I live and practice in the Tampa Bay Area and I am a professor in the psychiatry and social work departments at the University of South Florida in Tampa, a city that at one point was in the crosshairs of Hurricane Irma's path. Yet, just a few days earlier, Miami, a city four hours southeast, was predicted to be at the center of the hurricane's path. And then it was the Keys, and then the Gulf Coast cities of Naples and St. Pete Beach. Up until just two days before the storm, news reports forecasted hurricane would move up the east coast of Florida. And then it was the west coast. And then, finally, the storm made its peninsular landfall just south of Naples, in Marco Island, before moving in a northeastern direction up the state, over land, again defying experts' predictions.
At one point, hospitals in Miami began evacuating some patients to Tampa, and then, suddenly, Tampa came into the storm's crosshairs, prompting even more questions about the storm's path and decisions to evacuate. Now that the storm has passed, many Florida residents are left asking how forecasters got this storm so wrong.
An article in Bloomberg cites an estimate that miscalculations in the storm's path amounted to a $150 billion misfire; although parts of Florida received significant wind damage and flooding, the storm caused much less damage than predicted, particularly up the Gulf Coast. On Sunday afternoon, as Irma made landfall, meteorologists were predicting record storm surge amounts along the west coast of the state—8 to 12 feet in parts of Tampa Bay, even more in Sarasota and Fort Myers, and a whopping 20 feet in the beautiful city of Naples. But instead, there was no storm surge. Flooding on the Gulf Coast was minimal. Instead, cities on the east coast received most of the flooding, including Miami, St. Augustine, and Jacksonville.
While some argue that the media coverage of the storm amounted to sensationalism, I generally disagree. Had the storm trekked just 20 miles further to the west, as predicted, it would have likely remained a Category 4 hurricane and caused total and complete destruction along the Gulf Coast due to higher wind and unprecedented storm surge amounts. Thankfully for those on the Gulf Coast, the Bermuda High intervened and tripped up the storm, again defying predictions.
What can we take away from the miscalculations in Hurricane Irma's forecast? When matters are complex and beyond the understanding of the average person, we turn to experts to give us understanding. Yet, in the case of meteorology, experts are giving only informed guesses, although oftentimes these guesses are masked by attempts to make them look like established fact. Any honest meteorologist will admit that there really is no predicting the exact course of a storm. They use models and data gathered from previous experience to take a guess. Sometimes these guesses are right, and sometimes, like in the case of Irma, they are wrong.
This is akin to psychology. Of course, there is no such thing as predicting human behavior, and attempts to define psychology as a "science" to predict behavior are wholly unsatisfactory because they do not satisfy Popper's falsifiability principle. (See my article on scientism and neuroscience here.) What psychologists do, like meteorologists, is use certain models and instruments to make informed guesses at future events. But just as the behavior of persons cannot be predicted, hurricanes too, are often beyond the scope of accurate prediction due to the sheer number of variables at play. A hurricane, like a person, can choose at the last second to do something different—to change its course, to take a different direction. This is most evident in the courtroom when a psychologist is asked to predict the potential of a person for future violence or criminal activity. The psychologist, of course, has no way of knowing how a person will act in the future. To be sure, some of them act like they do. But human behavior is unpredictable.
To be fair, meteorologists and psychologists find themselves in a difficult position: they are expected to provide understanding and prediction of events that are impossible to predict with precision. The problem arises when the forecast is given, and interpreted, as established fact, when in reality it is merely a guess.
Ruffalo, M. L. (2017). The hubris of neuroscience: Scientism and the neuroscience fad. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mental-illness-metaphor/201707/the-hubris-neuroscience
Sullivan, B. K. (2017, September 12). A $150 billion misfire: How forecasters got Irma damage so wrong. Bloomberg. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-09-11/-150-billion-misfire-how-forecasters-got-irma-damage-so-wrong