Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Death by cop ... increasing or not?

I readily admit that I'm having trouble grasping the significance, if any, of the recent spate of events where police have beaten or killed people who seemed not to represent a direct and obvious threat to the officers.  Of course, I can't say I know for sure the precise circumstances in those situations.  What seems to be the industry standard is to put the officer(s) involved on paid administrative leave, pending an internal investigation - with the preponderance of the investigations resulting in exoneration of those officer(s).  Not always, but most of the time.

Police are granted special powers over the rest of us, in order that they may carry out their duties to "serve and protect" the people in their jurisdiction.  They literally can become judge, jury, and executioner if they deem the situation to require that response.  The job they do is difficult and very dangerous - officers lose their lives in the line of duty all too often.  The assumption we make is that most of those we select to wield this power are going to be reluctant to exercise that extreme power, reserving it only for those situations that place them (and others) in serious, imminent, and obvious danger.  Officers may have only very limited time to consider their course of action in a given situation and it's reasonable that mistakes (fatal ones!) can be made.  As with any particular grouping of people, there will be some who are willing to abuse this power granted to them.  Again, we assume that the selection process should weed out most of those who would disgrace the trust placed in them, and that if someone reveals such a trait, they would be removed from that duty.  An officer who makes too many mistakes in judgment under pressure is not worthy of the responsibility.

Recently, it seems the frequency of such abuse is increasing - or is it?  Has the frequency of police abuse of power actually been increasing, or is it just being exaggerated by social media?  I wish I knew, but law enforcement agencies seem reluctant to make public any information about the frequency of officer-involved killings and beatings.  See here, here, and here, to offer just a few examples of this apparent universal wish to keep secret the information by which we might be able to ascertain any trends in death (and abuse) by cops.

I can't claim the sites I've cited are completely objective - I would posit that absolute, total objectivity doesn't exist in anyone, actually, so it's absurd to use that as a means of dismissing such concerns.  I know all the arguments by police apologists and am willing to grant that in some cases, those arguments have some merit.   But in many cases, those arguments seem pretty thin to me.  Why be so secretive if there's nothing to hide?  If it was a mistake, surely they would want to admit that, right?  Well, no, we humans often are reluctant to own our errors.  And our jobs may depend on not coming clean!

Yesterday, Jon Stewart made a key point in his rant about the Ferguson police shooting of an unarmed black man:  can we not hold our police officers to a higher standard than that of a street gang?  Ignoring all of the divisive discussion about widespread racial profiling by police (which I deem to be an undeniable fact), the simple reality of many of these police shootings is that even the suspicion of a minor crime on the part of the victim is being used to justify the immediate use of deadly force (or massive beatings).  Is it not reasonable to expect that police officers might risk their own lives to avoid the needless taking of another's life?  Isn't that what we should expect from those charged with the awesome life and death responsibility to serve and protect us!

As events unfold on the media, we often hear the officer's version of the story as being forced to shoot (or beat) in self-defense, when citizen videos may contradict the officer's version.  Not always, of course - some citizen videos confirm what the officer said after the fact, but if that's the norm, then why are police reluctant to wear body cameras, and when they do wear them, why not disclose the video to the public in every case?  The fact they prefer to maintain secrecy seems indicative of a cover-up.  What's the point of wearing a body camera if the footage is kept purely internal?

My question to the police is a simple one:  if the main objective of the legal system you're sworn to uphold is justice for all, then why is exoneration of police officers your main concern in these events?  Shouldn't you be seeking to have external investigations in such cases, to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest associated with your internal investigations?  Are you not remorseful over the taking of another human's life?  Or has your typical experience with much less than the best side of humanity resulted in dehumanizing others, to the point where you no longer care about whether they live or die?

We need a system for independent investigations, with full access to all the information available, including body cameras, dashboard cameras, etc.  Yes, bad apples exist and they disgrace the many officers who do their duty honorably (and at great personal risk).  Should we not be concerned to find those bad apples and remove them from the ranks of those entrusted with such a huge responsibility?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Addiction, Depression, Suicide - Thoughts on the Suicide of Robin Williams

The untimely death of Robin Williams has forced many of us to ponder some nasty realities.  Amidst the numerous tributes and expressions of condolence (as well as the ugly political opportunism by some right-wing folks, including some typically thoughtless and cynical remarks by Rush Limbaugh), there have been some posts that actually offer some worthwhile things to ponder.  They have stimulated this blog.

