tell you about the few times it was right, not the majority of times it was wrong."
And he says the almanac does an expert job of mixing in some real science with its pseudoscience: "On one page you might have might have accurate information about the moon phases and on the next page, you might have completely false information about how Venus influences your personal life."
Accuracy Claims Examined
Leah Arielle Ogilvie, a 27-year-old student and part-time gardener who lives in Pottstown, Pa., has been using the Old Farmer's Almanac for several years as a guide for when to plant her vegetables.
"It's been pretty good," she says, though she's less convinced when it comes to weather forecasting. "There are times when they've predicted a cold winter and it's not been all that cold, or they predict a very wet summer and it's not."
A few years ago, Penn State meteorologist Paul Knight and some colleagues examined the almanac's long-term predictions from 1996 to 2004.
"Some months they were pretty good, some months they were pretty bad," Knight says. As for the claim of 80 percent accuracy? "It is just not possible to do that consistently," he says.
But even if they take exception to some of the almanac's assertions, some of those same hard-nosed weather professionals have a soft-spot for it.
Knight, says he's among the 3.5 million people who pick up a copy each year. "It's fun. I read it," he says.
The University of Wisconsin's Martin might scoff at the Old Farmer's Almanac's talk of sunspots and secret formulas, but he praises its blend of astronomical data and folksy wisdom. He even credits it with sparking his interest in the weather.
"I was always one of the first people to go steal a look at what the winter would be like for my region, because I love winter weather and I grew up in New England," he says. "Anything that could get me more interested in the weather when I was a young boy worked in favor of my getting into this career."