Friday, April 24, 2015

Dealing with drought

Lately, some alarming messages have been spread via the media about drought in California - some of them are a bit misleading (e.g., that CA has only one year's worth of water left - the situation is dire, but that's a hyperbolic statement of the reality).  There are those who will lay the blame on global climate change.  This is also not an appropriate position, since there always has been a danger of drought in the semiarid and arid regions of the US, and no guarantee can be made that what we've observed in the historical record is as bad a drought as natural variability can generate.  Climate change may be making the situation worse, but it's not the whole challenge.

A major part of the problem for CA and, indeed, for much of the western third of the USA (east of the coastal mountain ranges) is that drought always has been a frequent visitor - from the Great Plains westward to those coastal mountain ranges.  The notion that the expanding population centers from the continental divide westward are living on borrowed time is not a new one.  I recommend reading "Cadillac Desert" to learn some of the history of the "water wars" in the west.  Dividing up the scarce water resources among all the competitors has always been a challenge even during non-drought years;  increasing populations demand more of everything.  Making choices is not necessarily easy.  Drought magnifies the urgency and the seriousness of the consequences for any set of choices.  Large population centers, like Los Angeles, El Paso, Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, etc., are reaching out over increasing distances to find new water to support additional growth. 

A lot of agriculture west of the Mississippi River uses irrigation to grow crops that in most years would not be possible depending only on natural rainfall.  On the plains, much of this water for irrigation is "fossil water" in underground aquifers that represent finite resources.  When (not if!) those aquifers dry up, that agriculture can't be sustained.  Decreasing fresh water sources in the west leave agricultural (and industrial) uses competing with human water needs.

What's worse is that water is being squandered stupidly ... for example, building grassy golf courses in the desert is an ecological nightmare.  Where I used to live in CO, the neighborhood association discouraged xeriscaping, and encouraged homeowners to maintain Kentucky bluegrass lawns that required heavy watering at least every other day in that semiarid climate.  Wasting fresh water in such stupid ways has potentially harmful consequences even in non-drought times, but when drought is ongoing, such waste can be criminal.

Some simple calculations show that the cost in terms of energy to pipe in water from water-rich areas, mostly east of the continental divide, is quite high.  Using that much energy to import water - generally uphill - creates problems in its own right, and will make that water very expensive.  The real problem here isn't the current drought.  It's the growth of unsustainable populations in regions that inevitably are going to experience serious droughts that constitutes the real problem.  Anthropogenic global climate change may be enhancing that concern, but it's always been there.   Whenever local sources of water become inadequate for the population centers, those centers have populations that have become unsustainable.  Even before anthropogenic climate change became a topic for discussion, there were ongoing battles for fresh water resources.  Everyone feels their personal concerns take priority, but politicians who make the laws governing water rights can be influenced by the rich to favor the claims of the rich to that fresh water.

Drought has been ongoing for several years in the western half of Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle, to the extent that an old bogeyman is making an unwelcome appearance:  cloud seeding.  It's not widely understood that the conditions of a real drought - an absence of rainclouds - make seeding completely useless in mitigating that drought.  Even in cases when rainclouds are present, the actual contribution of cloud seeding to net rainfall has never been shown to be effective in any carefully-done statistical trials.   I have a more comprehensive discussion of weather modification, but the substance of the science is that weather modification to enhance rain has never passed rigorous statistical tests of its effectiveness.  The weather modification companies who sell their "services" for the purpose of drought mitigation haven't a scientific leg to stand on, and yet are profiting from the misery of those suffering from drought.  Those companies may well honestly believe in what they're doing, but the opinion of weather modification activities from the science of meteorology is pretty much dubious.

In OK, we now have vast quantities of waste water from fracking being pumped underground, which not only consumes that water, but has the potential to contaminate the underground water (to say nothing of causing earthquakes in certain areas).  As I said, drought makes many "minor" concerns morph into serious concerns.

