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The Old Poor Richard’s Farmers’ Almanac(ck)

by Steven Novella, Oct 10 2011

It would be nice to have an accurate prediction of the weather. Although for me personally the ability to predict the weather mostly affects my recreation – not my livelihood or my safety. Perhaps it would help prepare for a particularly harsh winter if I knew one was coming, but then again I could just prepare for a harsh winter in any case.

In years past, and for many people and in many parts of the world today, weather prediction can make a much bigger difference than planning their activities for the weekend. Farmers, in particular, depend on the weather for their living, and perhaps even their survival.

It is no wonder, then, that there is a big market for long range weather prediction. In the early US, almanacs that provided information on weather were many and popular. One of the most famous is Poor Richard’s Almanack, because it was published by Benjamin Franklin, who published it from 1732 to 1758. (Incidentally, Franklin used the pen name Richard Saunders for this publication – with no relation to the famous Australian contemporary skeptic of the same name.)

These almanacs were like household handbooks for the colonies – they contained calendars, astronomical information, statistics on precipitation and temperature, witty and entertaining aphorisms – and long range weather forecasts.

Two of these almanacs survive until this day. The Farmers’ Almanac and the Old Farmers’ Almanac. Until I was researching for this post, I had no idea these were two separate almanacs. The Farmer’s Almanac was founded in 1818 and is published in Lewiston, Maine. The Old Farmers’ Almanac was founded in 1792 and is published in Dublin, New Hampshire.

Both almanacs engage in, among other bits of useful information, long range weather prediction. The Old Farmers’ Almanac states:

Based on his observations, Thomas used a complex series of natural cycles to devise a secret weather forecasting formula, which brought uncannily accurate results, traditionally said to be 80 percent accurate. (Even today, his formula is kept safely tucked away in a black tin box at the Almanac offices in Dublin, New Hampshire.)

“Thomas” refers to the first editor, Robert Thomas. What they are describing in the paragraph above is a typical process of mining streams of data for patterns and trends. In the stockmarket this is called technical analysis – using past trends to predict future trends. This is, essentially, pseudoscience.

The fact that it is secret is also a clue. Legitimate science must be transparent. If there were scientific knowledge about long range weather prediction then that would result from published research that was evaluated and discussed by a community of experts. A body of scientific knowledge is built over time, in the research literature. It’s not kept in a black tin box.

The reference to the black tin box suggests to me that the modern incarnation in the almanacs of long range weather prediction is a bit tongue-in-cheek. It is meant for fun and entertainment (similar to the justification given by newspapers for including astrological readings). But neither do they admit it is not legitimate, because they know a large part of their customers take it seriously.

They therefore can have it both ways – not really claiming to be scientific or accurate, but getting the benefits of making such claims.

As further evidence they say that the predictions are “traditionally said to be 80 percent accurate.” What does that mean, exactly?” They are not citing scientific evidence, nor making the claim themselves, just citing “tradition.”

The Farmers’ Almanac is similar. A Consumer Reports story writes:

The Farmers’ Almanac bases its predictions on “a secret mathematical formula using the position of the planets, tidal action of the moon and sunspots,” says the AP. The scientific community hasn’t embraced its methods, still it’s fun to see what the 194-year-old almanac predicts each year.

Don’t confuse this with science, but it sounds sciencey, and it’s fun.

I could find one reference to an actual study of the accuracy of the Old Farmers’ Almanac. The Newshour Online reports:

In the October 1981 issue of Weatherwise, pages 212-215, John E. Walsh and David Allen performed a check on the accuracy of 60 monthly forecasts of temperature and precipitation from the Old Farmer’s Almanac at 32 stations in the U.S. They found that 50.7 percent of the monthly temperature forecasts and 51.9 percent of the precipitation forecasts verified with the correct sign. These may be compared with the 50 percent success rate expected by chance.

No better than chance is what we would expect from a mysterious method of weather prediction kept in a tin box.

But how good is the current state of the science of weather prediction? Anyone who pays attention to the weather news has probably figured out that meteorologists are pretty good at predicting weather over the next 2-3 days (at least with a fair probability). But 5-10 day forecasts, while better than chance, are pretty dodgy. Beyond 10 days it is difficult to impossible to say anything specific about the weather.

Everyone recognizes that there is no method that can predict that it will snow 8inches in Connecticut on January 7th 2012. That kind of precision that far in advance is completely impossible. But what about general trends – it will snow more than average this winter?

