Looking into the crystal ball: how much do you trust the future?

Robert Fitzroy — he invented the term “forecast”

Admiral Robert Fitzroy was an undoubted pioneer. Best remembered as the captain of HMS Beagle when Charles Darwin made his voyage of discovery he was also a leading exponent in the nascent field of meteorology in the mid 19th century. At the time the atmosphere was largely uncharted territory and much of what passed for accepted scientific wisdom about it was little more than speculation. There were a few adventurers who explored the skies in the recently invented hot air balloon but they did so mainly for the thrill and spectacle. For the most part people preferred to keep their feet on the ground.

A naval man whose professional reputation was forged in part from his sea-faring skills honed over many years sailing round the world, Fitzroy understood completely the need to read the weather as it changed. A hoisted sail or minor alteration of course could be the difference between victory or defeat in battle. Captains were encouraged to be bold and in the relative peace of the time they often trod a fine line between shipwreck and safety. The shrewd ones paid attention to their instruments and Fitzroy was in the vanguard of encouraging the measurement and recording of atmospheric data. Although there was an immediate practical use for this information he also knew that there was much wider learning to be done. In 1854, his life on the ocean waves over, he was appointed Meteorological Statist to the newly created Board of Trade, the forerunner of the Meteorological Office.

At the time shipwrecks were becoming an expensive problem for Britain as increasingly, merchant ships trading with outposts of the Empire were being lost with valuable cargo aboard. The Royal Charter disaster of 1859, when the steam clipper sank in a gale off the coast of north Wales with the loss of 450 lives and hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of gold, caused a national outcry. In response Fitzroy set up a system of storm warnings around the UK and then in 1861 he started something truly groundbreaking, coining a new term in the process; the weather forecast.

The Middle Ages in the northern hemisphere experienced a long term climatic phenomenon known as the Little Ice Age. Historical records show that cold wet winters contributed to many crop failures across swathes of Europe. At the time it was a common held belief that such natural disasters were the work of the devil and it was often cited as a reason to put people on trial for witchcraft. The Witchcraft Act was eventually repealed in 1736, which was fortunate for Fitzroy as his public pronouncements of impending meteorological doom would surely have carried him to the stake.

Even considering the more enlightened times in which he lived, it is today hard to conceive how much of a leap of faith making a public prediction was given that forecasts — weather and otherwise — are now such a regular feature in the rhythm of our daily lives. Attitudes towards scientific discovery and progress were shifting rapidly, but the excitement generated in other fields was tempered by a fear of the unknown as far as meteorology was concerned. Conducting experiments, sharing the results and proposing new theories was all very well, but predicting the future? This was a step too far for some. Many preferred to trust in the signposts provided by the natural world that had been passed down through the generations or in the unproven meteorological almanacs that were the bestsellers of their day. As a God-fearing world was getting to grips with Darwin’s heretical ideas in On the Origin of Species, first published in 1859, the premise that one man could somehow predict nature’s wonders —thereby subjugating Divine Providence — sat uncomfortably with the established consensus. Indeed, Fitzroy himself, a committed Christian, wrestled with this paradox for the rest of his life. There was popular initial support for Fitzroy’s forecasts from disparate quarters and it brought him fame, but he was undone by a refusal to back up his claims with scientific theory and the inevitable errors led at first to satirisation, then serious criticism and eventually the withdrawal of government funding for the programme.

Witch trials may have been a thing of the past but Fitzroy never recovered from his ordeal in the court of public opinion, and on 30th April 1865, less than 4 years after his first ‘forecast’ was published in The Times newspaper, he died, penniless, having taken his own life.

Fitzroy left a rich scientific legacy, but his story has some contemporary parallels too. It is said that weather is our national obsession, but grumbling about the accuracy of forecasts must run it a close second despite all the scientific and technological advances in the intervening 150 years. Any story about Met Office funding is usually accompanied by barbs about ‘the waste of money’ or how ‘forecasters still get the weather wrong so what’s the point?’ (As an aside, the demonisation of public figures that social media encourages would surely have hastened the end for poor Fitzroy were he around today). Online forums and commentary are full of instant, throwaway remarks poking fun at forecasting but they hint at a deeper problem surrounding a more fundamental question: how much are we prepared to believe in the future? Even the Age of Enlightenment with its willingness to embrace new ideas and thinking couldn’t reconcile the obvious practical need for predictions of the weather to help safeguard lives and trade with the intellectual and philosophical leap of faith required to ensure their acceptance.

So what of today? Meteorology alone amongst the natural sciences is forced to consider the future as its output underpins the climate change debate. As such it works on unverifiable assumptions — anathema to those who consider evidence-based hypothesis measurement and testing to be the bedrock of the scientific method. Put simply, in the eyes of some, any discipline that doesn’t do this is not “science” at all. Much like in Fitzroy’s day this quandary provokes debate and strongly expressed opinions. Yet it is inconceivable that we would just stop researching climate change because the topic demands we look into the future. The stakes are too high for humanity to hide behind a cloak of obstinate theoretical pedantry. And even the most hardened sceptics still exhibit a little faith in certain circumstances. The man who ignores the warnings of a hurricane headed directly for his house because he doesn’t believe they are founded on proper science would rightly be called a fool and reckless; in a neat juxtaposition those who do so often believe they will be protected by God.

One way to predict the future

Furthermore, despite the intellectual difficulties that society today might be wrestling with about its trust in predictions about climate change, two multi-billion dollar industries that rely on a belief in our ability to forecast future events continue to flourish: insurance and gambling. Although they have very different origins, purposes and functions in society their existence is based on a simple, common transaction. I receive a prediction about a future event and hand over a sum of money in order to either try and increase the amount (gambling) or prevent a loss (insurance). The rules around that transaction are fixed and my willingness to take part in the exchange is determined purely by my level of belief in the prediction. Will that horse win the race? Will my washing machine break down? Will my house be flooded next winter? The actual answers to any of these questions are governed by a whole range of complex factors, but by making a sophisticated system of rules my choice of entering the transaction or not is made straightforward — I am offered odds on a race, or the cost of an insurance policy. Rationality goes out of the window and I am left with my belief to inform my decision and nothing more.

So if we are prepared to make these choices on an individual level, as we do all the time, why do we struggle collectively to make the right choice when we consider the most challenging, complex question of them all: what will the results of the great human experiment we are conducting of artificially altering the composition of the atmosphere be? And if we choose to ignore all the information that we are given, what does that say about our belief in the future?

Robert Fitzroy believed ardently in the future and based his life’s work around that belief in his attempts to make society a safer place through his weather forecasts. The prevailing philosophical and cultural winds of his day blew against him and ultimately led to his death. He is rightly remembered today as a pioneer, not only for his achievements but for holding on to the notion that the future is something to be trusted in. Today’s climate change scientists still encounter headwinds from time to time but if we want to make any form of progress as a species we should trust them with this most fundamental of issues.

They believe in the future — do you?