Wednesday, July 13, 2016

On disagreement's role in science

Some discussion has arisen about whether or not meteorologists who are not climate scientists can contribute to the discussion regarding global climate change.  A while back, I wrote a series of short essays about religion that I called "Leading Horses to Water".  This is one of those essays that I believe represents something we meteorologists who are not doing climate research can contribute to any discussion of global climate.
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Previously, I’ve talked about the apparent controversy surrounding the science of global climate.  The media have put out so much misinformation regarding this topic, it’s hard to imagine how the communication between the scientists and the general public can ever recover.

One of the most egregious pieces of misinformation being put forth in the media is that there is much controversy within the science regarding the main issue:  that the global average temperature is increasing, and that the human contribution (the so-called anthropogenic part) through the emission of greenhouse gases is a major causative factor in that temperature increase.  This alleged controversy is being used to support the notion that the consensus science somehow is bad science.  The level of scientific agreement about these basic ideas is nearly unanimous.  But of course, what most people don’t know, and what the media seem incapable of grasping and thereby conveying to the consumers of their rubbish, is that disagreement is an essential and never-ending component of any science!  Disagreement continues within the science, even among those who agree about the consensus findings regarding anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

Any rational argument must come out of a basis of agreement.  Without that, all one has is people talking past one another.  The basis of agreement in science can be referred to as the scientific consensus.  It establishes certain principles and bodies of evidence as having a special status.  Most scientists accept the consensus.

In a very real sense, every scientist is a salesman for his/her own ideas, competing in a “marketplace” of ideas, with the winners being given credit for improving our understanding of the natural world, and the losers being left to try to salvage what they can.  This is a perfect example of a rational free market, actually.  Ideas compete not on the public relations image, or a catchy advertising gimmick, or on pandering to the psychology of investors, but on the evidence that supports them.  If one idea provides a better fit to the evidence, then it wins a temporary victory.  I say temporary because new evidence can revive old, discarded ideas and push them to the forefront long after they were first proposed.

Science makes progress precisely because there is disagreement.  Without internal disagreement, a science is cold and dead.  Just because an individual’s idea is discarded in the marketplace of ideas (from which the so-called “consensus” emerges), this doesn’t mean that he/she slinks away utterly defeated.  A “loser” in the marketplace can redouble their efforts to uncover more compelling evidence, seek to devise an experiment that can provide a more stringent test of the ideas, or try to make a slight modification to their discarded idea to provide an improved fit to the evidence.  Ideas may be defeated now but can emerge later as new (but still provisional!) winners.  When no clear winner emerges, a host of competing ideas clash in the marketplace.  This is healthy, not some sort of scientific malaise.  Scientists improve their ideas by the criticism of their peers, and the science advances through that process.

Science establishes no idea on an absolute basis – science is not a religion, after all.  There are no sacred truths, no meaningful arguments by authority, no ultimate arbiter.  Its most respected ideas are promoted from their original status as  hypothesis to theory to law, but even laws can be superceded.  Newton’s Law of Gravity was supplanted by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, for example.

The AGW deniers, a tiny minority within the global climate science community and most confined to non-participants in global climate science, have failed to gain much traction in the traditional media for scientific controversy: peer-reviewed scientific journals.  Thus, they’ve resorted to using the public media, advancing themselves as the true scientists, being victimized by a vast conspiracy within the global climate change scientific community.  There are political and economic ramifications to maintaining the illusion of a scientific controversy regarding AGW, so there are others seeking to promote the deniers as persecuted champions of truth, when the fact is the whole campaign is a tissue of lies and deceit.  There is no scientific controversy regarding AGW, per se! 

