4.2 Between the Tropical Cyclone Forecast and the Public Response: Scientific Prerequisites to Comprehension

Wednesday, 26 January 2011: 4:15 PM
604 (Washington State Convention Center)
Lori Drake, Hurricane Roadmap Project, Dublin, CA
Manuscript (201.9 kB)

Warning the public about impending tropical cyclone-related threats to their communities necessarily involves the communication of forecast information, based in science, to audiences composed primarily of non-scientists. Successful implementation of the response therefore depends on the accuracy of comprehension and interpretation by non-scientists of the science-based information contained within the forecast, no less than on the accuracy of the forecast itself. While correct interpretations have the potential to elicit, though cannot guarantee, accurate assessments by non-scientist audiences of the levels and types of danger posed to them by any given storm event, incorrect interpretation of this information poses a fundamental impediment to a successful public response.

Inherent in the problem of communication of science-based forecast information to audiences of non-scientists is the necessity of translating or converting the forecast's scientific content - mathematical and statistical in its native structure - into restructured content that is comprehensible to populations not generally schooled in those disciplines. The problem encompasses not only the forms in which the forecast information is presented (e.g., text vs. graphics), but even more so the complexity and transparency of the scientific content contained between those forms.

Of primary importance is the question of whether these forecast constructs, once the scientific information within them has been converted for public use, nevertheless continue to assume certain types and levels of a priori scientific knowledge that may or may not exist among different members of the public, by virtue of such prerequisite knowledge remaining embedded within the content and structure of the forecast communications. An even more fundamental question is whether the official forecast products, which are the source of the forecast messages and thereby define their structure and organization, are constructed within the context of existing levels of scientific understanding among the public, or more specifically, against the prevailing levels of scientific literacy among those audiences.

This paper argues that the forecast information as currently packaged for communication to the public is only partially translated and converted, that the forecast messages in both content and structure still require a significant degree of pre-existing scientific knowledge to be properly and completely understood. In the absence of such understanding, the individual forecast message, which carries a single meaning, is subject to a multiplicity of interpretations on the part of different users, and different classes of users. With reference to the growing research and body of knowledge on tropical cyclone forecast interpretation, the paper addresses the types of underlying scientific, mathematical, and statistical knowledge still required to understand, comprehend, and properly interpret the content of the forecast information, products, and messages as currently constituted.

Supplementary URL: http://www.hurrnet.com/ext/ams2011/

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