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Just how accurate are your eyes? February 6, 2013

Posted by Jason in Daily PM.
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Our local news station’s weather department came up with an interesting little slogan for their mid-day ads.  As probably every local weather reporter does, ours wants you to know that when the storm of the century hits, he’ll be there to keep you informed.

Forecast

So, it’s all the more interesting that they selected the slogan, “Nothing more accurate than seeing it yourself.”  As in, if you look out the window, you’ll know more than we can tell you from the TV station.  Strange as it is for our weatherman to promote, does this phrase even hold true?

On one level, it does.  We trust our eyes to absorb the visual spectrum and our brains to interpret those signals, presenting “factual” information and predictions.  We believe that which we “see”.  Speaking of weather, we could all be professional meteorologists if the extent of the job were to look outside and report rain, snow, or sleet.

Of course, it is much more than that.  First, what you see is not always what it seems.  Science has shown that in addition to cognitive biases, we also suffer visual limitations when concentrating on particular tasks.  We can literally be blind to something right in front of us, as this great video summary of Daniel Kahneman’s work shows.

On another level, we can ask what “accuracy” even means.  It’s probably fair to say that most people don’t need a meteorologist to decide whether to carry an umbrella RIGHT NOW.  On the other hand, most of us would be at a loss to guess whether it will be raining in three hours, or three days.  Our “accurate” visual understanding of the environment becomes almost useless very quickly.

We need meteorologists (and doctors, and engineers) to help interpret observations and then literally PREDICT THE FUTURE – at least with a reasonable degree of certainty.  I would trust the professional estimate any day over what my eyes may be telling me at that moment.

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