Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Weather of the Weathermen

"Take for example the case of weather forecasts. Every day, often several times a day, many millions of people talk about the weather, make predictions, cite proverbs, inspect the sky. Among them, a large proportion listen to weather forecasts or glance at satellite maps of their countries on TV and in newspapers; quite often, people make jokes about weathermen who are, they say, 'always wrong'; many others, whose fate has been linked earlier to that of meteorologists, anxiously await forecasts before taking decisions about seeding plants, flying planes, fighting battles or going out for picnics. Inside the weather stations, running the huge data banks fed with satellite signals, controlling the reports of the many part-time weathermen scattered over the planet, sending balloons to probe the clouds, submitting computer models of the climate to new trials, a few thousand meteorologists are busy at work defining what the weather is, has been and will be. To the question 'what will the weather be tomorrow?' you get, on one side, billions of scattered commentaries and, on the other, a few claims confronted with one another through the telexes of the international Meteorological Association. Do these two sets of commentaries have a common ground? Not really, because, on the one hand, the few claims of the meteorologists are utterly lost among billions of jokes, proverbs, evaluations, gut feelings and readings of subtle clues; and because, on the other hand, when time comes to define what the weather had been, the billions of other utterances about it count for nothing. Only a few thousand people are able to define what the weather is; only their opinions literally count when the question is to allocate the huge funds necessary to run the networks of computers, instruments, satellites, probes, planes and ships that provide the necessary data.

"This situation creates a rather curious balance account: the weather and its evolution are defined by everyone on earth and the few weathermen provide only a few scattered opinions among the multitudes of opinion, taken more seriously in only small sectors of the public — the military, the ship and air companies, agricultural concerns, tourists. However, when you put all these opinions in one balance of the scale and in the other the few claims of the meteorologists, the balance tips on the side of the latter. No matter how many things are said about the weather, no matter how many jokes are made about the weathermen, the weather of the weathermen is strong enough to discount all the other weathers …

"A handful of well-positioned men of science may rout billions of others. This will happen only, however, as long as they stay inside their own networks, because, no matter what the meteorologists think and do, every one of us will still think it was a hot summer and make jokes, the morning after, about the weather forecasts which were 'wrong as usual' … [M]eteorology 'covers' the world's weather and still leaves out of its mesh almost every one of us."

— Bruno Latour, Science in Action (181)