The disagreement you read and hear from demagogues disguised as pundits in the media is not the wholesome, necessary conflict among those scientists who are pushing the frontiers of our understanding of the natural world forward.  The disagreement being promoted by the media springs from those who dislike the reality of AGW for their own reasons, often pecuniary or political or both.  The mere existence of disagreement in science is not news, nor does it indicate anything wrong with the science.  It’s the natural state of a healthy, active science.  But this public conflict, outside the traditional place for the marketplace of scientific ideas (in refereed journals and scientific conferences), is not about the normal scientific disagreement.  It’s about personal agendas, about politics, and corporate greed advancing its interests above the public good.  Remember the pseudo-scientific conflict about the health effects of smoking?  Perhaps you should ask yourself who gains from the promotion of claims about non-existent scientific controversy!  Is it the science?  Is it the public?  I think not.

The public has a right, nay, a need to know the truth, but people have to work and think to separate truth from falsehood, science from pseudo-science, real disagreements from manufactured false controversy.  They need to learn how to recognize the demagogues and reality-distorters from those who are attempting to help us all make important decisions for the future.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Thoughts after Orlando

I'm going to weigh in on this one, although the facts are not yet all in.  I'm willing to do this because I'm not actually drawing any conclusions (unlike some) about that tragic event, at least not yet.  What is factual is that this murderous act was evidently set off when the shooter witnessed men kissing.  So he targeted a gay bar in Orlando (which he apparently frequented!), and gay bars are where many gay people go to be able to be openly gay without fear.  Except the shooter was about to change that forever.  After this despicable crime, is there anywhere for gay people to go to feel safe about simply being themselves?  Certainly there's little sanctuary in churches, most of which continue to preach that homosexuality is a sin (and some even go so far as to say it's a sin worthy of death), and in society at large.  Overt homosexuality is still considered disturbing or repulsive.

Growing up in the ultra-conservative suburbs of Chicago, everyone I knew considered it to be a serious insult when you called someone a "queer/faggot".  I was brought up in that culture, and simply went along with it because everyone was in agreement:  fags were detestable and homosexuality was a vile act.  I was taught to hate. This has been the American perspective for generations, nurtured by fundamentalist christians who quote various biblical passages condemning the sin.  With this sort of sanctioned contempt, violence against gays has been a constant drumbeat in our "christian" culture.  Never mind that many of the most strident of those condemning homosexuality have been shown repeatedly to harbor homosexual tendencies themselves - a sort of self-hatred manufactured by the revulsion of the heterosexually-dominated culture.

We even have "conversion centers" aimed at "curing" the "sickness" that many see homosexuality to be.  Bashing gays is a full-time occupation for such intellectual giants as populate the Westboro Baptist Church.  Our culture is rife with those who demonize others for "choosing" the "homosexual life style".  Why would anyone choose to be a homosexual?  It makes absolutely no sense at all to do so, given our cultural history where homosexuality is condemned so vigorously.  Homosexuals who 'come out of the closet' to their friends and family often find themselves repudiated and reviled by the very people who should love them the most.  Does it make sense that someone would choose to do that to themselves?  C'mon, get real! Homosexuality is NOT a choice!

Having grown up with all of that cultural conditioning, I was OK with all of that revulsion for a long time.  I wasn't gay and didn't understand how someone could actually prefer to be so.  I didn't want some gay guy coming on to me to participate in his perversions, after all.  "Fag" as an insult?  Sure, I could see that.  Stay the hell away from me!

However, I began to find people I respected in my profession who clearly were homosexuals.  These were good people, great friends, and never once did they ever make even the slightest attempt at having sex with me.  [Am I that unattractive?  (joke)]  In my youth, I was raped by an older "friend" as a boy but this was clearly not a sexual act.  It was one of violence.  He was not a gay man, he was a pedophile.  To equate gays with pedophilia is simply an absurd myth, believed mostly by ignorant gay-bashers.  None of the gay people of my professional acquaintance ever made any sexual advances to me.  Ever.  None of them have ever even been accused, let alone convicted, of being pedophiles.

