Masters of Uncertainty Weather Forecasters and the Quest for Ground Truth
by Phaedra Daipha
University of Chicago Press, 2015
Cloth: 978-0-226-29854-2 | Paper: 978-0-226-29868-9 | Electronic: 978-0-226-29871-9
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226298719.001.0001


Though we commonly make them the butt of our jokes, weather forecasters are in fact exceptionally good at managing uncertainty. They consistently do a better job calibrating their performance than stockbrokers, physicians, or other decision-making experts precisely because they receive feedback on their decisions in near real time. Following forecasters in their quest for truth and accuracy, therefore, holds the key to the analytically elusive process of decision making as it actually happens.

In Masters of Uncertainty, Phaedra Daipha develops a new conceptual framework for the process of decision making, after spending years immersed in the life of a northeastern office of the National Weather Service. Arguing that predicting the weather will always be more craft than science, Daipha shows how forecasters have made a virtue of the unpredictability of the weather. Impressive data infrastructures and powerful computer models are still only a substitute for the real thing outside, and so forecasters also enlist improvisational collage techniques and an omnivorous appetite for information to create a locally meaningful forecast on their computer screens. Intent on capturing decision making in action, Daipha takes the reader through engrossing firsthand accounts of several forecasting episodes (hits and misses) and offers a rare fly-on-the-wall insight into the process and challenges of producing meteorological predictions come rain or come shine. Combining rich detail with lucid argument, Masters of Uncertainty advances a theory of decision making that foregrounds the pragmatic and situated nature of expert cognition and casts into new light how we make decisions in the digital age.


Phaedra Daipha is assistant professor of sociology at Rutgers University.


“An enjoyable and immensely rich account of the National Weather Service forecasting practices. Daipha combines a completely original, superbly presented ethnographic study of daily forecasting routines and decision making with state-of-the art scholarship in sociology and science and technology studies. Masters of Uncertainty is a fascinating read, dense and demanding at times, but also entertaining and suspenseful. Daipha builds a compelling narrative without compromising the conceptual complexities surrounding the institutional politics of operational weather forecasting and decision making. The book makes this otherwise esoteric realm of public rationality come to life.”
— Vladimir Jankovic, author of Reading the Skies

“Daipha’s Masters of Uncertainty will be a compelling read for all who are preoccupied by the weather (and that is all of us). She convincingly demonstrates that our most authoritative weather forecasters actually debate whether our days are brisk or breezy; whether our storms are severe or hazardous; and whether they, themselves, are better suited for forecasting winter storms that are regional and global, or summer storms that are highly local. All of these distinctions, and the social and technological processes that generate them, highlight the social salience of atmospheric dynamics for both the forecasters and their publics.”
— Robin Wagner-Pacifici, author of Theorizing the Standoff: Contingency in Action and The Art of Surrender

“Finally, a social scientist has grappled with decision making in the wild. This wonderful book embeds the decision process in the understanding of the task-at-hand, weaving temporality and institutional context together in ways that should profoundly influence the next generation of thinkers.”
— John Levi Martin, author of The Explanation of Social Action

“Predicting the weather—often inconvenient, sometimes costly, occasionally deadly—is a scientific art form of enormous consequence. Daipha’s masterful account brings alive the ‘screen work’ of forecasters and their daily struggles with powerful, yet imperfect, computer models. Masters of Uncertainty will be remembered as a benchmark in the sociology of science, technology, and decision making.”
— Paul N. Edwards, author of A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming

“A fascinating look into the process that meteorologists use to forecast the weather. . . . This interesting book will give readers a greater awareness of how problem-solving decisions are made. . . . Highly recommended.”
— Choice

“I’ve been in the field for years and yet each page of Daipha’s wonderful book brought new insights and revelations. Much is being made these days of the importance of bringing the social science to bear on weather forecast development and use. This book is closer to penetrating to the heart of the matter than anything I’ve read so far.”
— William H. Hooke, Associate Executive Director of the American Meteorological Society

