In defense of Punxsutawney Phil on Groundhog Day

As you may have heard, our go-to groundhog is only right 39% of the time, at least when it comes to predicting winter’s duration. A coin toss would be a better predictor in Groundhog Day’s either/or racket. 39% is worse than chance.

As I heard this yesterday, I got to thinking. Unfortunately, my thinking only goes so far as, I must admit, I’ve got a hazy grasp of things statistical and probabilistic. “What if,” I wondered, “instead of seeing that as only being right 39% of the time, we rephrased it as being wrong 61% of the time?” 39% is such a sad, dismal little number, reminiscent of presidential approval ratings. It’s a number that won’t impress anyone. 61%, on the other hand, that might almost have a certain appeal to it.

“Ah, hah!” one might say. “61% is much better than chance. That might actually mean something!” As one wit put it (sorry, I’ve since lost the link), you’d do better to put your money on the opposite of what Phil indicates.

Or not.

It occurs to me that maybe Phil’s not wrong. Maybe it’s us. Maybe we’ve just been misreading him all along. Maybe, “Meh, I’m going back inside now,” just means, “You woke me up for this? Winter is nearly over. I’m gonna finish my nap now.”

Reading signs and portents has always been an iffy business. Flipping the script might be sloppy folklore, but just think how much more gratifying it would be to make the claim that Punxsutawney Phil is right 61% of the time. That’s somewhat better than chance and far better than either of the Farmers’ Almanacs can support. At least with Phil, we can always claim that we’d previously just misunderstood the poor little bugger.

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Image credit: Eddie~S @ flikr.com. Licensed under Creative Commons.

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