In my life, there came a time when I was presented with an unexpected "situation".  A gay friend was 'outed' accidentally and the circumstances literally forced me to decide just how I was going to deal with it in public.  Certain of my homophobic acquaintances urged me to repudiate my long-time friend, who was now publicly known to be gay.  Was I going to have to turn my back on my friend because he was now revealed openly to be a homosexual?  That was an easy choice - not just "NO!" but "HELL, NO!!"  My respect for those people upset by my choice has been declining ever since.  I will not turn my back to my friends because of their sexual orientation.  Period.  It's none of my business and never has been.  They are who they are, irrespective of their sexual preferences, and I have no reason to distance myself from them on that basis.

So where does this personal history leave me with respect to the Orlando tragedy?  Whatever might have been the complex motivation for the shooter, the deed almost certainly was driven by homophobic hate encouraged by many cultures, including ours in the USA.  Otherwise, why target a gay nightclub?  Like many of us in the last few years, I've learned to overcome the hatreds I was taught and we've seen a dramatic change in favor of equal rights for the LGBTs, who can now begin to imagine a day when sexual preferences go back to being purely personal and not something to be used to insult and condemn.  Religion has a long history of using guilt about sexual behavior as a means of control, and until all the major religions abandon their tradition of condemnation regarding sexual preferences, we'll continue to see suffering as a consequence of that self-imposed guilt. Religion (muslim and christian) long has been an enabler when it comes to violence against non-heterosexual people. Let us turn our backs on that!

I'm pleased to see the widespread agreement over renouncing the homophobia that underpins the Orlando shootings.  I'm encouraged by the growth of tolerance for LGBTs.  Perhaps we can eventually emerge from the darkness and into the light of real tolerance.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Thoughts on decision-making in the face of uncertainty

Many people struggle with the notion that weather forecasts are uncertain.  They have to make binary decisions in the course of their lives:  go on that picnic, bring that umbrella, pour that concrete - or not do those things.  Weather plays a role in many such decisions, and people seem to know that forecasts are not perfect and never have been, but they persist in being upset when they make a decision based on weather that ultimately doesn't pan out, at least as they understand the forecast.

Perhaps I'm oversimplifying this, but it seems to me that the real challenge with decision-making in the face of uncertainty is the absence of accurate uncertainty estimates.  If weather forecasts are always wrong, you could always do the exact opposite of what the forecasts say and have it work very effectively for you - a permanently, completely wrong forecasting system would be just as valuable at a permanently, completely right forecasting system!  A forecast need not be perfectly accurate to be of value to users!

Of course, no weather forecasting system is perfect and there never will be such a perfect system.  If you know the uncertainties in the forecast, there are techniques by which you can manage your decision-making so as to optimize your results.  That optimization incorporates knowledge of both the losses experienced associated with not taking some action and having that weather event actually occur, and the cost of taking that action.  This is called the cost-loss problem.  If the cost of taking some action to prevent losses from some weather event exceeds the losses if the event occurs, it makes no sense to ever take such an action.  Different circumstances demand different decisions.  Optimizing the results of your decision-making requires you to have knowledge of your costs and losses, in addition to an accurate estimate of the uncertainties.

Sadly, it's well known that people often have difficult with knowing the true risks associated with hazards.  For example, although tornadoes are very scary to many people, the reality is that the probability of being killed in a tornado is pretty low.  There are much greater risks associated with, say, food poisoning in fast-food restaurants, or driving motor vehicles.

Most people struggle with understanding the probabilities related to weather uncertainties but they have a reasonable idea of some uncertainties.  For example, uncertainties tied to their jobs are usually more or less familiar to the workers.  If your work involves manufacturing something, you usually know about the likelihood of producing a defective product.  Similarly, uncertainties related to your home are often reasonably well-understood.  You generally know something about the chances that your water heater will fail.  When the uncertainties pertain to the weather, most people generally have no idea what those probabilities might mean and how to use them to make choices.  It's not that they need to know abstract probability theory to begin to grasp what weather probabilities (the language of uncertainty in weather science).  Most forecasters never did very well in probability and statistics!!  But people can use a concept effectively even when they don't actually follow the abstract mathematics.  Card counters in blackjack are making effective use of their knowledge of uncertainties - so well that casinos don't allow card counters to play!

