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Punxsutawney Phil: incompetent — or evil?

Is this groundhog just bad at his job? Or is he plotting against us?
Is this groundhog just bad at his job? Or is he plotting against us?
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

On Groundhog Day 2017, the world-famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, predicted that we'd see six more weeks of winter. Punxsutawney Phil lacks any formal education in meteorology, uses unorthodox methods to obtain his predictions, and has yet to publish in any peer-reviewed journals.

And Phil's lack of training shows.

The National Climatic Data Center compiled data on Phil's successes and failures from 1988 to 2014, and the groundhog did poorly. Judging by the deviation from average March temperatures, Phil was wrong 15 times and right just 12 times. In Phil's defense, temperature deviation may not be the best possible measure of winter, but it does serve as a reasonable indicator.

Punxsutawney Phil's poor record

The Washington Post mapped Phil's predictions city by city and came to similar conclusions. As National Weather Service meteorologist Dave Unger told LiveScience: "If our forecasts are about 60 percent accurate or higher, then we consider that to be a good estimate." Phil falls far short, reaching a correct prediction only 44 percent of the time.

The only real question here is this: Is Phil just incompetent — or is there something more sinister at play?

Is Punxsutawney Phil intentionally fooling humans?

There's reason to suspect that Punxsutawney Phil may be intentionally making inaccurate predictions. Evidence shows that especially cold winters can damage the US economy, and Phil may be using poor predictions in an attempt to create uncertainty in the stock market.

Why might Phil have a vendetta? The evidence includes:

  • Groundhog's Day has its root in groundhog hunting, which may upset Phil.
  • Groundhog's Day was traditionally celebrated with "luscious feasts" of groundhogs. In 1907, hunters bagged 32 groundhogs for a feast — a typical haul.
  • For years, local papers reported triumphantly on the slaughter of groundhogs, even when prognostication had become an established practice.
  • Bad weather prediction is just one battle in an ongoing groundhog/human war. In 1919, a man searched a groundhog hole and found six quarts of whiskey. Though a human could have hidden the whiskey in the hole, it seems like an unlikely coincidence. More frighteningly, in 1905, a man hunting groundhogs found a skeleton in the woods (and the murderer, human or groundhog, was never brought to justice).

However, there is hope that humans and groundhogs can get along. In 1919, the Harrisburg Telegraph reported that miner Andrew Capes took a groundhog as his pet. Man and groundhog lived together, in harmony, until the groundhog fled in October. On February 2, it returned and saw its shadow, only to flee again. But after six weeks of winter, it came back to live with the Capes and stayed there.

Stories like that soften Phil's dismal record — and the dismal winter — with a reminder that spring will still come soon.

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