Dealing with drought is never easy ... as fresh water availability declines, there will be winners ... and losers.  Who decides who wins and who loses?  On what basis?  The simple fact is we can't survive without adequate fresh water, and as the resource declines, it's going to get ugly.  The sooner we face the unpleasant realities of drought and its consequences, the better.  Sticking your head in the sand won't solve anything.  Solutions won't come easily and it's impossible to use the diminishing resource to satisfy the needs of the increasing demand.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Discrimination disguised as religious freedom

These days, there's an ongoing brouhaha over Indiana's new legislation signed into law by the governor - it's a "religious freedom restoration act" (RFRA) that effectively grants businesses the right to discriminate against persons on the basis of the business owner's religious beliefs.  An outpouring of disgust regarding this has resulted, including calls to boycott the state.  RFRAs are a total load of rubbish, of course.  The true origins of this legislation are rooted in the fear and revulsion (bigotry) that some people (mainly christian right-wing conservatives) feel about the LGBT members of their communities.  I'm not qualified to offer any sort of psychoanalysis of that fear's origins, so I'll not engage in "pop psychology".

In the USA, there's no need to restore religious freedom!  It's been guaranteed since this nation was founded within the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution.  Some christians are especially fond of seeing themselves as being persecuted on the basis of their religion - in a nation where the majority of its people are christians, christian churches are open and operating throughout the land, christian holidays are national holidays, and most of the people's elected representatives are christian.  Persecution?  What a load of self-centered nonsense!  If religious freedom is under attack by anyone, it's by the christian "religious reich", not the non-christians!  And one of the rights protected by our religious freedom is to be entirely free from religion, despite what christian religious reich apologists assert!  In some cases (e.g., within the military), Americans are literally being forced to participate in religion!

The absurd, convoluted rationalizations on behalf of these RFRAs are a communion wafer-thin veneer over the bigotry many of their supporters show regarding LGBTs.  Consider this:  a civil war was fought, and a massive civil rights protest leading to anti-discriminatory legislation was conducted, just to allow people of color in this nation to be granted their freedoms, rather than being enslaved and marginalized.  Open discrimination on racial grounds is no longer acceptable.  Similar rationalizations to those being heard today, also with their origins in religion were used, especially prior to the Civil War, to justify the evil institution of slavery (which is sanctioned in the Old Testament).  Not all christians see the bible as racist, but racists always have been (and still are) cherry-picking the bible in order to institutionalize their bigotry.  The battles to support civil rights for people of color in the USA have been fought - and, unfortunately, are still being fought to this very day - albeit not with armed conflict, but instead with political activism on both sides.  I'm sorry to say that racism is alive and well in the USA.

So we now have RFRAs designed to restore something that has never been interrupted in the history of the US:  "religious freedom".  What can be the real point of RFRAs?  No rational person today can argue that businesses are empowered to discriminate openly on the basis of skin color (race is now recognized to have virtually no meaningful scientific basis), of course.  Here and now, the fear and loathing are not openly directed at people of color, but rather at a person's sexual orientation.  And virtually identical arguments are being advanced that religion can justify that discrimination.  Of this, there can be absolutely no doubt!  The handwaving and rationalizations are only a transparent disguise on behalf of discrimination.  Please, let the christian conservatives supporting this legislation enlighten me:  just how does baking a cake for a gay couple to celebrate their marriage restrict your freedom to practice your religion?  Such a marriage may offend you, of course, based on your opinion of what the bible says.  Too bad for you, there's no Constitutional protection against being offended!  Are Christ's teachings such that he would discriminate against anyone for any reason?  In the entire New Testament, nothing is said by Christ about homosexuals whatsoever!  The Christ in the bible I read would send no one away, especially those he considered to be sinners.  The notion of homosexuality as a sin might have been extant at the time of Christ, but there's no scientific basis for seeing it as anything other than inborn sexual orientation - you can't catch it from someone else, and it can't be "cured" of it, any more than you can "cure" the color of your skin.  You don't choose to be gay, anymore than heteros choose to be "straight".  Homosexuality is a natural condition, as science has shown, and we share it with many other creatures.