Part of our problem is that traditionally, weather forecasts have not been expressed in probabilistic terms.  The use of probability of precipitation (PoP) was introduced in the mid-1960s but there never was any sort of public information campaign to help forecast users understand them - an awful oversight!  Curiously, even many forecasters don't know the proper definition of PoPs, although with experience and some feedback, they can become very adept at estimating their uncertainties in terms of PoP.

The end result of having little or no understanding of weather forecast uncertainty - and all forecasts are uncertain to a greater or lesser extent - is that forecast users will develop all sorts of heuristic methods for making choices.  Many of these are likely to be rather less than optimal use of the information the users have.  And apart from PoP and some severe weather forecasts, uncertainties are not mentioned in forecast texts and broadcasts.  Since that information is known, at least in the minds of the forecasters, this amounts to withholding needed knowledge from the users!  If we don't include the uncertainty information in some form, users must guess about that uncertainty, and their guesses often are wildly incorrect, such as thinking that forecasts are "wrong" the majority of the time.

Users can handle decision-making in the face uncertainty only when they know the uncertainties reasonably well from being familiar with them.  Unfamiliar uncertainties (as are those in weather forecasts) are inevitably mysterious and are a source of anxiety in decision-making as well as the source for cynicism about the forecasts.  People demand, unreasonably, that forecasts express the weather in binary terms - this event either will or won't happen - even though they must already know forecasters can't do that very well all the time.  What they evidently want is for weather forecasts to make their complex decisions (including much information that forecasters can't know anything about) for them.  Forecasters simply can't and shouldn't do this. We need to help our users understand more about our uncertainties or this situation will never improve, and users will continue to get less value from weather forecasts than what forecasters are capable of providing. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Can we do away with tornado F/EF-scale ratings?

Let me state at the outset that I have no doubt meteorology will be saddled with the curse of F/EF-scale ratings for a long time to come, so this is mostly an exercise in futility.  Why do I dislike these ratings?  The main problems I have with them are discussed here.  The essence of why they bother me and seem so counter-productive is that they represent an effort to provide a simple summary measure of something that's very complex.  I suppose having a rating is better than not having any information about the intensity (i.e., windspeeds) in a tornado and thereby assuming they're all the same.  But that's not the only choice we professionals have.

Consider just one damage indicator, say a particular type of framing attachment in a typical American frame home.  A host of complex issues are associated with the failure of that particular type of attachment, such that if you could test a large number of such attachments by subjecting them all to the winds in a wind tunnel wherein you knew the windspeeds accurately, you would find that there's no single value of the windspeed that would cause that type of attachment to fail.  Instead, because each such attachment is a unique combination of components, the failure of that type of attachment would be associated with a range of windspeeds.  In doing a survey of tornado damage, you would not be able to know precisely what windspeed caused the failure of that attachment - rather, failures would occur within a range of windspeeds.  This is true regardless of what damage indicator you use.  At best, a given amount of damage can never be said to have a single, precise value of windspeed that would cause that amount of damage.  Thus, in the absence of any way to measure the windspeeds that produced that damage, the best one can do is know the distribution of windspeeds that cause that amount of damage.  You might choose the media (or the mean) within the distribution to represent some sort of a guess, but doing so is intrinsically wrong from a scientific viewpoint.

Further, we know very little about the actual spatial and temporal distribution of windspeeds in a tornado, even for those few tornadoes sampled with mobile Doppler radars.  It's common to idealize the airflow in tornadoes using some simple model, such as that of a so-called Rankine Combined Vortex.  All one needs to do to convince oneself that most real tornadoes probably don't fit that model very well in detail is look at some tornado videos.  The actual winds in a tornado, especially those with multiple vortices, can be vastly more complex than any simplified vortex model.  It's these real winds that interact with real objects in the path of the tornado to produce the observed damage.  This is a very important fact that makes it currently impossible to know by objective measurement what windspeeds are associated with any particular element of damage.  The time sequence of winds experienced by some damage indicator simply isn't known.  Plus the presence of debris in the wind - which alters the wind distribution - adds an additional level of complication.  Thus, a complex, debris-laden windfield interacting with objects whose failure points cannot be known precisely makes this whole issue vastly more complicated than what can be expressed by some single summary number.  Reality is staggeringly complex and the idea that one number can offer much insight is too absurd to consider.

