Bad Language: Climate Cold Reading: The Meteorological Myths of Farmer's Almanacs

By Stollznow, Karen | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Bad Language: Climate Cold Reading: The Meteorological Myths of Farmer's Almanacs


Stollznow, Karen, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


As I WRITE, IT'S THAT TIME OF THE YEAR again when the weather almanacs appear in the bookstores. The Old Farmer's Almanac has been predicting the weather inaccurately for 221 years, but this hasn't dampened its popularity, or that of its rival The Farmer's Almanac. It's difficult enough to predict the weather for the week ahead, although these two almanacs claim "amazingly accurate" long-range weather predictions for the year ahead.

Before the days of modern meteorology, people relied on almanacs for their weather forecasts. Various versions of almanacs have been in existence since Babylonian times, when astronomers produced tables to predict planetary phenomena. A one-time apothecary, Nostradamus found his fortune when he began writing almanacs, which included astrological prophecies, weather forecasts, and political predictions. He began writing one or more almanacs annually, compiling thousands of predictions. The success of these almanacs prompted him to pen his best0known book, The Prophecies.

Adopting the pseudonym "Richard Saunders" Benjamin Franklin published the Poor Richard's Almanack from 1732 until 1758. This name was taken from the author of the Apollo Anglicanus, a popular London almanac during the 17th century. Poor Richard's Almanack was a bestseller of its day, and was famous for Franklin's aphorisms and proverbs. Much of this folk wisdom lives on in contemporary English. The following sayings are attributed to Franklin, "Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise" and "He that lies down with Dogs, shall rise up with fleas."

In the early U.S., almanacs were as familiar a sight in the homes of farmers as a bible. Their livelihoods depended on the seasons, and knowing the weather in advance would indeed be a benefit. Almanacs weren't just about weather. They were also popular among the other members of the household for their calendars, household hints, recipes, puzzles, poems and serialized stories.

Today, almanacs are still published worldwide, although most are encyclopedic, rather than predictive. However, The Old Farmer's Almanac and The Farmer's Almanac have survived modern times. The former has been produced out of Dublin, New Hampshire since 1792, while the latter has been published in Lewiston, Maine since 1818. Both publications still sell millions of copies annually, although they are more likely to be used to plan a vacation than to sow a crop of radishes.

Meteorology is naturally about prediction, but some methods of predications are more accurate than others. Contemporary scientists use radar, satellites and advanced weather modeling, while almanacs put the paranormal back in the phrase "weather prediction". To generate its annual year-long forecasts, the Old Farmer's Almanac uses a "secret method" devised by the publication's first editor, Robert Thomas.

   Based on his observations, Thomas used
   a complex series of natural cycles to devise
   a secret weather forecasting formula,
   which brought uncannily accurate results,
   traditionally said to be 80 percent
   accurate. (Even today, his formula is kept
   safely tucked away in a black tin box at
   the Almanac offices in Dublin, New
   Hampshire.) (1)

The Farmer's Alamac forecaster, who is only known by the mysterious pseudonym Caleb Weatherbee, uses a "top secret mathematical and astronomical formula, that relies on sunspot activity, tidal action, planetary position and many other factors." (2) These methods seem to be the "11 herbs and spices" of weather forecasting. Of course, their prediction techniques have never been published in a scientific journal. Genuine scientific methods are subjected to peer-review, not hidden in a black fin box under lock and key.

Almanacs offer an awkward mix of science and superstition. They present factual astronomical information about moon phases, alongside spurious astrological claims. They still offer handy hints, gardening tips and recipes for comfort food, and teach you how to clean the toilet with Coca-Cola and keep fleas away from your dog naturally. …

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