Thus, it seems to me that the real intent of RFRAs is two-fold:  (1) To allow discriminatory business practices, and (2) to push a particular religion-based concept into the law of the land.  Both of these are direct violations of the Constitution, and are lynchpins of the religious reich.  All the other arguments, meant to deflect attention from the blatant bigotry of RFRA proponents, are just so much obfuscation.  They realize they can't simply discriminate against LGBTs, so they create this smokescreen to disguise their true intentions.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

A memorial tribute to my colleague and friend, Ron Pryzbylinski

This is more or less the text that eventually will appear in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society this coming June.  Thanks to the AMS for graciously granting me permission to post this ahead of its formal publication

This image is from the National Weather Service, St. Louis, MO.

The severe local storms community, including both research and operational meteorologists, lost one of its most distinguished members, Ron Przybylinski, on 12 March 2015. Ron passed away as a result of complications arising from treatments for cancer, which came as a terrible shock to everyone as he appeared to be recovering from his illness and was about his normal business at conferences and work until his untimely passing.

Ron was born in South Bend, Indiana, in 1953, and obtained his B.S. (1977) and M.S. (1981) degrees in meteorology from St. Louis University.  His full-time professional life began in 1981 when he joined the staff of the National Weather Service (NWS) office in Indianapolis, Indiana.  In 1991, Ron was selected for the position of science and operations officer at the St. Louis office of the NWS, which he held right up to his passing.  Although his service to those offices was at the highest levels, his influence and knowledge went well beyond them, spreading throughout the nation and the world through his publications and his many presentations.

Ron was a forecast meteorologist dedicated to the science of meteorology, applying scientific principles to his forecasts as well as contributing to that science by his research.  His primary interests were bow echoes and quasilinear convective systems (QLCSs), especially when those systems produced tornadoes.  Not only did he do the research, he served that science whenever the opportunity arose:  he was a project leader for the Operational Test and Evaluation of the new WSR-88D Doppler radars in the 1980s.  Ron also helped to organize (and participated in) the Bow Echo and Mesoscale Convective Vortex Experiment in 2003.  As part of the COMET Cooperative Project with Saint Louis University, he investigated severe wind gusts from convective systems, starting in 1994.  Ron also made time in his busy schedule to volunteer as a tornado damage investigator as a member of the NWS Quick Response Team.

In addition to numerous scientific publications and conference presentations, Ron served a term on the Severe Local Storms Committee of AMS, as well as two terms as a Councilor of the National Weather Association.  He was awarded the NWA Operational Achievement Award in 1989, and in 2003 he received the NWA’s Fujita Award for his research achievements.  The AMS awarded Ron the Charles L. Mitchell Award for outstanding service by a weather forecaster in 2012, and in 2013 he was recognized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with a Distinguished Career Award for his forecasting and research achievements.

Another important facet of Ron’s career was sharing his passion for storms.  It seemed he could always find time to talk at length with anyone who shared an interest in storms:  with youngsters, students and NWS interns, and his professional colleagues.  He helped to develop COMET training materials, particular those related to bow echoes and QLCSs, and shared his abundant experience and knowledge with many younger forecasters, helping them learn how to deal with diverse weather situations.  Ron’s infectious passion for storms was irresistible to those around him, inspiring everyone who knew him to work a bit harder and learn a bit more.  He had an engaging manner that endeared him to all his friends and colleagues, and he also had a delightful sense of humor.  Ron was a serious meteorologist, but he didn’t take himself too seriously.

Ron Pryzbylinski can never be replaced, but those of us who had the distinct pleasure of knowing Ron and working with him are grateful for the legacy of professional dedication and knowledge that he left us.  We miss him and would like to convey our deepest condolences to his family and close friends.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

A memorial tribute to my friend and mentor, Yoshi Sasaki

I took this photo in his old office in the Engineering Laboratory across from the Union on the OU main campus.  This was in 1973, but he looked very much the same right up to the time of his death.