Except that's precisely what the existing F/EF-scale ratings are trying to accomplish.  There's no hope that in what remains of my life and for the foreseeable future, it will ever be possible to have wholly objective, high-resolution measures of tornado windspeeds.  Yet, we continue to use these rating systems with hard boundaries between categories, and category boundary values that are essentially arbitrary and without any real significance.  Is it really plausible to say that an estimated windspeed of 199 mph (EF-4) is actually distinguishable from one of 200 mph (EF-5)?  Can we really make such a distinction based on various observed levels of damage to damage indicators?  Does it make sense to call a tornado an EF-5 based on a single damage indicator at one point in an extensive damage path?

The science of tornadoes is riddled with uncertainties, so there can be no plausible reason to accept as meaningful some single summary measure based on making numerous simplifying assumptions and creating arbitrary categories.  Science has learned how to make those uncertainties work for us in coming to conclusions, via the methods of statistics.  If we're going to have a scientific data base that's of much help to the science, it shouldn't be using the F/EF-scale rating of tornado windspeeds as some sort of meaningful measure.  Distributions of estimated windspeed, probabilities of windspeed values associated with particular damage observations - these are much more appropriate tools with which the science can work.  Every professional knows already that such ratings have many problems and are a very crude way to think about the phenomena.

I get that the public may not care about the subtleties here.  There may well be pressure to produce some sort of summary measure for the masses of non-scientists.  Fine.  Let someone decide how to do that, hopefully based on some reasonable application of science and engineering.  But professionals surely can do better than condensing all the complexity and accompanying uncertainty into one summary number.  I say we should do away with the ratings, at least at the science level.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

American greatness, redux?

Candidate Trump (or Drumpf, if you prefer) has promised to "make America great" if he's elected.  As shown in this dramatized video of a fictional rant, America is no longer so clearly the greatest nation in the world.  We fall well short by a host of quantitative measures.  We can argue the numbers in the video, but the basic point is unquestionably valid.  If we ever were the greatest nation, we seem no longer to be so "exceptional" through leading the world in positive attributes.  American exceptionalism should be dead but still has many adherents here.

I love my country as much as anyone, but I don't turn a blind eye to its negative aspects.  If we want to make our nation great again, is it likely to happen just because we elect an incompetent demagogue to the Presidency?  Trump hasn't been very clear about the details of his plan to make America great, but he has shown himself to be a colossally arrogant narcissist, an incompetent businessman with multiple bankruptcies, a misogynist with multiple failed marriages, a "chicken hawk", a racist, a crypto-fascist, a homophobe, a xenophobe, and completely uninterested in leading diverse people to work together in a spirit of compromise for the common good.  He appeals to some of the darkest sides of the American character and has conducted a campaign that panders to those base elements in many Americans.  Even the GOP is struggling to accept him as their candidate, and he may well have destroyed the party of Lincoln, at least temporarily.

How can his election make America great again?  I just can't see that happening.  To see why not, let's go back to colonial America.  Thanks to the arrogance of the English monarchy, they had managed to alienate many of their colonists and declined to negotiate any sort of mutually acceptable settlement of their grievances.  The colonists finally had had enough of this spirit of non-cooperation and disrespect, so they revolted.  A revolution is the end result of divisiveness, and the colonies left the British Empire for good because there was never a good faith effort to accommodate the issues to the mutual satisfaction of both sides.  This left the colonists no choice but to separate from England.  The fruit of the English policies was revolution.  Their dogmatic intransigence eventually led to armed insurrection.  That's essentially how insurrections begin - when the political process can't resolve disputes among people

