I’ve complained about how mainstream news discusses science seven months ago. I’m going to complain again.
With the rapid rise of Hurricane Irma, probably particularly in focus due to the backdrop of Hurricane Harvey, many articles of this form have been published, appearing to put context behind the Category 5 notion, in this case, with regards to incidence in the US.
I could give some benefit of the doubt as to the actual intention of the article, but it feels fairly clear due to its timing soon after meteorological updates that Irma has upgraded to Category 5 that it intends to capitalize on the announcement and to emphasize a rarity.
What’s the problem?
Yes, there have only been 3 hurricanes that have hit the US while in Category 5 status. What’s wrong? Irma hasn’t hit the US yet! Why’s this significant? Because Irma’s getting compared to hurricanes that were Category 5 when they hit the US, and there have been many hurricanes that obtained Category 5 status but lost it before hitting the US. And in fact, Irma is forecasted to most likely be of the such.
(Incidentally, there’s one particular Atlantic hurricane of this sort that I’ve left out of the above list. Any guesses?)
To be fair, the article eventually admits this, but in the fourth paragraph, that is, much after its first paragraph which says “It’s been 25 years since a Category 5 hurricane struck the U.S., and Irma could potentially become just the fourth storm of that strength to barrel into the states.”
Then, finally, in the last paragraph of the article, it explains a storm’s category shouldn’t be the complete predictor of its level of devastation, indeed citing the storm you may have guessed above. (And this part is very important: not category 5 is still likely very dangerous!) But of course the Saffir-Simpson scale is flawed at predicting a storm’s devastation towards the human world; the scale is based off of one absolute measured number with velocity units; it’s not like a Mercalli scale for hurricanes, where one gets a human being to look and go “wow, this place got wrecked”.
Here’s a much better estimator of the devastation brought by a hurricane than pretty much any absolute measure of natural factors of an Atlantic hurricane: For total damage, did it hit the US? For total fatalities, did it hit Haiti? Here’s five Category 5 hurricanes that together just didn’t kill as many people as this Category 1 hurricane because they failed to find the most impoverished country in the Western hemisphere, least equipped to deal with preserving life during natural disaster. Meanwhile, the seven costliest hurricanes in the Atlantic basin all hit the US, because the US is a rich enough country to have that much to lose in the first place. This Category 1 hurricane that hit the US has gotten many high-end storms that hit Central American countries instead beat in damages caused.
The most amusing part of this article is probably actually the two graphics at the end, which contradict each other: the second claims Irma the strongest Atlantic hurricane on record while the first clearly shows Allen ahead, at least on the wind speed metric (it’s also ahead in pretty much all the other metrics). Amazingly, the NOAASatellite Twitter is the one that’s wrong here, so the original error is not actually the USA Today’s fault, yet it seemed this contradiction of the two visual aids didn’t manage to bother any publishers. (The false notion that Irma was the strongest-ever Atlantic hurricane even made it to this NYTimes article before they edited it out.)
Once again, for the force of fascination, the news fails at science. Somewhere among the forces and incentives behind publishing science-dependent articles to the public, both the misleading and the utterly wrong are promoted.