A thumb on the weather scale — more reaction

Contrarian reader Peter Barss waxes philosophical about the primal draw of radio-storms and weather-porn:

It ‘s exciting to sit in our warm, safe living rooms listening to dire warnings of impending weather doom. It’s even more of a thrill to turn on our flat screen TVs and watch weather gals and guys get whipped by wind-driven snow as they stand outside yelling into their microphones so they can be heard over the howling “weather bomb.”

We live in a society that is soft and luxurious. One of the luxuries we indulge is the illusion that if we just do everything right we can avoid all of life’s unpleasantries. Obey weather warnings and no one will be hurt on the highways. Wear pink T-shirts and bullying will go away. Warning your kid every ten minutes on her cell phone will keep her out of the clutches of the perverts hiding in the bushes.

While society at large presumes nothing bad will happen if we just do the right things, there’s something primal in us that needs a thrill, a threat of danger. We manufacture dangerous situations and enjoy them vicariously. After we’ve stocked up with groceries and turned up the heat, we can slump back in front of our TV and get our adrenaline rush without ever getting wet or cold.

After the storm we can watch hockey players beat each other up, race cars smashed to smithereens, and ordinary people humiliated on “reality shows.”

Exaggerated weather drama and all the rest of it satisfies our need to flee or fight while we snuggle under a warm blanket several steps removed from any real danger.


A thumb on the weather scale — reaction

Most of the listeners who responded to my debate with CBC manager Andrew Cochran about the network’s (in my view) inflated coverage of weather are just fine with the CBC’s weather treatment.

Highway conditions at 3:30 pm, February 20, when Cape Breton schools closed early due to forecasts of possible freezing rain that evening.
Highway conditions at 3:30 pm, February 20, when Cape Breton schools closed early due to forecasts of possible freezing rain that evening: Pavement dry; precipitation nil.

This doesn’t surprise me. Some people like being frightened about weather, just as others like being frightened about crime. Lurid coverage of crime by some media has led to a sharp increase in the public perception of personal risk from crime even as crime rates have plummeted. I see a parallel with public perception of weather risk.

Two listeners added interesting points to the debate.

Geoffrey May of Margaree said forecasts have become more extreme because weather has become more extreme—a result of climate change. Maybe Geoff can supply confirming data, but my subjective impression supports his view. Let me be clear, however: It’s not detailed reporting of occasional serious storms that I object to; It’s inflated reporting of routine storms, as if they were serious. What Oran sports reporter Bill Dunphy deliciously termed, “radio storms.”

Rosemary Algar of Cape North, a listener who shares my annoyance at weather hyperbole, pointed out a subtle result of our current timorous approach. We are teaching our children, she said, that at the first sign of inconvenience, it’s OK to stay home and disregard our responsibilities to work and school.

Worse still, it’s school officials who are delivering that message.

Putting a thumb on the weather scale

Kudos to Andrew Cochran, Maritimes Regional Director of the CBC, for agreeing to debate the network’s hyperventilated coverage of routine weather events. We hashed it out in an extended session this morning on CBC Cape Breton’s Information Morning program.

Longtime Contrarian readers know I think Nova Scotia has lost all perspective about weather, working ourselves into a lather over events we would have taken in stride 30 years ago.

The CBC is one link in this chain of timorousness. Environment Canada, which issues daily “statements,”  “advisories,” and “warnings” about routine weather inconveniences, is another.

School officials arbitrarily grant paid holidays to hundreds of public employees on grounds of child safety, with no data to show that school closures make anyone safer, and no consequences for the significant costs their needless caution imposes on society.

That’s my perspective. You can hear Andrew Cochran’s rebuttal in the debate below.

Blaming unions

Saint Mary’s professor Larry Haiven thinks blaming unions for unnecessary snow days is silly:

This is part of a syndrome of “if in doubt, blame the unions.”  So convenient.  So wrong.

A few years ago I was taking a tour of the new Toronto opera house.  We were allowed to go everywhere except on stage, even though the stage was bare, with no current production going on.

larry_july_06-2-150One of the tour members asked the docent why we couldn’t go on stage.  The tour member said he had been on tours of all the great opera houses of Europe and had never been barred from the stage.  The docent looked serious and said “union rules.”  All of the tour members (except me) nodded their heads sagely in rueful agreement.

It just so happened that I had an interview with the head of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (the stagehands’ union) on another matter later that day.  So I asked him if this were true.  He got very angry and told me that there was no union rule, no union prohibition and, in fact, the union was very much in favour of tours visiting the stage when there was no production going on.  He said that “union rules” have become a pernicious legend in his field.  I later phoned the management of the opera house to complain about the docent’s mistake.

What I found most interesting was not the docent’s duplicity but the tour group’s acceptance of it.  As a former union staffer and a person who researches and teaches about unions, I’m amazed at the difference between the real power that they actually lack and the perceived power people think they have.

As I said before, I regret making the union issue part of this discussion, because it permits people like Larry to wrap themselves in solidarity’s flag and ignore the core issues:

  1. In the management of risk, our society increasingly allows knee-jerk caution to trump common sense, and important social values like child-rearing suffer as a consequence.
  2. After their sub-par performance during Hurricane Juan was criticized, Environment Canada and the CBC began to over-hype forecasts of routine weather. Ironically, this monomaniacal focus on safety has created a very unsafe situation.
  3. Senior managers in our school system either belong, or kinda-sorta belong, to the teachers’ union. The apparent willingness of class-struggle buffs like Larry to countenance this absurdity is astounding.
  4. We have far too many snow days, and the ones we have apply to far too wide an area.

I honestly don’t know whether point three plays any major role in point four, but it ought to be changed anyway. No one above the level of small-school teaching principals ought to belong to the Teacher’s Union, and the law should be changed to reflect this.

As for the accelerating trend toward a New Jerusalem of ‘fraidy cats, Contrarian will continue to rail.

A nation of ‘fraidy cats

snowfallBy 7:30 a.m., today, it had stopped snowing at Kempt Head.

Total accumulation: 2-5/8ths inches.

Cancellations: Cape Breton Victoria School Board; Strait Richmond School Board; NSCC Marconi Campus; NSCC Strait Campus; Mayflower Mall (until noon, except for anchor stores); and pretty much every other event you could think of.

Imagine! Two and five-eighth inches of snow! In February, in Nova Scotia! Gadzooks! Why hasn’t the army been called?

What on earth has happened to us? What has turned us into a nation of cowering, cringing, ‘fraidy cats who darsn’t get out of bed in the morning, lest something bad happen.

Something bad might happen. Get over it. Haul on your galoshes. Brush off the car. Get to work.

[Yes, dear readers, I understand there was significant snow in parts of the province, including Halifax. But not where I live. Our province is dominated by Halifax-rooted reportage, so we were bombarded all morning with the shrill weather warnings that have become the norm for Environment Canada and the CBC. Our province also has huge school boards, whose administrators seem to feel that if it’s snowing in Bay St. Lawrence, they must cancel classes in Louisbourg, where is may be five degrees and drizzling.]

As a people, we have lost the ability to assess risk. An unachievable, zero-risk approach has infected every aspect of our lives. How this happened, the huge price we are paying for it as individuals and as a society, and what can be done to rein it in, will be continuing topics on Contrarian.