Less than 100 years later, in a time of deep internal national divisiveness, a Civil War was fought by Americans against Americans over the cause of slavery.  There was no way to come to a compromise on what was seen in the North as a moral issue, and the secession of the South led directly to an armed insurrection - a revolt - that was met with a military response.  The South was doomed to lose that war, and yet some in the South never wanted to give up their cause for independence.  That spirit of treason, combined with continuing racism, resides in America to this very day, and is not exclusively a southern issue.  Racism in the US remains a festering sore that divides us from one another.  The founders of this nation never resolved it, leading to the Civil War.  Racism's continuity in American culture is a repugnant fact that Trump panders to in order to win support.  His plan to make us great apparently doesn't include much in the way of racial equality for all Americans.  Can a racist America ever be great again?  I think not!

Today, we are in a state of deep divisions in our society.  We seem unable to act on behalf of what is good for our nation because, in part, many people see the government as an enemy - the source of problems rather than a solution.  Minor armed revolts by armed militia-type groups or cults are becoming all too frequent.  Party politics has destroyed the spirit of compromise for the common good that the nation's founders tried to write into the Constitution.  Large corporations and lobby groups like the NRA are dictating policy to the government.  The GOP-dominated Congress has spent the last 7+ years blocking virtually everything our President has sought to accomplish, with a vitriolic hatred heaped on the President that likely has its roots in racism, despite claims to the contrary.  We seem obsessed over issues that divide us into camps that demonize each other, rather than seeking to work together to achieve compromise.  The very word "compromise" has taken on a very negative meaning - to compromise is to betray your cause, it seems.  We're closer to a revolutionary bloodbath than at any time since the period leading up to the Civil War.  How can a candidate focused on the divisions within our nation lead us to greatness?  I think the answer is clear:  he can't and if elected, he won't.

Trump worries me, but what really bothers me is how blind his supporters are to the man's character.  He might well be right when he says he could commit a murder and his supporters would never waver.  This potential fascist dictator has the votes of many otherwise intelligent people.  History suggests that demagogues like him are not worthy of public support.  They won't make America great - instead, they'll destroy everything this nation was founded to be.  Our people have become anti-science, anti-intellectual, anti-government, and profoundly ignorant - they're more interested in being led than in accepting responsibility for what's happening and working together to solve problems.  Well, I suppose Mussolini did make the trains run on time ...

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A "busted" tornado forecast, in retrospect


26 April 2016 (coincidentally, the 25th anniversary of a major tornado outbreak in the Plains) is a classic illustration of the challenges associated with tornado forecasting.   The connection between the synoptic-scale weather systems and the occurrence of a major tornado outbreak ("outbreak" means different things to different people – there's no formal definition) is complicated and depends heavily on details at smaller scales.   One can get the synoptic-scale forecast mostly right but the development of tornadic supercells can be quite sensitive to the detailed structure and evolution at scales ranging from the size of a single storm to features on scales thousands of km across.  In meteorology, getting all of those details exactly right in the forecast is something that more or less never happens.  We can forecast tornado outbreaks in advance with varying levels of confidence, but they're never a sure thing.  Sometimes the details conspire to ruin the forecast.  What looks portentious, even a few hours in advance, can unravel quickly, such that the event doesn't unfold as forecast.

This case reflects certain facts about how severe storm forecasts work at the Storm Prediction Center.  The "culture" of the office contributed to the way the forecasts evolved.  If the situation looks like a possible outbreak, there‘s pressure from a variety of sources to give advance notice of upcoming tornado outbreak potential.  Once a forecast is issued, subsequent forecasts tend to maintain a relatively high level, even when new information (or a new forecaster) might suggest a downgrade of the forecast.  There's a reason for that:  users are uncomfortable with vacillation of the threat level, and if the threat is downgraded, and then even newer information means a return to enhanced threat, the indecision can come across as incompetence.  In other words, it can be unwise to back off the threat level.  Moreover, there's an asymmetric penalty for missed forecasts:  a false alarm for an event that never occurs can't result in human casualties and destruction, whereas an unforecasted event that kills people can be cause for investigations and possible disciplinary action.  This makes overforecasting almost inevitable.

