Now, where did that weather forecast go?

`When it comes to our own local weather, there is a sort of blank, like a mist covering our minds...'

TODAY I am proud to bring you the abridged text of the first of this year's series of Melvyn Bragg Christmas lectures, which were founded in honour of Melvyn Bragg, to explore all knowledge about everything. The guest lecturer is Professor Xavier Cougar, whose chosen subject is the mystery of weather-forecasting.

[Polite standing ovation.]

"Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. And welcome to the wonderful and strange world of weather-forecasting.

"Now, you may be saying to yourself, what is so very strange about it? A man or woman comes on our screen, or on to our radio, and tells us what they think will happen in the next 24 hours. What is so strange about that?

"I will tell you. It is the only time during the 24 hours that people tell us precisely what is going to happen in the future. There are no regular horoscopes on TV. There is no room for divining, or people with the sixth sense to come on and foretell the future. Even when sports people peer into the crystal ball to see the result of tomorrow's match or this afternoon's race, it is only a tentative forecast, or a tip. There are two things on Radio 4's Today programme that nobody ever believes: a pronouncement by a cabinet minister, and a racing forecast by their horseracing tipster. And yet the weather forecaster is an honoured man or woman.

"But what I want to talk about is something much stranger. It is the fact that after we have listened to the weather forecast on the radio, we very often - indeed, almost always - cannot remember what the forecast was for our bit of the country. Scotland we can often remember, if we are not Scottish. Northern Ireland tends to stick in our mind. But when it comes to our own local weather, there is a sort of blank, like a mist covering our minds...

"I see many people nodding. This has happened to you? To me, also. I switch on the Today programme at five to seven or five to eight. I know that in a moment Mr Naughtie or Miss MacGregor will make a little joke to introduce the weather forecaster, such as, `And now time for Michael Fish to bring us the weather again. Got a better day for us today, Michael?'

"Well, of course, that is not a joke by normal standards, only by Today standards, but Michael Fish is off and away: Rain clearing gradually... lingering on higher ground... a cooler night... unsettled outlook... And you suddenly realise that, mesmerised by the words, you haven't taken in anything about your own locality!

"This happens so often that it cannot be a coincidence. There must be a reason for it. At first we tend to think the reason is that the forecaster in fact misses out our region. However, this is clearly nonsense. Then we think it is because he refers to it only glancingly - `Rain will clear from the west', he may say, and we don't realise, if we live in the west, that that is all he is going to say about the west. If you live in Lincolnshire, again, you sometimes hear Lincolnshire mentioned individually, but often Lincolnshire is included in `the rest of England' or even `the East Midlands', so that you may easily hear your forecast without realising that it was your forecast.

"But there is another reason for us missing our own weather forecast, and that is deliberate suppression! Yes, we purposely ignore the bulletin aimed at our region! And do you know why? Because, deep down, we do not believe it! So many times we have heard the forecaster saying that there will be rain, and we did not have rain. So many times we go out prepared for a nasty day and it turned out lovely!

"If you talk to a weather forecaster and ask, `Why did you get it wrong?', they will say, `We did not get it wrong - it is just that the weather system cleared away more quickly than we expected', or something like that. But we do not experience it like that. We feel that they got it wrong. And therefore subconsciously we do not listen to our bit of the forecast because we do not trust it. We only trust the forecast for other parts of the country."

In his next lecture Professor Xavier Cougar will ask why television programmes seen by accident are always better than the ones you planned to see.

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