Are Meteorologists Scientists Or Not?

By Marshall Shepherd

Most days I go about my business with no intention of putting on my Forbes Contributor hat. This morning Twitter triggered the need for an article. A colleague, Natasha Ramsahai, posted on Twitter about diversity representation of TV meteorologists in Canada. Her main point was that, for many people, the television meteorologist is the only scientist someone in the public encounters on a daily basis. Oddly, this triggered a rather provocative comment that meteorologists are not scientists. The premise of the argument, albeit an isolated one, was that someone is only a “scientist” if they are studying the natural environment, publishing in the peer review literature, or has a doctorate. Typically, I would not burn valuable “thinking cells” responding to one person’s opinion. However, as a meteorologist, I felt this could be a teachable moment to answer the question, “Are meteorologists scientists or not?”

Jim Cantore Reports On Hurricane Irene For The Weather Channel
NEW YORK – AUGUST 28: In this handout image provided by The Weather Channel, Jim Cantore, an … [+] Getty Images

According to a previous statement of the American Meteorological Society, a meteorologist is defined as “an individual with specialized education who uses scientific principles to explain, understand, observe or forecast the earth’s atmospheric phenomena and/or how the atmosphere affects the earth and life on the planet.” The AMS statement went on to qualify that “specialized education would be a bachelor’s or higher degree in meteorology, or atmospheric science” or some established combination of coursework and experience. Candidly, I could probably stop right here and have enough evidence to establish that a meteorologist is a scientist. However, there are many threads of evidence.

A typical meteorology curriculum contains a variety of fluid dynamics, thermodynamics, calculus, physics, energy transfer, field methods, modeling, statistics and quantitative courses. Such preparation is important for understanding, disseminating and predicting atmospheric processes. Typically, our degrees tend to be B.S. or M.S. (Bachelor’s or Master’s) degrees. The “S” is science. Some of us go on to pursue doctorate degrees as well. At all levels, meteorology or atmospheric sciences students engage in hypothesis-driven research following the scientific method. Results are often presented in the peer-review literature, scientific conferences, and other public forums. These are functions of a scientist. However, they do not exclusively define who a scientist is and what they do. Here are several definitions of a scientist: Most Popular In: Science

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Cambridge Dictionary Online: “an expert who studies or works in one of the sciences:”

Dictionary.com: “an expert in science, especially one of the physical or natural sciences.”

Merriam-Webster Online: “a person learned in science and especially natural science”

The Science Council also has a robust definition of a scientist at their website: “A scientist is someone who systematically gathers and uses research and evidence, making a hypothesis and testing it, to gain and share understanding and knowledge.”

NOAA weather National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration
DENVER , CO – OCTOBER 24: Meteorologist David Barjenbruch is monitoring weather patterns at NOAA … [+] Denver Post via Getty Images

Browsing each of those definitions, I see nothing that constrains attributes of a scientist to a doctorate degree, publishing in the literature, or only doing field or lab experiments. Meteorologists are experts in a natural science and atmospheric processes. Additionally, the Science Council definition specifically mentions “share understanding and knowledge.” That is exactly what TV meteorologists do when they communicate forecasts, disseminate information, or interpret the complexities of the science. The AMS even has a program called The Station Scientist Initiative. According to its website, “The American Meteorological Society (AMS), the nation’s premier professional organization for those in the atmospheric and related sciences, is promoting the notion of regarding broadcast meteorologists as the “station scientists,” and equipping them to cover a broader range of science topics for their station, in addition to tomorrow’s weather.”

Personally, I have spent my meteorology career on the research and development side of the house at NASA and the University of Georgia. I publish in the scientific literature, run complex models, and analyze remote sensing data. My robust body of scientific papers maybe reaches hundreds or thousands of narrowly focused readers. My scientist colleagues on TV or in a National Weather Service office reach potentially millions of people. They are not simply practitioners. They are scientists serving society.

More than ever, scientists better learn to shift thinking beyond historical or dated norms. We need scientists to engage beyond the laboratory or ivory tower. Policymakers, stakeholders, and the public need our presence and expertise more than ever. With topics like COVID-19, climate, and vaccines, the need is more apparent to me than ever.

So yes, meteorologists are scientists….And very important ones too.

This article appeared on the Forbes website at https://www.forbes.com/sites/marshallshepherd/2020/06/18/are-meteorologists-scientists-or-not/#56ce2c092371


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