It is more accurate to refer to such predictions as climate predictions, rather than weather predictions. Climate is highly predictable in terms of seasonal variations in particular regions. I can tell with a very high degree of accuracy and confidence that it will be cold this winter with a high chance of snow.

Long range climate modeling is another matter, not relevant to this post except to note it as a distinct category of climate prediction.

In the middle there is 3-13 month climate trend prediction – which most closely resembles the types of forecasts made in the almanacs. In other words – will this winter be typical, or will it be warmer or colder than usual, and will it have less or more precipitation than usual? It is not impossible to make these kinds of predictions.

The National Weather Service, in fact, has its Climate Prediction Center that does just that. This is a close as modern science can get to the magical mysterious methods that the Almanacs keep so secret. There are, in fact, several climate patterns that climatologists have learned to recognize that do influence short term (1-13 month) seasonal climate. You have probably heard of El Nino and La Nina. They describe El Nino:

The term El Niño refers to the large-scale ocean-atmosphere climate phenomenon linked to a periodic warming in sea-surface temperatures across the central and east-central equatorial Pacific (between approximately the date line and 120°W). El Niño represents the warm phase of the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, and is sometimes referred to as a Pacific warm episode. El Niño originally referred to an annual warming of sea-surface temperatures along the west coast of tropical South America.

La Nina is essentially the cool phase. There is also ENSO neutral, when neither El Nino or La Nina is present. Based upon what ENSO pattern we are in scientists can make general statements about the seasonal climate. You can see the kinds of data they can provide here - maps of whether temperature and precipitation will be above average, below average, normal, or equal chance of either.

These are still probabilistic statements, not really predictions.

Still, I hear many people quoting one almanac or the other about what kind of winter we are in for. They don’t seem to realize that the almanacs are using 200 year old pseudoscientific methods that have never been validated. Despite the coy marketing of these predictions, many people take them as legitimate.

As evidence for this, one editor of the Old Farmers’ Almanac, Roger Scaife, tried to bring the almanac more in line with modern science:

Scaife also committed the greatest of all Almanac blunders: He dropped the weather forecasts! In their place, he substituted temperature and precipitation averages. The public outcry was so great that he reinstated the forecasts in the next year’s edition, but it was too late to save his reputation.

It seems that the public did not want the scientific information – they wanted the predictions made by mysterious methods. I can understand, for marketing reasons, why future editors of the almanac would not consider dropping the predictions. But here is a recommendation – why not get rid of the two century old dubious methods and replace them with the climate forecasts made by the National Weather Service?

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35 Responses to “The Old Poor Richard’s Farmers’ Almanac(ck)”

  1. Jarvis Puttinghet says:

    >why not get rid of the two century old dubious methods and replace them with the climate forecasts made by the National Weather Service?
    You answered your own question already. Do that, and you lose your readership. To make this happen, you’d have to convince both the editor and the printer’s shareholders that integrity trumps sales figures. Or you’d have to convince the almanac-buying public. Take your pick.

  2. Max says:

    If you predict no rain in desert regions, you’ll be right most of the time.

    The Straight Dope addressed the question of weather forecast accuracy.
    http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2722/are-weathermen-checked-for-forecast-accuracy

    Prof. Eric Stone said weather forecasters are very well calibrated.
    http://www.myfox8.com/videobeta/181cac0b-936c-4b95-bf8c-debf2918b3bf/News/Better-Predicting-The-Future

  3. Max says:

    “These are still probabilistic statements, not really predictions.”

    What’s the difference?

  4. K says:

    I am hardly surprised to hear that people prefer wrong information to no information at all. It is the same with the financial business: They would rather have analyses of which they clearly know that they are pointless (because they do not predict any big crash, yet the big crash is the only thing that really matters) than not having any prediction at all.

    I refer to The Black Swan by Talib.

    • Max says:

      But to get on TV or sell books, you have to make bold predictions and sound really confident. Otherwise, the audience gets bored.
      I refer to Expert Political Judgment by Philip Tetlock.

  5. Max says:

    I can see why they’d keep their formula secret. They can’t patent it since it describes nature, and publishing it would kill their business, so they have to keep it a trade secret. It’s even trickier in economics, where the forecast affects the market.
    You can still evaluate their accuracy just by looking at the results without knowing their formula.