Today, I was informed that my friend and mentor, Yoshi K. Sasaki, died sometime this morning.  Many younger people at the OU School of Meteorology (OU-SoM) have little idea what a great meteorologist and person he was and how influential he has been.  He certainly was the advisor for the majority of doctoral students graduating from the OU-SoM during his active tenure there.  He won many OU and international awards for his work, including promoting US-Japan business collaboration, bringing Japanese companies to Norman.  He helped Walt Saucier found the Department of Meteorology when he came to OU with Walt from Texas A&M in the late 1950s.  I did an earlier tribute to Yoshi when he was still alive.

My first interactions with him were during my first days at OU as a beginning grad student in 1967.  In a stroke of stupendous good fortune, I was "assigned" to his care as my advisor.  I didn't know him at all, then.  Yet, shortly after I arrived, Dr. Ed Kessler (then Director of the National Severe Storms Laboratory [NSSL]) called Yoshi while I was in his office, and I heard Yoshi describing me to Dr. Kessler in glowing terms as an outstanding student!  That left me flabbergasted and determined that I would do whatever it took never to let him down.  He clearly had more confidence in me than I had in myself at the time.

This was at a time before Yoshi became famed for his work with variational data assimilation.  He had the time to be a great advisor and to do some excellent work as a classroom teacher.  It was in his graduate dynamics class that I began to gain some inkling of what the atmosphere was all about.  What soaring excitement there was in his classes, where putting in extra effort paid big dividends in terms of understanding.

It was clear that between us was a considerable cultural divide, but I never felt that it damaged our interactions.  He slapped me down when I was cocky, and he picked up my spirits when I felt overwhelmed and beaten down by the challenges.  In fact, he challenged me more than anyone to become what I wanted so much to be.  He looked at my lousy math grades when I first came to grad school and announced that I would minor in mathematics!  By colossal good luck, I took courses from some great math teachers as a result, flushing my math phobia down the toilet and replacing it with huge enthusiasm for a subject that had been so brutal for me.  He recommended I take rigorous courses in fluid dynamics from the School of Engineering, which again put me in classes with some outstanding teachers.  As a result of this, I went from being a so-so student to the point where I was "setting the curve" in most of my courses.

Following my sabbatical in the military, I returned to my graduate studies more determined to complete my doctorate than ever and, although Yoshi was now much busier than he had been owing to his rising fame, I was ready to become more independent - something Yoshi let happen.  He supported me with his grants as I flopped and floundered, trying to figure out a topic for my dissertation research.  When he went on a sabbatical to Monterey in 1974, he told me either I had to find a new advisor or find a way to support myself.  In no way did I want anyone else's signature on my dissertation, so I found employment at NSSL.  That turned out to be the change of venue I needed, and I eventually found my topic and completed my doctorate, with his signature on it!!

All that I have accomplished is in no small measure a tribute to this wonderful man, who did just whatever I needed, when I needed it.  He was a master at giving me just the help I required and not a bit more.  I graduated with a clear vision of what I wanted to do and how to do it.  That's worth considerably more than a piece of paper!!

I could go on and on about his accomplishments, and the friendship he has offered to me after graduation.  I'm reminded today of his comments to me at the time when his university mentor, the late Shigekata Syono (who was also the advisor of the late T. Theodore Fujita) had died:  he told me that Syono told him the best way to thank your advisor for what he did for you was to become successful in your field, and to pass on what you have learned to others.  Yoshi was trying to honor that advice, and  I've tried to honor it, as well.  It was so typical of him to have deep human insight as well as a great intellect - no cultural barrier could inhibit that!

As we mourn the loss of this honored individual, we can take solace that he's left behind a huge legacy:  I can mention a few names of his doctoral students from around the time when I was a student - Dr. E. W. (Joe) Friday [a National Weather Service Director], Dr. Robert Sheets [a Hurricane Center Director], Dr. Stanley L. Barnes [NOAA research scientist], Dr. Jerome P. Charba [NWS research scientist], Dr. John McGinley [NOAA research scientist], Dr. John M. Lewis [NOAA research scientist], and many others.  Obviously, this list leaves out many who were influenced by Yoshi, including many of my storm chase friends (e.g., Al Moller).  He will not be forgotten and can never be replaced.  We will miss him, but are proud to have been a part of his legacy.  My deepest condolences to Koko, his wife, and sons Larry, James, and Okko, and daughter Anna.

