To Err on the Side of Caution: Ethical Dimensions of the National Weather Service Warning Process



Created date

August 2, 2018

Critical Commentary

Jennifer Henderson received her PhD from Virginia Tech in 2016. Her dissertation is available on Virginia Tech's website. 



This dissertation traces three ethical dimensions, or values, of weather warnings in the National Weather Service (NWS): an ethic of accuracy, and ethic of care, and an ethic of resilience. Each appear in forecaster work but are not equally visible in the identity of a forecaster as scientific expert. Thus, I propose that the NWS should consider rethinking its science through its relationship to multiple publics, creating what Sandra Harding calls "strong objectivity." To this end, I offer the concept of empathic accuracy as an ethic that reflects the interrelatedness of precision and care that already attend to forecasting work. First, I offer a genealogy of the ethic of accuracy as forecasters see it. Beginning in the 1960s, operational meteorologists mounted an ethic of accuracy through the "man-machine mix," a concept that pointed to an identity of the forecasting scientist that required a demarcation between humans and technologies. It is continually troubled by the growing power of computer models to make predictions. Second, I provide an ethnographic account of the concern expressed by forecasters for their publics. I do so to demonstrate how an ethic of care exists alongside accuracy in their forecasting science, especially during times of crisis. I recreate the concern for others that their labor performs. It is an account that values emotion and is sensitive to context, showing what Virginia Held calls "the self-and-other together" that partially constitutes a forecaster identity. Third, I critique the NWS Weather Ready Nation Roadmap and its emphasis on developing in the public an ethic of resilience. I argue that, as currently framed, this ethic and its instantiation in the initiative Impact Based Decision Support Services narrowly defines community to such an extent that it disappears the public. However, it also reveals other valences of resilience that have the potential to open up a space for an empathetic accuracy. Finally, I close with a co-authored article that explores my own commitment to an ethic of relationality in disaster work and the compromises that create tension in me as a scholar and critical participant in the weather community.




Group Audience