A Load of Bright
An atheist's views on religion and the supernatural

And now for the Weather

Science is often accused of being arrogant. Whether it is or not is a moot point. What is indisputable, is that science has an awful lot to be arrogant about. After thousands of years of stagnation and stifled lack of progress, science in the past three centuries has freed us from the chains of darkness and ignorance, and lead us out into the bright light of knowledge. Nearly all major theistic religions teach that ambition and desire for learning are sinful, and the work of the devil (look no further than Genesis). The harder we fight against this oppressive dogma that has held us back throughout history, the more we uncover the flaws and mistakes in religious doctrines. The Bible makes claims of miraculous faith healings, but if the people in the Middle East two thousand years ago could see what modern medicine is now capable of through natural methods, they would be even more amazed and, no doubt, convinced that the supernatural was at play.

Science (and I am using the term broadly to include any system of reasoning using evidence, not just the natural sciences) is far and away the most, if not the only reliable method we have for finding out about the universe we live in. As Richard Dawkins said to Alister McGrath in a recent debate, “If there are some questions that science can’t answer, what on earth makes anyone think that religion is going to fare any better?”. True believers love to point out to sceptics that science doesn’t know everything, as if we ever claimed that it did. No doubt, we still have a long way to go, and far more to learn than we yet know. Humility is imperative, for the day we become complacent is the day we take our foot off the gas and compromise our quest for knowledge. However, the critics of science need reminding from time to time that science has accumulated stunning successes where superstition has failed miserably. I don’t think there are many better examples of this than the weather, and our abilities to predict and control it.

For as long as human minds have understood the concept of weather, they have tried to harness it. Primitive agriculture was pivotal to early civilisations, and therefore knowledge of upcoming weather patterns would have been of great value. It was commonly believed that lightning storms were displays of wrath from the gods, and many rituals and superstitions emerged to attempt to predict or control the weather. All methods of control, and nearly all methods of prediction shared one common factor – abject failure.

Rain dancing is the most famous form of attempting to control the weather. It is a ritual that has been seen among many cultures including Native Americans and Ancient Egyptians, to induce rain and protect the harvest, and even to interact with supernatural spirits. Needless to say, no evidence has ever been shown that the ceremony works, although advocates’ persistent beliefs could be explained by Post Hoc and Regressive fallacies.

Superstitious weather predictions have survived mainly in the form of sayings and rhymes. For example, “If spring comes in like a lion, it will go out like a lamb”. This was the belief that fierce weather at the start of Spring would mean gentler weather towards the end. Also, “Rain before seven, clear by eleven” is self explanatory. People also believed that a domestic pet eating grass was a sign that a rain fall was imminent.

Many superstitions are still popular today, for example Groundhog Day in America, where the number of days left in Winter are decided on a groundhog’s ability to see its own shadow.

Prolonged observation has shown that all of these methods are unreliable. It has only been with the emergence of meteorology in the early 19th century and satellite technology that our ability to predict the weather has become reliable on any scale. As I stated earlier, people enjoy focusing on science’s failures and the weather is no exception. Whenever a weather forecast is wrong, especially where severe weather is concerned, it is held up as an example of science’s fallibility. However, while not perfect, our modern methods of weather forecasting, based on observation and evidence, predict weather patterns with astonishing accuracy and breath-taking consistency. And, although we fully accept that, at present, we have no power to willingly control the weather, there is no reason to rule out the possibility of this in the future.

Interestingly, the weather lore methods that have proved correct upon examination, we can now see were correct because they were deduced through an unrefined form of the scientific method. For example, a short rhyme that has survived, “no weather is ill, if the wind be still” was probably formed through a primitive form of empirical observation followed by a simple analysis of gathered data. It is, for the most part, correct, as explained on Wikipedia:

Calm conditions, especially with clear skies, indicate the dominance of a high pressure area. Because highs are broad regions of descending air, they discourage the formation of phenomena typically associated with weather, such as clouds, wind, and precipitation.

