Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Weather, Climate, and Birthday Parties

I took my daughter to a birthday party for one of her school friends last weekend, and I got in a discussion with the birthday girl’s dad about climate change.  It started when the dad said something like “if weathermen can’t even predict the weather tomorrow, how can scientists say anything about climate change.” 

Of course, this wasn’t the first time I had heard such a remark.  But I felt good about the effectiveness of my response, so I thought I’d share it.  It went something like this (please note that I don't claim originality; I'm sure I heard it elsewhere but I don't know where):

"Consider a coin toss.  If I ask you to bet me $1,000 that the toss will come up heads, how confident would you feel about winning the bet?   (Not very.)

Now consider 1,000 coin tosses.  If I ask you to bet me $1,000 that about half of the tosses will come up heads, how confident would you feel about winning the bet?  (Pretty good.)

One coin toss is like predicting the weather.  A thousand coin tosses is like predicting climate. Climate prediction is based on many measurements over many locations over many years."

I doubt I changed his mind about climate change, but I think he appreciated the point.  Also, it felt like the right level of conversation for that social setting.  Perhaps my daughter will still be invited to his daughter’s birthday party next year!

- Lesley McAllister

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