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Masters of Uncertainty

Weather Forecasters and the Quest for Ground Truth

Masters of Uncertainty

Weather Forecasters and the Quest for Ground Truth

Though we commonly make them the butt of our jokes, weather forecasters are in fact exceptionally good at managing uncertainty. They consistently do a better job calibrating their performance than stockbrokers, physicians, or other decision-making experts precisely because they receive feedback on their decisions in near real time. Following forecasters in their quest for truth and accuracy, therefore, holds the key to the analytically elusive process of decision making as it actually happens.

In Masters of Uncertainty, Phaedra Daipha develops a new conceptual framework for the process of decision making, after spending years immersed in the life of a northeastern office of the National Weather Service. Arguing that predicting the weather will always be more craft than science, Daipha shows how forecasters have made a virtue of the unpredictability of the weather. Impressive data infrastructures and powerful computer models are still only a substitute for the real thing outside, and so forecasters also enlist improvisational collage techniques and an omnivorous appetite for information to create a locally meaningful forecast on their computer screens. Intent on capturing decision making in action, Daipha takes the reader through engrossing firsthand accounts of several forecasting episodes (hits and misses) and offers a rare fly-on-the-wall insight into the process and challenges of producing meteorological predictions come rain or come shine. Combining rich detail with lucid argument, Masters of Uncertainty advances a theory of decision making that foregrounds the pragmatic and situated nature of expert cognition and casts into new light how we make decisions in the digital age.


“Finally, a social scientist has grappled with decision making in the wild. This wonderful book embeds the decision process in the understanding of the task-at-hand, weaving temporality and institutional context together in ways that should profoundly influence the next generation of thinkers.”

John Levi Martin, author of The Explanation of Social Action

“An enjoyable and immensely rich account of the National Weather Service forecasting practices. Daipha combines a completely original, superbly presented ethnographic study of daily forecasting routines and decision making with state-of-the art scholarship in sociology and science and technology studies. Masters of Uncertainty is a fascinating read, dense and demanding at times, but also entertaining and suspenseful. Daipha builds a compelling narrative without compromising the conceptual complexities surrounding the institutional politics of operational weather forecasting and decision making. The book makes this otherwise esoteric realm of public rationality come to life.”

Vladimir Jankovic, author of Reading the Skies

“Daipha’s Masters of Uncertainty will be a compelling read for all who are preoccupied by the weather (and that is all of us). She convincingly demonstrates that our most authoritative weather forecasters actually debate whether our days are brisk or breezy; whether our storms are severe or hazardous; and whether they, themselves, are better suited for forecasting winter storms that are regional and global, or summer storms that are highly local. All of these distinctions, and the social and technological processes that generate them, highlight the social salience of atmospheric dynamics for both the forecasters and their publics.”

Robin Wagner-Pacifici | author of Theorizing the Standoff: Contingency in Action and The Art of Surrender

“Predicting the weather—often inconvenient, sometimes costly, occasionally deadly—is a scientific art form of enormous consequence. Daipha’s masterful account brings alive the ‘screen work’ of forecasters and their daily struggles with powerful, yet imperfect, computer models. Masters of Uncertainty will be remembered as a benchmark in the sociology of science, technology, and decision making.”

Paul N. Edwards | author of A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming

“A fascinating look into the process that meteorologists use to forecast the weather. . . . This interesting book will give readers a greater awareness of how problem-solving decisions are made. . . . Highly recommended.”


“I’ve been in the field for years and yet each page of Daipha’s wonderful book brought new insights and revelations. Much is being made these days of the importance of bringing the social science to bear on weather forecast development and use. This book is closer to penetrating to the heart of the matter than anything I’ve read so far.”

William H. Hooke, Associate Executive Director of the American Meteorological Society

“In Masters of Uncertainty, Daipha provides an ambitious account of forecasters’ modes of problem solving in a book that operates on two different levels—both a careful ethnography of science and a theoretical treatise that develops central tenets of pragmatist thought.”

American Journal of Sociology

“The book combines rigour and imagination. It is well written, avoids unnecessary jargon, but is theoretically innovative. If sociologists can claim the right to expert knowledge, then Phaedra Daipha’s account of the world of weather forecasters is an example of such.”

European Journal of Sociology

Table of Contents

Introduction: Decision Making under Uncertainty

1 The Weather Prediction Enterprise
2 Working the Weather: A Shift in the Life of a Weather Forecaster
3 Distilling Complexity: Atmospheric Indeterminacy and the Culture of Disciplined Improvisation
4 Managing Risk: The Trials and Tribulations of Hazardous Weather Forecasting
5 Anticipating the Future: Temporal Regimes of Meteorological Decision Making
6 Whose Weather Is It Anyway? From the Production to the Consumption of Decisions           
7 Toward a Sociology of Decision Making

References Cited


ASA Communication, Information Technologies, and Media Sociology Section (CITAMS): Best Book Award

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