With all this in mind, we can see that the weather, and any attempt to predict or control it boasts a resounding victory for science over superstition. So, why do we not hear more about it? Why is praise to science, or for that matter, a challenge, not more forthcoming? Why is it even necessary for me to write an article to draw attention to what should be an obvious feather in the cap of science? There are two separate, but connected reasons.

Firstly, weather prediction does not tie heavily into any major religious claims. This is, quite simply, an area in which science is not treading on anyone’s toes, and so no-one gets upset. Secondly, if any religion or paranormal system were to claim abilities to forecast the weather supernaturally, with accuracy at least equal to scientific methods, the weather is so quickly and readily observable and objective that their subsequent failure would be immediate and spectacular. The data could not be easily manipulated to hide the claimant’s blatant errors in a puff of vague, ad hoc smoke, but would be on display for all to see. (Vague predictions like, “the weather tomorrow will be fine”, would not be acceptable. The claimants would have to make definite predictions on things like temperature, pressure and humidity.)

This is why supernatural claims are often made in areas where victory or defeat are not an option, with claims that can not be proven true or false. It is also the reason that claimants never, or rarely agree to be tested on the claims they make that are, actually, testable. I would love to see a psychic claim that they could predict the weather accurately over a long period of time without access to any scientific data or equipment. You would think that for someone with genuine psychic powers, this would be the proverbial piece of cake, whereas for a fraud, they would be starved of their essential ingredient of cold reading. But they are not interested in providing evidence to support their claims. They don’t need to, as long as the money rolls in and the majority of people follow them, blind to their deception, and deaf to the indignant cries of the sceptics. They are, like the manifesto of a minority political party that knows it will never get in to power, only interested in appealing to the human love of mysticism by making empty promises that they can never be called upon to keep.

The critics of science would do well to realise that they only criticise science when it offends a deeply held, irrational belief. Creationists will reject evolution, but still take careful note of the weather forecast when planning a fishing trip. Psychics will claim that science doesn’t have the capacity to speak about the paranormal, but they will still go to hospital and put their trust in western medicine when they fall ill. Such hypocrisy is damaging not just to science and its work, but to society as well. It is important that we point out these inconsistencies, and draw as much attention to them as possible. If we do, maybe the weather will be better tomorrow.

5 Responses to “And now for the Weather”

  1. It’s interesting how readily religious explanations have ceded ground to science when it comes to things like meteorology, yet continue to battle science tooth and nail on issues like evolution. This, despite the fact that weather phenomena were historically held to be among the most dramatic signs of God’s manifestation. It’s bizarre how little fuss theists made when the very icon of God’s wrath was reduced to a charge separation of suspended water droplets, and yet they still furiously criticize any scientist with the temerity to suggest we might be related to the apes with whom we share 98% of our genetic material.

    One wonders if it’s just that evolution cuts more keenly against the sense of our specialness as human beings. Or could it be that theists have only now realized that scientific progress threatens to undercut all their supernatural beliefs?

  2. Irrationality begets irrationality. If a person relies on superstition for critical decision making in other areas, why should we expect them to use reason when deciding which parts of science they like and which parts to reject? It’s all part of the larger problem.

    Great post and well said.

  3. At the risk of being repetitive I wanted to reiterate an idea I posted over at Daylightatheism. Religion and religious adherents gladly take advantage of all that science has given us (e.g. airplanes for flying into skyscrapers, TV for broadcasting the “good news”) while denigrating it the moment it shines a light on the falsehoods spread by religion.
    I’m really keen on the analogy of a battered wife as a good illustration of the relationship, historically, between religion and science. Religion has always used and abused science for its own ends. But, now science has finally broken free of her erstwhile, domineering master and is suing for custody of her would-be heirs that she may bestow upon us all the rights and privileges hard-won by the sacrifice and patient endurance of the midwives (persecuted scientists of old).
    Hopefully I didn’t stretch the metaphor too thin.

  4. My sentiments entirely. Science since Newton has transformed our understanding of the world.


  5. Polly,

    I remember your analogy from your comment on Daylight Atheism. I don’t think your stretching it too far at all, on the contrary I think it’s very apt. Well done. 🙂

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