Scientific forecasting? Performing objectivity at the UK’s Meteorological Office, 1960s-1970s


  • Janet Martin-Nielsen Aarhus Universitet


When Basil John Mason, an academic cloud physicist, arrived at the UK’s Meteorological Office in the autumn of 1965 to take over as director, meteorology — the discipline, its methods, and its vision of the future — was in flux. With the advent of computers, the accumulation of before inconceivable quantities of data, and the great advances in numerical forecasting stateside, meteorology was developing a new culture: an objective, numerical and scientific culture, Mason argued, that would raise the discipline into the league of the highly respected sciences. This paper investigates Mason’s efforts to shape this new culture and to cement the UK as a leading nation in meteorology during his early tenure at the Meteorological Office. It highlights three guiding aims of Mason’s work, each centered on a particular form of authority. First, Mason argued for the epistemic authority of numerical weather models on the basis of their objective interpretation of physical theories. He then used this epistemic authority to build social authority in models – that is, to make them be seen as trustworthy testifiers and adjudicators – and, finally, to boost the social authority of the Meteorological Office itself. These aims shaped and were shaped by the many forces at work at the Meteorological Office in the mid-to-late 1960s and the 1970s: feelings of inadequacy compared to other sciences, accusations about poor forecast accuracy, budgetary cutbacks, and new industries demanding new meteorological services, amongst others. By investigating Mason’s actions through these lenses, this paper delivers a new look at the changing culture of meteorology in the UK, and speaks to the broader epistemic, technical and social ‘relocation’ of meteorology as a means of speaking objectively about the near future in the post-war period.