Addiction to various substances (alcohol, addictive drugs) and behaviors (gambling) is an awful thing to experience when it happens to close friends and family.  If you haven't experienced this first hand, it's likely very difficult to understand.  A friend of mine said his experiences with his family member left him feeling completely powerless to know what to say or do that would cause the addicted person to get off the self-destructive path they're on.  Unfortunately, it's not up to us to change their behavior - it's in their hands.  They have to want to get over their dependence on the behavior so badly, they'll do whatever it takes.  I dislike 12-step programs that say the victims are powerless in the face of their addiction.  That's ultimately self-defeating and in many cases is often just an excuse to push religion on addicts.  But by no means do I want to diminish the power of addiction.  If addicts can't break the grip of their behavior, it's not necessarily a sign of weakness - it's a sign of how powerful the grip of these addictions can be.  Solutions to the problem of addictions remain elusive. Why do people feel the need to escape from the world via their addictions?  I suppose the reasons are many and varied, but the typical result is that their behavior makes their self-esteem fall still farther in a nasty positive feedback loop that can end in total disaster and death.  Friends and family may only be able to look on in horror as this downward spiral unfolds.  In my circles, there are several such situations that have gone on and are still ongoing.  The friends and family members likely need support as much as the addict!

The war on drugs is just as ineffective and counterproductive as was prohibition of alcohol.  As I see it, you can't solve this problem at the supply end.  If you remove one supplier, there are dozens willing to take that place, because there's so much profit in it.  The path to a solution has to be at the demand end.  How can we keep people from abusing certain behaviors that in and of themselves are not necessarily destructive?  I wish I knew.  I wish someone knew.  Rather than waging war on the supply side, and jailing people for their addictions, we should be using our resources to do the research into the challenge of preventing people from self-destructive behaviors on the demand side.

Depression and addiction aren't always associated, but depression apparently often leads to the sort of need to escape reality that addicts seek.  Not all those who are depressed are addicts of one type or another, but their suffering is real and often in silence - until it's too late.  There are many causes for depression - it can be a fatal illness, sadly.  Those suffering from depression in its many forms, including bipolar disorders, desperately need support but may shun the very people who could help the most.  Frankly, it's depressing to consider depression!  But if we can't face the issue, and it's as widespread as it seems to be, then we won't ever find a solution and tragedy will continue.

And of course, depression often leads to suicide attempts.  I've known people who have committed suicide and those of us left behind struggle to understand why someone we know and love would cause us so much pain.  We ask "Why?" "What could I have done to prevent this?"  Suicide ends the pain for the person who kills him/herself, but the pain goes on and on for the friends and family, who often struggle with their guilt over what they could have or should have done to stop this tragedy.  Thus, suicide is a selfish act, but for the person seeking to end their own personal pain, it seems there as if there's no other way for them.  There's no point to casting blame on the person who committed the suicide, but it's easy to understand the agony and even anger on the part of those left behind.  I don't pretend to know why a popular and successful public figure commits suicide - it seems all too common.  Wealth and fame aren't always good things, I guess.  Some of those left behind become so depressed over the suicide of a beloved friend or family member, they also give in to their pain.  Again, I can't pretend to have any solutions, but suicide always is an occasion on which survivors are forced to reflect.

