Groundhog day

Fed up of the cold, snow and rain? Don’t worry, spring is forecast to be here earlier than usual. Two caveats though:

  1. ‘Here’ is some unspecified region of the United States, and might not extend as far as the UK;
  2. This prediction was made by a rodent.

Yes, Saturday (February 2nd) was Groundhog Day in the US. And since Punxsutawney Phil failed to see his shadow, spring is forecast to arrive early.

You probably know about Groundhog Day from the Bill Murray movie

… but it’s actually a real event. It’s celebrated in many locations of the US and Canada, though it’s the event in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, which has become the most famous, and around which the movie was based. As Wikipedia says:

The Groundhog Day ceremony held at Punxsutawney in western Pennsylvania, centering around a semi-mythical groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil, has become the most attended.

Semi-mythical, no less. If you’d like to know more about Punxsutawney Phil, there’s plenty of information at The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club website, including a dataset of his predictions. These include the entry from 1937 when Phil had an ‘unfortunate meeting with a skunk’. (And whoever said data analysis was boring?)

Anyway, the theory is that if, at 7.30 a.m. on the second of February, Phil the groundhog sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter; if not, spring will arrive early. Now, it seems a little unlikely that a groundhog will have powers of meteorological prediction, but since the legend has persisted, and there is other evidence of animal behaviour serving as a weather predictor,  it seems reasonable to assess the evidence.

Disappointingly, Phil’s success rate is rather low. This article gives it as 39%. I’m not sure if it’s obvious or not, but the article also states (correctly) that if you were to guess randomly, by tossing a coin, say, then your expected chance of guessing correctly is 50%. The reason I say it might not be obvious, is because the chance of spring arriving early is unlikely to be 50%. It might be 40%, say. Yet, randomly guessing with a coin will still have a 50% expected success rate. As such, Phil is doing worse than someone who guesses at random, or via coin tossing.

However, if Phil’s 39% success rate is a genuine measure of his predictive powers – rather than a reflection of the fact that his guesses are also random, and he’s just been a bit unlucky over the years – then he’s still a very useful companion for predictive purposes. You just need to take his predictions, and predict the opposite. That way you’ll have a 61% success rate – rather better than random guessing. Unfortunately, this means you will have to put up with another 6 weeks of winter.

Meantime, if you simply want more Groundhog Day statistics, you can fill your boots here.

And finally, if you think I’m wasting my time on this stuff, check out the Washington Post who have done a geo-spatial analysis of the whole of the United States to colour-map the regions in which Phil has been respectively more and less successful with his predictions over the years.


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