Monday, March 9, 2015

A First Take on the OU Fraternity's Racist Video

It just happened yesterday that a video showing the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity doing an overtly racist chant went viral.  The reaction by the University of Oklahoma (OU) and the national administration of SAE has been to suspend the organization.  That's great and sends the right message that such behavior is unacceptable.  But that's not the end of the story, here.  Racism has not been eradicated at OU as a result and I don't expect that to happen any time soon, actually.  The roots of racism go much deeper than that, so eradicating it will take more time:  likely many generations.  Although racism tends to be more overt in 'southern' states, it is comparably pervasive in the north.  No region has a stranglehold on bigotry, unfortunately.

My personal story is relevant here, in explaining my reaction to all of this.  I was raised in a family that was not overtly racist, but in looking back, I see some tell-tale signs of a racist undercurrent.  We lived in the lily-white western suburbs of Chicago, where I was 'protected' from other races by hidden, but very effective barriers to integration.  We were segregated in a state where segregation as codified in law did not exist, but was just as entrenched as in Dixie.  To know a Catholic or a Jew was about as diverse as it got.  Hence, I grew up knowing little or nothing about races other than mine.

When I was drafted into the military during the Vietnam era, I was immersed suddenly in a racially and culturally diverse group with no prior experience in dealing with that.  For me, it turned out we all had a common enemy (the military - most of us didn't want to be there) so we had grounds on which we could build a personal relationship.  And we did.  It was easy to get along with people unlike myself  simply because we shared one very important characteristic:  we were human.  I didn't like everyone I was in contact with, but there was no clear reason to dislike any particular racial/cultural group just because of that factor.  All races and cultures produce both people I like, and those I dislike.  After the military, my scientific career put me in contact with some very smart and talented people who put the stereotypes to the test.  This revealed that those stereotypes are bankrupt notions.  I know of no racial or cultural reason that prevents individuals from becoming whatever they want to be - some of my friends/colleagues were not of my race or cultural background.  Imagine that!!  The ratio of nonwhite to white meteorologists was small and remains so, begging the question:  is that because of some racial/cultural disposition to not do well in my profession, or is that because of racial and cultural barriers (of various sorts) keeping many individuals out for reasons other than their abilities?  My conclusion was that the stereotypes are horseshit, and there's no reason to conclude that, on the basis of race alone, an individual of a nonwhite race or a different culture automatically is incapable of being successful in my profession.  Logically, then, this likely extends to any other profession.  Race alone provides nothing useful in the way of information to conclude anything concerning the value and potential of an individual.  Race represents real differences among people, but those differences aren't universal and, therefore, aren't significant.  Cultural differences are even more obviously irrelevant.

Martin Luther King's dream is a living reality to me:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

What I've learned is that humans evolved in a hostile world by banding together in tribes for the mutual benefit of tribe members.  This gave us humans an evolutionary survival advantage, so tribalism is deeply embedded in our very core.  But tribalism has a dark side:  distrust of and contempt for other tribes.  Tribalism is the source of racism (and cultural conflict) - it's a meaningless distinction that some people cling to in hopes of having an important place in the world, I suppose.  Science tells us that all humans are the same in the vast majority of their characteristics, but they have some superficial differences that evolved because they were isolated from each other in different parts of the world, where things like skin coloration gave certain individuals an evolutionary advantage.  The acid test is that we different 'races' can still interbreed.  We can have sex with a monkey (a distasteful thought) but we can't interbreed with them, any more than we could interbreed with a rabbit, or a tree.  There are enough differences in our DNA compared to that of a monkey that offspring of such a physical union aren't possible.  Tribalism makes us resist interbreeding with other races, even though virtually all of us have at least some DNA from other races (that resistance has not always been effective!).  Many African Americans have white bloodlines, and vice-versa.  I know of many black Americans with the Doswell surname (many of whom I'd be proud to know personally), and I'm pretty sure that name didn't come to America from Africa.