What's the meaning of a life?  I've written about that here and here, but I can't claim any particularly satisfying or deep insight.  I know that as I get older, every year I lose more friends and family.  What I'm left with is their legacy:  the things they accomplished during their lives, the humanity we shared, the joys and sorrows we experienced together.  I don't believe in some cosmic purpose for life, so I see the search for that to be futile and not worth the effort.  If there's any meaning to our lives, it's how we go about creating a meaning for us as individuals through our friends and family, our professional work, our charity, our giving back for the blessings we have, and so on.  If the suicide of Robin Williams is to have any positive outcome, it will be the people moved by it to give something back to humanity for the gift of their lives.  I'm convinced we help ourselves the most when we push our "selves" to the back burner and seek to use our abilities and learned skills for the benefit of as many as possible.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Still an idealist

The definition of an idealist is "a person who is guided more by ideals than by practical considerations."  Although guided by those ideals, I also try to remain aware of practical reality.  In particular, the latest installment of the never-ending conflict in the Middle East puts my ideals to the test.  Yes, that part of the world has been in violent dispute for thousands of years.  Radicals, goaded on by their leaders, employing their personal interpretations of religious faith, have used terrorism, genocide, and war to try to carry out their political ends.  I say "try" because it's pretty evident they've all failed to achieve a stable peace through violence.  It's widely accepted that it's a form of insanity to keep doing the same things over and over again and expect a different outcome.  I'm told by some that it's foolish to hope for the madness that permeates the region (and occasionally spills out on the rest of the world) to end one day, to hope that the warring sects eventually will come to realize the futility of their violence.  Well, my message here is that I just can't give up that hope, even though my understanding of this unreal "reality" is that there's no such hope in the near future.

Vengeance for wrongs committed is poor excuse for violence.  It can't bring back those killed in previous violence, and whatever "satisfaction" is served by murder in the name of vengeance is ephemeral.  Such hatred only serves to destroy the hater from the inside.  For believers, consider Leviticus 19:18 ... "Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD."  That message appears over and over in the bible.  And in the koran, a similar sentiment can be found "The recompense for an evil is an evil like thereof."  Of course, in those same documents can be found very contradictory calls (or even demands) for violence against their enemies.   Apparently, in Abrahamic religions, vengeance is not entirely left in the hands of their deity - or at least the message in this regard is pretty mixed.

Ironically, the unceasing violence that dominates the Middle East is thoroughly covered with the cloak of "religions of peace".  Like politics, the mindset of religion is dominated by unthinking, unquestioning obedience.  Religion and politics often are bedfellows in the rape of humanity - not always, of course, but history says this is a common situation.  Sometimes politicians see religion for what it is:  a means of exercising control over people, and so some politicians seek the suppression of religion since it can be a competitor for that control.  But religions typically survive (or even thrive) under political suppression - believers often see themselves as being persecuted for their beliefs, even as believers persecute others for their different beliefs.  One need only to look at theocracies or nations dominated by one religion to see the fruits of such tribalism.

Nationalism and religion are simply tribalism made manifest.  Tribalism is the ultimate source of "us versus them" - it requires conformity (obedience, control), rewarding those who support the tribe and punishing those who don't.  Tribalism simultaneously can induce compassion (reserved for the tribe members) and encourage cruelty (toward members of other tribes).  Tribalism is buried deeply in our evolutionary heritage and so has become instinctive.  We find comfort in the security of surrounding ourselves with people of similar beliefs and are discomforted in the presence of those who differ from us.  It's the wellspring from which bigotry, hatred, and violence flow.  That sort of "thinking" likely was helpful to the survival of early humans and so is hard-wired in our brains.  But what was helpful in days of primitive human existence is not at all helpful today.  Seeking company only of like-minded people nowadays is seen by many as harmful and counter-productive:  being challenged by someone of a different mindset is seen by many as a good thing.  Interestingly, some of those mouthing such words are, in fact, wholly dismissive of opposing viewpoints.  This had led the US to a deeply divided society:  liberals in one tribe, conservatives in another, who pour invective on the "enemy" and their leaders.  Wake up, folks!  This is unproductive tribalism and, given free rein, it ultimately can lead us to violence.

Since I'm an idealist, I must maintain the hope we can overcome this.  There are some who proclaim the secular humanist viewpoint that it's unhealthy to surround ourselves with those of entirely like minds.  We can think things through and if we do so, it should be possible to suppress our tendency to yield to tribalism, to push back the anger and the bloodlust that tribalism generates to support our wish to impose vengeance on those who differ from us.  Our experience tells us that achieving vengeance only hardens the will of the "tribe" upon which we exact vengeance - it creates a never-ending "feud" that can only achieve more of the same.  It creates new recruits for our "enemies", ready to sacrifice themselves just to kill us.  Surely we can agree not to give in to primitive urges, choosing instead to embrace diversity.  Tribalism is no longer the path to human survival.  We must work together to solve our many challenges in the modern world, or we risk falling back to a much more brutal form of existence.

