What do you see here -- a depressing amount of precipitation moving into the area, or a trove of data waiting to be plundered? Your answer may indicated whether or not you are a weather geek.

Credit: Andrew Teman / Flickr

Alex Beam On Weather-Geek Subcultures, Global Warming, And Specious Health Food Claims

February 28, 2014

Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam joined Jim and Margery in Studio Three for his regular "Open Mic" segment on BPR. Beam discussed his most recent column, climate change, and Whole Foods hypocrisy.

To read more of Beam, head to the Globe site, visit his personal page, and follow him on Twitter.

The following questions have been shortened, and Beam's responses edited where indicated (...).

Your Boston Globe piece is called ‘Confessions of a Weather Geek.’ How did it happen that you became a weather geek?

One of my neighbors was starting to mock me because I was referring to conventional weather reports. He had these shadowy sources that he – unbelievably – wasn’t willing to share with me.

But he seemed to know about movements of air that the rest of us didn't know about -- like, between 26,000 and 30,000 feet. This guy is a genuinely interesting person.

Finally, I broke down and I said, You’ve got to let me in on the secret. He took me to these Weather Underground blogs that have been around for a while.

What does that mean, ‘Weather Underground?’

According to its cofounder Jeff Masters, it’s fairly well known as ‘Wunderground.’ He started in 1995. It’s the oldest internet website solely devoted to weather – much older than Weather.com, he claims. It’s for the chart dudes. It’s all charts. He turned me onto the 16-day forecast. I was only able to find graphically, but the National Weather Service actually does produce [one].

How accurate are they?

My source on this, this guy Sousounis, probabilistically feels they're quite accurate.

Did you say ‘probabilistically?’

Yes, because he likes to talk in a probability envelope between 10 and 90 percent, that’s where he’s comfortable. I said to him, That's useless to tell me we're going to have between a 10 and 90 percent that we’re going to have a blizzard. (…)

But all these guys are totally into math, and he goes, No, that’s a superb forecast – if I can tell you 15 days out within a 10 percent or 90 percent reliability that it’s going to be, say, 45 degrees.

TV weather is some of the highest-rated TV during storms.

I’m a channel surfer. They go horizontal with the weather in this market – [the TV stations] all have weather on at the same time.

Knowing you the little bit that I do, Alex, I’d guess you’re more interested in the subculture than in the weather forecast.

I am interested only in subcultures! The internet has been a gift, because everything goes really, really deep.

I am interested only in subcultures! That's exactly right, and the internet has been a gift to people interested in subcultures, because everything goes really, really deep. One hundred percent. I’m not a guy who bitches and moans about the weather, but I was fascinated how deep this goes, but it’s tailor-made for the internet. It's all data and graphics. To be fair to myself, there’s a terrific difference between the data and graphics available in Europe, as opposed to here [in the US].

The guy told me, Better science. It's not more computers, it's better science. Then I asked, What about about the legendary private sector, American agriculture, American aviation? These are vast industries that have a huge interest in the weather. He just said, Europe does it better.

We’re going to use a little jargon here – they initialize their models better. Initializing is the data you actually put into the model. I asked if it’s because there are several different countries investing in it – nope. Doesn’t matter.

We want to know about Alex Beam's ‘personal weather axioms.’

I take these very, very seriously. One’s quite serious because I’ve always noticed it. Whenever they're promising a rain, a cooling a snow, it's going to come 12 to 14 to 18 hours later than when they said, and it's going to linger a day-and-a-half or two days longer than they said previously. It’s strange, and that's worth noting. (...)

[The second axiom: weather is all about me, the user, the ‘micro-forecast.’]

The obsession with weather is higher than it’s ever been, right?

There’s all this theorizing, a lot of this with no particular basis in science. (…) It's become a kind of sump into which an enormous amount of mythology and ill-thought-out theses [are collected].

There’s always these people who are always pumping climate change very hard.

You're not a climate denier, are you?

I'm not a denier. But I really feel that only the dialectic leads to truth – meaning only opposing arguments can yield truth. I’m really surprised when our friend [and gubernatorial candidate] Juliette Kayyem says that she won’t debate climate change anymore.

The Los Angeles Times won’t print op-eds from people who say climate change is not real.

Good example. And there’s a third example out there – serious institutions, major newspapers are saying, We're just not going to run any more stories on this. I encountered this at Stanford like 14, 15 years ago. Stephen Schneider (…) stood in front of a group and said, You’ve got to stop reporting the other side about climate change, because they are liars. And I personally was shocked. (…) That doesn’t seem to be a way to get to the truth, telling people to shut up.

Wait a minute, so you’re staying the truth is not established?

Any reasonable person on the planet would say the truth is 80-plus [percent] established. Definite climate change, definite human role.

But something’s changed.

There’s a famous bet – the guy’s dead, and I can’t remember the terms, but – I bet somebody that the Marblehead Yacht Club would not have to move any of its piers due to climate change in the next quarter-century.

All of us got an email from you in the last 24 hours, and I have to say I was deeply offended. You sent us a Daily Beast article, "Whole Foods: America's Temple of Pseudoscience." That cut right through me.

[The article] is utterly hilarious because as the strawman he uses the Creation Museum. What could be more reviled? In Kentucky – we revile the entire state of Kentucky.

He simply says, this stuff that "we" believe (…) is complete hogwash.

He knocks probiotics, chocolate with “rich goji berries and ashwaganda root” to strengthen your immune system.

We enlightened people look down on creationism, and we certainly look down on intelligent design because we're all so smart. Here's a whole sector of science where it’s immediately evident, indeed, that we're completely ignorant. (...) It never hurts to ask questions.

He asks the question: ‘Why do we perceive Whole Foods and the infamous Creation Museum so differently?’

Is this a test? I don't know.

He says we’re all a bunch of hypocrites.

One thing he doesn't go into that really surprised me: Whole Foods is owned by an anti-ObamaCare fellow [CEO John Mackey]. He must be totally cynical -- I'm sure he has no truck with science but he’s all about money. (...) He treats his employees incredibly well.

>> Listen to the entire interview with Alex Beam.

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