If we accept that racism is simply an atavistic holdover from tribalism and represents a concept that has absolutely no meaningful (scientific) basis, then perhaps eventually we can overcome the detestable scourge on humanity of racism.  But racism dies hard:  too many people find too much comfort for their insecurities in thinking themselves superior to those of a different race.  Whether hidden or overt, racism is simply inconsistent with reality.  There is no important distinction among the different races, although there are likely slight differences (on average) among the races with regard to characteristics like athletic or intellectual prowess.  Any such differences say nothing about individuals!  Racial and cultural bigotry are manifestations of ignorance, and it's ignorant people who inculcate their children with such bigotry.  Deep-seated racist attitudes are prevalent today, despite the species having made progress.  Most humans now recognize that overt expression of racist and cultural bias is unacceptable - even if they still believe in such things.  To believe that racism is dead is to perpetuate it.  We much acknowledge the widespread persistence of bigotry if we are to be successful some day in making Martin Luther King's dream a reality.

If you find yourself uncomfortable with those of other races, my advice is to work at developing more diverse interactions.  When you know people as individuals, not stereotypes, their racial characteristics fade away, and you know them as a person - not as a member of a particular race.  You may or may not like them at a personal level, but you may now have good reasons for that like/dislike.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

A Hierarchy of "Miracles"

In a recent Facebook discussion, I was asked why I differentiate between biblical miracles and those claimed in post-biblical times (right up to and including the present).  I'm not entirely happy with my responses, so I've been mulling it over for a while. The following is the result:  my attempt at a hierarchy of miracles and my comments about them, roughly in an arguable descending order.

1.  The set of those events that are beyond a doubt, unambiguously attributable to the intervention of a very powerful (or ominipotent) deity without any other plausible explanation.  As I see things, this is an empty set.  The bible offers several candidates, but they all fail to meet reasonable criteria.  Sorry, folks, but a document written in the Bronze Age by people who were pretty unsophisticated in their understanding of natural processes provides absolutely zero credible evidence that these events could only be explained by divine intervention in human affairs.  And it seems pretty convenient that virtually all the candidate events (Lot's wife turned into a pillar of salt, jesus walking on water, people raised from the dead, feeding of the multitudes, etc.) have ceased in the post-biblical era.

2.  The set of those events that have a plausible explanation in terms of processes for which we have a substantial scientific understanding.  If one accepts that such events have a natural (as opposed to a supernatural) explanation, then these events don't qualify as miracles at all. What might be deemed "miraculous" is that a natural event occurs - an earthquake that topples the walls of Jericho for Joshua, the Red Sea is fortuitously parted by a tsunami or a seiche that allows the escape of the Jews led by the mythical Moses, and so on and on - at just the right time for our biblical "heroes".  However, if such stories have any factual basis in both historical evidence and naturally-occurring physical processes, they only speak to extraordinary good fortune for those involved.  You can attribute that to a deity if you choose, but none of these constitute a very compelling example of what I would consider a miracle.  Attributing such to divine intervention is pretty comparable for thanking god for helping someone score touchdowns, or providing rain after a prolonged drought, or being cured of cancer in a hospital, or finding lost car keys.

3.  The set of those events that have their origins in mythology plagiarized by biblical authors from the mythology of other, earlier religions.  Considerable similarity exists between many of the biblical stories and those of even more primitive religions.  Some see this as evidence that actually supports the reality of these narratives.  It is at least a logical possibility.  Unfortunately, it's at least equally plausible, based on the facts as we have them, that they're just recycled mythology, stolen by biblical authors to spice up their writings.

4.  The set of those events that are original myths made up by biblical authors.  Unfortunately, I'm not enough of a religious scholar to know all of the myths of other religions, so I'm uncertain what biblical stories are original.  I'm betting there are some, however.  The opportunity for magical thinking to reinforce the messages that biblical authors wanted to communicate would likely have been irresistible.