In this case, there were some indications from the forecast models that the probability of a major tornado outbreak was decreasing as the fateful day approached, but the outlooks continued to raise concerns that a tornado outbreak could occur.  I don't necessarily see that as an error; it's realistic given the current state of our science.  An interesting facet to the case is that in the morning outlook on the day of the event, the forecast tornado probability was still only 10%.  The outlook was not upgraded to "High Risk".  I believe this is a plausibly accurate reflection of forecaster uncertainty.  However, the media were continuing the drumbeat of concern for a major event - the issue of the media is not going to be dealt with here.  Technically, a severe weather outlook is not focused only on tornadoes, and the nontornadic aspects of the forecast worked out pretty well.  Therefore, my comments here are restricted only to the forecast of a significant tornado outbreak with multiple, long-track, strong to violent tornadoes (EF2-EF5)

In my view, and this is purely a personal opinion, the biggest "mistake" from the SPC was issuing a PDS ("Particularly dangerous situation") watch in the early afternoon.  This was not warranted by the information of which I was aware (I was out storm chasing).  Whatever explanation might be offered in justification of this decision is in direct contradiction to the observed events.  I'm sure if offered a "do-over", the choice would be not to make it a PDS watch.

Make no bones about it.  Tornado forecasting isn't an easy job and perfection is out of the question.  I mean no disrespect to any forecaster involved in this event but we have to accept that the outcome is generating some backlash that's quite understandable.  Uncertainty is inevitable and probability is the language of uncertainty; by whatever verbiage we use to express it, we meteorologists need to communicate our uncertainty to our users such they accept the real capabilities of meteorological science as applied to the task of forecasting tornadoes.  By all means, we need to find out how to communicate with our users so that they understand our message, and know how to respond in the appropriate way to our weather forecasts.  We simply can't provide a 100% level of confidence in the forecast information we provide.  Our users must learn that they bear some responsibility for their own self-interests.   Weather hazards can present people with life-and-death situations, so in their own best interests, they need to pay attention and learn how to make the best use of what the science allows us to provide.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Understanding white male privilege

I wasn't brought up as a racist or misogynist, but I was born and raised in a virtually completely white part of the Chicago suburbs, in Dupage County.  As it turned out, that "purity" wasn't accidental.  The community was that way because that's the way the people who lived there wanted it to be.  My father was predominantly of English ancestry, and my mother was predominantly Swedish, so my ancestry is virtually lily-white.  There were few people in my town who weren't Protestant or Catholic but we did know two Jewish families, at least.   It wasn't until I was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam era that I encountered much of human diversity.  We were thrown together by the military and had to learn how to deal with the challenges of getting along with people having different backgrounds as best we could.  Curiously, it worked, for the most part.  A lot of the attitudes I grew up with were revealed to be without any real basis.  I still found people with whom I didn't get along, but before you could decide about someone new, you had to get to know them.  Knowing only their skin color and ethnic origins didn't provide much in the way of useful information about that individual.  Some people might fit a stereotype, but you wouldn't know that until you knew the actual person.  I learned I even could get along with those who did fit a stereotype, more or less.  It might be one of the most positive aspects of my time in the Army!

Once I reached upper level undergraduate status, I put my head down into my studies and pushed on to my professional goals (apart from my "sabbatical" in the Army).  Without even thinking about it, I've been living in predominantly (if not totally) white neighborhoods all my life, in the company of mostly white male colleagues.  The key is that this fact never really came to the forefront of my consciousness.  Since my family and I could afford a decent home, there was no need or reason to live in a ghetto of low-income housing.  Thus, I'm still mostly insulated from the diversity of our nation to this very day.  When I went back home for my 50th Anniversary Reunion of my high school graduation class, I found the school to be much more ethnically diverse than it was when I was there.  The area is still mostly white, but apparently there've been significant numbers of non-whites who have moved in.  Good.