“In Masters of Uncertainty, Daipha provides an ambitious account of forecasters’ modes of problem solving in a book that operates on two different levels—both a careful ethnography of science and a theoretical treatise that develops central tenets of pragmatist thought.”
— American Journal of Sociology

“The book combines rigour and imagination. It is well written, avoids unnecessary jargon, but is theoretically innovative. If sociologists can claim the right to expert knowledge, then Phaedra Daipha’s account of the world of weather forecasters is an example of such.”
— European Journal of Sociology


- Phaedra Daipha
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226298719.003.0001
[bounded rationality, deep uncertainty, naturalistic decision-making, pragmatist theory, situated learning, cognition, materiality, process, science studies, cultural repertoires]
After outlining the gaps and limitations of the mainstream models of decision-making used in cognitive psychology, behavioral economics, and organization studies, this chapter advocates for a holistic, therefore sociological, approach that, adopting a pragmatist theory of action, bridges the extant literatures with insights from science and technology studies. This approach to studying the process of decision-making eschews normative criteria of rationality in favor of context-dependent explanations of judgment in action. The unit of analysis is neither the individual nor the organization but the task at hand. Four guiding assumptions about decision-making in action are identified: (1) decision-making takes place within a more or less institutionalized environment that, over time, affords its members a certain stock of knowledge; (2) this stock of knowledge consists of cognitive heuristics and decision-making techniques that help initially frame and specify the empirical context of action; (3) decision-making may not be perfectly rational but rarely is it unreflective or routinized—instead, it is habitual and eminently practical; (4) it is within the evolving micro-context of action, and the human and nonhuman others populating it, that decision-making practice takes shape first and foremost. (pages 1 - 23)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Phaedra Daipha
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226298719.003.0002
[history of meteorology, technological change, knowledge infrastructure, standardization, institutional logic, national digital forecast database, non-cooperation tactics, boundary work, scientific objectivity]
Centered on the unfolding and eventual closure of a recent, highly contentious operational transition at the NWS, this chapter introduces readers to the institutionalized environment in which NWS forecasters operate today, and to the operational philosophy, technologies, and identity politics through which its logic becomes articulated on the ground. The aim is to provide a balanced perspective on how institutional forces can, and cannot, structure decision-making in action. Attention is drawn to the typically invisible but profound role of technical standards and knowledge infrastructures for forging a community of practice. The argument is richly fleshed out through the experiences, practices, and points of view of meteorologists working at one forecasting office of the NWS. (pages 24 - 54)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Phaedra Daipha
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226298719.003.0003
[workplace culture, weather forecast production, task analysis, distributed cognition, anchoring, ends-means continuum, pattern recognition, scientific collaboration, weather forecast models, practical reasoning]
This chapter takes the reader on a tour of a NWS forecasting office’s ecology, operations, and culture to ultimately settle into a discussion of the basic routine of a forecast shift—from the moment the incoming forecaster gets briefed by the outgoing forecaster to the moment she releases the NWS forecast to the world. While thoroughly intertwined in practice, the three main components of the forecasting task, to be considered in turn, are data analysis, deliberation, and forecast production. This step-by-step breakdown of the forecasting process sets the stage for the sustained examination of particular aspects of meteorological decision-making in the chapters to come. But it also fleshes out and elaborates pragmatist theory of action with the day-to-day realities of diagnosis and prognosis at the NWS. (pages 55 - 91)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Phaedra Daipha
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226298719.003.0004
[situational awareness, information omnivores, sociomateriality, improvisation, field science, sensible weather, collage, information distillation, screenwork, provisionalism]
This chapter takes a systematic look at how NWS forecasters take stock of the weather and establishes that they have cultivated an omnivorous appetite for information, at times even enlisting personal observations of the weather outside to resolve the ambiguity and complexity of the weather on their screens. To illuminate how forecasters harness diverse information to project themselves into the future, the concept of “collage” is introduced—a heuristic that frames meteorological decision-making as a process of assembling, appropriating, superimposing, juxtaposing, and blurring of information. Weather forecasting as the art of collage underscores the culture of disciplined improvisation that characterizes NWS forecasting operations. And it externalizes into screenwork the cognitive labor of distilling and extrapolating complex atmospheric data into a provisionally coherent prognosis. (pages 92 - 111)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Phaedra Daipha