  6. tmac57 says:

    In May of 2008 I had my financial manager move my retirement fund in to cash because I believed that the market was on the verge of collapse.He and 2 of his superiors tried repeatedly to talk me out of it,basically telling me I was stupid.
    I asked him recently if he still thought it was a stupid move.He admitted that he was wrong,but said that I did miss the recovery of the market by hunkering down,but his own analysis showed that I would have been at almost exactly the same value now,and without all of the worry and doubt.
    Now he said I need to start getting back in to the market,so I won’t miss out on future gains.I declined telling him that I believe that we are again headed for a recession…This time, he said “Huh…well I hope you’re wrong,but I understand.” No trying to talk me out of it this time.I guess his prediction days are behind him now.

    • tmac57 says:

      This was supposed to be in reply to K’s comment (currently comment#4) re Black Swan.

    • Tom says:

      Sounds like your prediction days are ahead of you. You’re a modern-day Elaine Garzarelli. You should get on the horn with those Almanac people about starting a financial prediction chapter.

      • tmac57 says:

        Actually,I was just fortunate that I was listening to the right sources at the time.Since I have no background in economics,I relied on other’s opinions,and some information coming from my wife who had worked in the mortgage industry for many years.Also,I am a very cautious with investments by nature.It could easily have gone the other way if I had been influenced by different sources (and believe me they were trying).
        Let’s put it this way: I won’t be trying out for Randi’s million dollar prize anytime soon.

      • Chris says:

        I am actually thinking of liquidating a non-IRA mutual fund that just recovered what it lost in 2008. I am going to use it to pay off a home equity loan, just to reduce one more bill.

        It is in an account that was mostly cash in 2008, but that was only because I never got around to putting it in any stock or fund. I lucked out by being lazy.

      • tmac57 says:

        That’s the kind of thing I would probably do.I don’t know what your interest rate on your loan is,but I bet that it is higher than what your investment is about to make.But again,I am a very conservative investor.

      • WScott says:

        I have a friend on the opposite end of the lucky bell curve. After he lost a ton in the `88 crash, he had largely stayed out of the market until the late 90s, when he suddenly became convinced the tech boom would last forever and threw all his money into tech stocks. My wife & I actually joked “[name withheld] is getting back into the stock market – time to move everything to bonds!” 6 months later, the tech bubble burst. Our net worth would be 2-3 times what it is now if we’d listened to ourselves!

      • tmac57 says:

        Yeah,the one thing that I do listen to stock analysts on,is that trying to time the ins and outs of the stock market is a fools game.Even the ‘experts’ only get it right 50% of the time.I was lucky once,but I don’t kid myself that I have a crystal ball.

  7. CountryGirl says:

    I live in the high desert of Central Oregon near the mountains. It will be cold this winter with numerous snowstorms total accumulation will be between 36 and 72 inches.

    I lived in Ohio years ago; the weather there will be cold with numerous storms and some crippling blizzards. Icy driving conditions and possibility of tornadoes as winter ends.

    I grew up near Boston; The weather there will be cold, windy with most nights well below freezing. frequent snow storms in late november through February with at least one or two Noreaster blizzards in March. Expect a unseasonal warming in the first week of January with melting snows during the day and freezing ice overnight.

    I lived for a few years in Anchorage: the weather will be cold with first snows starting in late September and the first thaw in late May or early June. There will be some days when the temperature falls close to -40 but some warm days too where the temperature gets above zero.

    I also lived in Las Vegas: the weather will be windy and getting colder at night peaking with a few below freezing nights in January. At least two rain storms probably in February or March with localized flooding and cars washed down the gullys. Do not park in the low areas of Caesars Palace parking lot.

    I lived in San Bernadino too: The weather will be cool but sunny during the day dropping to the low 50′s at night. The cooler weather will prevent LA’s smog from reaching the Inland Empire. There may be some fires in the late fall follwed by massive rain storms in mid to late winter that will flush out millions of cubic yards of mud from the fire denuded hills. So if your house was not destroyed by fire there is a 50:50 chance it will slide down the hill and land upside down on your neighbors house. If neither the fire nor the flood hits you there is always the unpredicatble Foehn winds that can blow your roof off or the equally unpredictable earthquake that will knock your house off it’s foundations.

    What’s so hard about predicting the weather?

  8. MadScientist says:

    I can see where the magic ’80%’ would come from on a day-to-day prediction – simply ‘predict’ that tomorrow will be like today. Perhaps the same is generally true of seasonal and annual behavior – ‘next summer will be kind of like this summer’. Perhaps if you seem to be correct >50% of the time people think that you must be doing better than chance (after all, ‘chance’ can only mean 50-50). Then again, psychics are wrong far more than 50% of the time and yet people still believe them. Why is there such a strong urge to prefer fiction over facts?