4.  The set of those events that are simple "magic" as practiced by magicians since time immemorial.  Magicians and shysters of all sorts use a wide array of tricks to deceive people into believing that the practitioners have supernatural powers.  I have little doubt that some fraction of the miracles described in the bible might well have been simple deceptions of a gullible audience by skilled magicians - parlor tricks and sleight of hand.  This includes faith healers and that ilk, as well.

5.  The set of natural events that are perceived by the gullible as "miraculous".  There seem to be many such "miracles" used by catholics for saintly candidates to be canonized as saints by the church:  there have to be two "miracles" documented (How? Eyewitness testimony?) to be the result of intercession by the candidate, so miracles are inferred from natural events.  Other miracles in this category include images of jesus on burned toast, "bleeding" statues, the Shroud of Turin, the development of life on Earth, and so on.  These are simply natural events or magical interpretations of faked relics, that provide believers with a "confirmation" of divine intervention.

In short, it seems to me that true "miracles" (i.e., divine interventions) are a myth, created to confirm the existence of a mythological deity.  No other rational explanation based on evidence can be offered, unless an actual deity chooses to break what believers take to be a self-imposed ban on miracles that would meet the criteria of #1

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

VORTEX - SE: A political scientific boondoggle

It's come to my attention that a project to study tornadoes in the Southeastern US has been created, via political 'pork barrel' machinations.  This project is predicated on the following basis:

"The southeastern United States commonly experiences devastating tornadoes under conditions that differ considerable from those on the Great Plains region where tornado research has historically been focused.  NOAA/NSSL has a newly funded mandate to collaborate with the National Science Foundation in better understanding how environmental factors that are characteristic of the southeastern U.S. affect the formation, intensity, and storm path of tornadoes for this region."

Several institutions within the southeastern US have been pushing this sort of idea for years.  With the help of their Congressional delegations, they evidently have succeeded in forcing this absurd project on the rest of us.  They assert that tornadoes in the southeast are different, and that their regional storm problems therefore have been overlooked.  There's little doubt that tornado fatality counts in the southeastern US are higher than elsewhere, but it's never been demonstrated that this is the result of a difference in the meteorology of tornadic storms in the southeast.  There are many non-meteorological reasons for high death rates in the southeastern US - this blog isn't the venue for a complete discussion of those non-meteorological explanations. 

Nor has it ever been shown that tornadoes in the southeastern US are the result of some (as yet, unspecified) difference in the physics of severe storms and tornadoes.  To the contrary, there is every reason to believe that the meteorology of severe storms and tornadoes is the same the world over.  Absent a compelling demonstration of an important difference in the meteorology, this program is based on an unvalidated hypothesis. 

Yes, the climatology of tornadoes in the southeast differs from that of the Great Plains.  For instance, there's a well-defined tornado "season" in the plains:  tornadoes occur with high frequency in the months of April, May, and June on the plains, and relatively low frequency at other times of the year.  In the southeast, tornado frequencies generally are much lower than the peak months of the plains tornado season, but those relatively low frequencies only decrease substantially during the summer months in the southeast.  Thus, although tornadoes are less frequent in the southeast, they can occur at almost any time of the year, including in the winter.  The reasons for this are clear to most severe storms meteorologists:  they have to do with the ingredients for severe storms and tornadoes, which come together often in the early to late spring on the Plains, and rather less frequently in the southeast but without a clearly defined "tornado season".  This is a clear indication that severe storms and tornadoes in the southeast are more or less identical to comparable storms on the Plains.  The only difference in the regions is the climatology of the ingredients, but the ingredients are everywhere the same!  It seems quite unlikely that any particularly useful meteorological insight is to be gained by this project.

The proposed program is patterned after the already completed VORTEX and VORTEX2 field observation campaigns in 1994-5, and 2009-10, respectively.  These observational campaigns included mobile radars, instrumented vehicles to intercept storms, and so on.  Doing a similar project in the southeast will be much more challenging, owing to the presence of extensive trees, substantial orography, a high frequency of low cloud bases, and a higher overall population density compared to the Plains.  Visibilities needed for successful storm intercepts are just not common in most of the southeastern US.  This renders even more questionable the basic concept of conducting such an exercise in the southeastern US, since it adds to the danger level for the participants, who will be much less able to see and avoid storm hazards in the course of their observational assignments.