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226298719.003.0005
[hazardous weather, risk management, acceptable risk, forecast verification, forecast accuracy, busted forecast, duality of error]
The chapter begins by outlining NWS efforts to articulate and streamline the management of meteorological risk into a government meteorology. To properly showcase the challenges of actually managing meteorological risk on the ground, the chapter next launches into a thick description of two missed weather events. The first incident serves as an illustration of the serious repercussions that may arise from a missed hazardous weather forecast even in the absence of any hazardous weather whatsoever. The second incident details the aftermath of a forecast that missed the first snow squalls of the season; a forecast that would have gone unnoticed only a few days later but, on that day, led to hundreds of road accidents and a statewide, five-hour long traffic standstill. The concluding discussion, on the duality of meteorological error, reflects on the essential irresolvability of the “overforecasting versus underforecasting” dilemma and considers its implications for managing risk at the NWS. (pages 112 - 137)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Phaedra Daipha
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226298719.003.0006
[temporal embeddedness, emergency decision-making, extended alert, short-term decision-making, longer-term decision-making, severe weather forecasting, sensemaking, dual-process theories, short-term forecasting, long-term forecasting]
Turning to the temporal dimensions of meteorological decision-making, this chapter identifies two principles underlying the logic of weather forecasting practice: risk and scale. The former rests on a demarcation between routine and non-routine operations, while the latter is driven by the fact that the more global the reach of a weather phenomenon the earlier its detection. The joint influence of risk and spatial scale on weather forecasting practice yields four temporal regimes of decision-making: emergency, extended alert, near-term, and longer-term. This rudimentary framework is elaborated through an analysis of its empirical manifestation in summer weather forecasting, winter weather forecasting, short-term forecasting, and long-term forecasting respectively. The analysis complicates dual-process models of cognitive processing by establishing that, in practice, deliberation and heuristics are combined across disparate temporal regimes to produce organizationally sanctioned, skilled decisions. (pages 138 - 164)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Phaedra Daipha
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226298719.003.0007
[public science, expertise, forecast use, risk communication, hazard mitigation, public understanding of science, fishers]
Delving into the challenges that confront experts working in the public domain, this chapter examines the considerations that go into distilling complex, uncertain information into a relatable but still authoritative forecast message for all. To trace how forecasters’ constructs of the needs of their publics fare beyond the walls of the NWS, the performance of meteorological expertise is followed downstream: (1) during face-to-face interactions between NWS forecasters and their various audiences, and (2) in light of the lived experiences of one group of NWS forecast users—commercial fishers. The analysis demonstrates the “deficit model” of the public understanding of science upon which the NWS message is based. It is argued instead for the necessity to incorporate socially relevant expressions of meteorological risk and uncertainty into forecast predictions in order to not only preserve but actually promote public credibility and trust. (pages 165 - 196)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Phaedra Daipha
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226298719.003.0008
[practice theory, institutionalized risk environments, performativity, intervention, dual-process theories, medical decision-making, financial decision-making]
The book’s last chapter provides a more systematic presentation of the call for a sociology of decision-making in three interrelated ways. First, it formulates and schematically articulates how the main analytic components featured in the earlier, empirical chapters become entangled during the process of decision-making. Second, it theoretically elaborates this proposed conceptual framework of the decision-making process along three analytically distinct dimensions: practice, temporality, and risk. And third, by drawing on the extant literature on medical decision-making and financial decision-making respectively, it provides some external validity for the proposed framework and extends it along two additional analytic dimensions: intervention and performativity. (pages 197 - 218)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online



References Cited