    • Facepalm says:

      I accidentally read “Psychics” as Physics.-DOH!

      But the reason people don’t notice psychics is because of a confirmation bias: The think accurate predictions are unlikely, and place a higher value on correct answers than incorrect ones, even if they can remember the incorrect ones.
      Also, by nature, cold reading is a convergent process, as they go on, they can (If skilled) make gradually more specific and accurate predictions, from a vague start. This makes the end of the performance more likely to entice belief than the start, and so the layperson sees a good psychic, forgetting the nonsense, and a skeptic sees a refining data-mining process of cold reading.

      People ‘like’ the idea of getting information that isn’t possible to attain, and so they like what is being peddled. Wrap it in some pseudoscience or mumbo jumbo, and you can convince someone there’s an explanation, hence, the process is scientific and rational. That’s what Skepticism is for, pointing out that the mumbo jumbo is rubbish, and discarding pseudoscience. As I am sure you are aware of.

  9. Nick Johnson says:

    Why would you expect a long-range forecast to be right 50% of the time? There’s more than two possible outcomes, and not all outcomes are equally likely.

    • Max says:

      They looked at two possible outcomes: above normal and below normal. If you make the prediction by flipping a coin, you’ll be right about 50% of the time even if the actual outcome is always above normal.
      On the other hand, if you always predict above normal, you’ll be right as often as the outcome is above normal. If it’s above normal 65% of the time, you’ll be right 65% of the time.

  10. Probability says:

    There are Two Outcomes: Right and Wrong. Wrong is made up of many predictions, and Right is made up of one Prediction. It’s not terribly difficult to predict the weather, as it’s generally similar to that that preceded it: If it’s hot today, with few clouds, it’s likely to be hot tommorow. Likewise, climate and weather in specific areas generally falls into certain ranges. By predicting what is already likely, the probability of you being correct increases, and the probability of you being wrong decreases. If you predict outside the trend, then you end up with an unlikely solution.
    Of course, this is a gambler’s fallacy, where the future events are not perfectly described or determined by past events, and so the prediction is at best a vague summary of what came before, and has no relation to using science to predict what will happen in the future.
    A similar example: If I flip a coin ten times and it makes heads 9, then I predict the next time I flip that it will be heads, based only off the statistic, not any casual relationship (Loaded coin etc), then I have a good chance of being right, but I may be wrong, (Note, the 50/50 for the coin is not being related to the probability of a correct prediction, not using a False Analogy). A scientist would look at the coin, and determine the number of flips, related to the force of each specific flipper, and the balance of the coin, to determine the way that it is likely to fall given a specific force. Then they may predict what happens in future. Weather is a far more complex system, and the predictions are more complex, so forecasting is much more difficult than this little exercise, so the chance of the average being continued is consequently lower.
    Just remember, Correlation!=Causation.

    • John Greg says:

      In regard your coin toss analogy, no, you always have a 50/50 chance of being right or wrong (the coin always has a 50/50 chance of landing either side up), regardless of your choise.

      Review Sagan’s Demain Haunted world (pages 371-372 paperback edition) where he discusses this.

    • MadScientist says:

      That almost inspires me to build a coin-flipping machine. I wonder if anyone had practiced flipping a coin to get the desired result. I used to have the skill to flip a variety of coins and swat them out of the air and onto the back of my hand to get the result I wanted.

  11. Ken says:

    Has anyone looked at the almanacs from two centuries ago to compare their expectations to current climate? By which I mean, although they were no more accurate than they are today, they had to at least be believable, so would tend to reflect the expected weather patterns for each region. It would be interesting, for example, to see how much snow they predicted for a Boston winter in the 1820s versus the current expectations. There might even be trend lines.

    For something similar with actual weather, see http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2011/10/gobal_warming_is_melting_the_i.php .

  12. Max says:

    “In the stockmarket this is called technical analysis – using past trends to predict future trends. This is, essentially, pseudoscience.”

    That doesn’t mean it’s pseudoscience in climate forecasting. You said yourself, “Climate is highly predictable in terms of seasonal variations in particular regions.”

    Also, it’s a pretty bold claim that past stock market trends say nothing about future trends. I think it’s based on the efficient-market hypothesis, which isn’t exactly on the level of laws of physics.