The whole point of this brief personal history is to suggest that I've been the beneficiary of white male privilege all my life.  The accident of my birth has put me into a privileged position to become a STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) professional, and it took me a long time to realize my good fortune.  It's only been through the slow accumulation of non-white, ethnically diverse, and female friends that I've become able to see through the fog of my situation, and to appreciate it for what it has offered me.  In exchange for that privilege, it seems to me, I have a responsibility to be an advocate for truly equal opportunity for all.  It's why I identify as a "liberal" - it's not so-called "liberal guilt" I feel, but rather the need to do whatever I can to help break down the barriers that have limited the opportunities for non-white people and women in general.  My friends, over time, have shared their experiences and viewpoints with me, allowing me to see things through their eyes.  Although my friends and I tend to agree about many things, there are still points where we can disagree and still maintain our friendship.

The challenge is to be able to feel empathy for someone without actually having their experiences.  Learning how ethnic profiling is made manifest in the lives of the non-privileged is something I feel we should all try to do.  If we can't literally exchange our gender or ethnicity with someone else, then we should at least seek to know people who've had to live in the absence of white male privilege, and how they have to deal with it.  Talk with them.  Ask them about their experiences.  Listen carefully to what they say.  Think through what they've said and try to imagine yourself having such an experience and how you might react to it.

I feel no particular guilt for having benefited from white male privilege all my life without even realizing it.  Does a fish really appreciate the water in which it swims?  But if I can do something to help someone achieve what I have achieved, should I ignore that person's troubles if they're not a white male?  Of course not!  Most of the non-privileged people I know are not asking for any special favors - far from it, in fact.  They take pride in their ability to overcome the unnecessary, stupid obstacles that have been put in their path, along a road that isn't necessarily easy, even if you are a white male. Their accomplishments mean more to them precisely because they were achieved in spite of the pointless obstacles put in their path.  But we need to be concerned with removing those obstacles.

As I write this, Ken Burns is airing a new documentary on PBS about the life of Jackie Robinson.  His story is far more complex than what most people know - I certainly have learned things about him I didn't realize (or remember, if I ever knew them).  His life is testimony to the ignorance and falsity of gender and ethnic prejudice.  Jackie Robinson had to endure awful things visited on him by his teammates and baseball fans - without responding.  His entire life, right up to end, was heavily committed to seeking equality for Americans of African descent.  It was pointed out in the documentary that his entry into Major League Baseball was the death knell for the Negro Leagues from whence he came. 

It's interesting to me, then, that I have a distant personal connection to the Negro Leagues:  a Dr. Raymond Doswell is an official of the Negro League Baseball Museum.  He's of African descent.  I don't know his genealogy, but it seems there's a chance one of his ancestors carrying the Doswell surname was a slave in Virginia under one of the "Virginia Doswells" [English folks who came to the US before the Revolution and became landed gentry - that isn't my direct ancestral line, however.].  Slaves sometimes took the surnames of their masters, or were children who carried the master's surname, being a product of the master having his way with his female slaves.  I'm pretty certain the surname Doswell didn't come over to Virginia from Africa.  We might even be distantly related.  I know of several black Doswells around the nation, many of whom are successful, educated, and prosperous members of their communities.  I'd be proud to claim them as distant relatives but in any case, they reflect credit on themselves and the name of Doswell!

Let's abandon the outdated tendency toward tribalism and associated bigotry we've inherited in our genes from a time when tribalism was a survival trait for our primitive ancestors.  Tribalism has outlived its value, and we can overcome our genetic tendencies.  There's no good reason to limit opportunities to anyone.  We humans need all the help we can get, and limiting our abilities to those of a minority on the planet (white males) is now extremely counterproductive.  We should be doing everything we can to encourage all people to pursue their dreams as best they can, and not be putting pointless barriers in their path.  We share a common humanity, after all.