This situation is simply an example of how some institutions can game the system to secure funding for themselves.  Unfortunately, government funding is basically a zero-sum game.  What existing programs and projects will have to be cancelled or delayed because of this boondoggle?  This is not the path to scientific cooperation and collaboration - rather, it's divisive and will damage the relations among scientists for decades to come.  This is not a good idea in any way, and it speaks loudly that this ill-advised reallocation of scarce scientific resources is the result of political posturing rather than a reflection of sound scientific justification.

English as the language of science

As a "beneficiary" of the widespread dominance of English in science, I'm often embarrassed by my inability to speak in more than one language. When people apologize to me for their English, my response is always that their English is far, far better than my ability to communicate in their native tongue.  I've often wished that we Americans routinely were schooled in another language at the same time we learn our native tongue, as happens in many nations in Europe. A good argument could be made that we Americans should be taught Spanish at the same time as we learn grammar in schools.  Spanish allows the easy extension to other European languages:  French and Italian, for instance.  Of course, it would nice to speak German, and Russian, and Mandarin Chinese as well.  The problem is that many people, including myself, have limited aptitude for learning new languages, and the time spent doing so takes time away from things we need to do to advance our scientific careers.  It's all too easy for me to defer the effort since most all of science these days is conducted in English.

Forcing non-native speakers to make presentations in English usually results in awful  presentations, forcing them to listen to presentations in English inhibits their ability to understand, and forcing them to write in English frequently results in nearly unreadable manuscripts.  It's NOT "efficient"! Attending international conferences can be quite painful, as people forced to use English struggle mightily to make themselves understood.  I assume they have a genuine wish to communicate their scientific work, but their limited mastery of English makes it very challenging, and often unsuccessful.  I cringe during such presentations and breathe a sigh of relief when they finish.

I think if everyone spoke the same language as their first language, that surely would be "efficient" but most people cling to their own native language as a form of tribalism, resenting strongly the forced imposition of another language on them. I've not experienced it directly, but it's not hard to grasp why that resentment arises.  Cultural tribalism is inevitable, no matter how much we might hope otherwise.  It's not necessarily a completely bad thing:  from my perspective, language is intimately tied to culture, and I surely have no wish for all the diverse cultures of the world to merge into a global mirror of American strip malls, American movies, chain stores and restaurants, and suburbs.  I like to experience different cultures and learn about other viewpoints.

The ascendancy of a language in science is tied, I believe, to the ascendancy of the science done in that nation. It becomes a self-reinforcing tendency: the more important the science done in your particular language, the more scientific colleagues need to be able to communicate via that language. We Americans have benefited, language-wise, from the rise of England as a world power and its scientific prosperity in the post-Renaissance era. As American science declines in significance, thanks at least in part to economic decline (as well as rampant anti-intellectualism and anti-science campaigns by fundamentalist religious extremists), the use of English as "the" language of science will decline. However, as this article suggests, there's a sort of hysteresis as a result of earlier work forming the foundation for current work.  There always will be a need to read foundational scientific works, at least in translation, if not in their original language.  Nuances in one language may not be translated properly in another, so there's always a benefit from the ability to read the original works, to see and understand the original presentations rather than subtitles or other translational forms.

It's quite unlikely that a universal native language will ever arise, despite the clear and obvious advantages of having one primary language.  Our languages are a big part of who we are as cultures and I doubt that many would surrender that willingly.  Hence, I believe it's important to encourage children, whose ability to learn languages is undiminished, to learn at least one other language at an early age.  America has "benefited" from the dominance of English far too long and far too deeply.  Most of us have surrendered our ability to communicate effectively with the non-English-speaking part of the world.  It's bad enough for our society to be in such a position but, beyond that, it's quite detrimental to our science.  I envy my scientific colleagues who are fluent in at least one other language.