Friday, July 25, 2014

That very rare commodity-a manager who was a real leader: Ken Crawford

I'm made some short FB posts about this, but this blog gives me a chance to be somewhat more complete.  On 23 July 2014, yet another friend and colleague of mine - Dr. Ken Crawford - died.  It seems 2014's toll on my friends and family continues.

I first met Ken when he was a forecaster in the Fort Worth, TX, Weather Forecast Office (WFO), thanks to my late friend and colleague, Al Moller.  Ken then moved to Slidell, LA, as a deputy station chief (Deputy Meteorologist-In-Charge); then he became MIC at the Oklahoma City (OKC) Office, and was still there as the MIC when the office moved to Norman (OUN).  Subsequently, he left the NWS and became a Professor of Meteorology at OU.  At the end of his career, he left the university to be involved with the Korea's national weather service.

Although I met him many years earlier, it was when the OKC office moved to OUN, and I followed not long after, when Dr. Bob Maddox became NSSL's Director, that my interactions with Ken really developed significantly for me.  Bob and I talked many times about our professional relationship with the Norman WFO across the street from our building on OU's North Campus.  We agreed on what to do and so convinced Ken that it would be a good thing if a research meteorologist from NSSL had an office in the OUN WFO.  Ken embraced the idea from the start, of course.  I was duly ensconced in the OUN WFO and, although as a non-NWS employee I wasn't authorized to issue forecasts, I had daily interactions with the staff.  Not only could I get to know and observe the people who actually made the local forecasts, but I could observe the office dynamics.  Those were some wonderful years for me and perhaps I might tell that story someday, but not now.

What I saw in Ken as the station chief was something I'd never encountered from a manager before.  Let me illustrate that with an anecdote:  When I would talk with "outside" people about the great things happening at the OUN WFO, they'd typically say something like, "Well, Ken Crawford has assembled a team of superstars there.  What else did you expect?"  The thing was, the group of people at the OUN WFO was, at that time, the same team (except for two people who were induced to leave the office) he'd inherited from the previous MIC.  Under the previous MIC, the office had been pretty low on the respect bar and Ken had effectively transformed the staff, but used the same people!!

How did he accomplish this?  Ken always operated under the principle that he would not be successful as a manager if his staff was not successful in their endeavors.  He understood that the people working for him aren't identical robots - they're individuals with particular strengths and weaknesses, so the idea is to use their strengths to contribute to the success of the office and to encourage them to improve in areas where they're weak.  Everyone was made to feel like an important member of the team.  And so the office prospered, even as his staff prospered (including winning various awards and kudos for their performance).  Ken always was supportive of his staff and was willing to "buck the system" should the need arise to help his office be successful.  I'm pretty confident that most, if not all of them, would have followed Ken wherever he led them, because it was clear that he reciprocated that respect.  How rare that perspective seems to be!  What a shame it's so rare - but Ken showed me by his actions how a good manager of people needs to operate.

When I was working in that WFO office of mine, one day it dawned on me that the 35 or so NSSL mesonetwork sites were just rusting away in a warehouse, and that they might be installed as a permanent mesonet for the benefit of the WFO operations.  When I brought up my idea to Ken, he then told me of his dream for a statewide mesonet that would have at least one station is every Oklahoma county!!  I was floored, but quickly discarded my own paltry idea to get behind Ken's Mesonet project.  He honored me by inviting my participation in the Mesonet Advisory Committee, a story all on its own and a time when I was very excited about what we were creating:  the Oklahoma Mesonet.  Circumstances forced me to give up my participation, but I'm very proud of what we set into motion on its way to becoming a reality.

When Ken became a faculty member, I had the opportunity to be a member of some of his grad student advisory committees.  I wasn't surprised to see the same overriding concern Ken showed to help those under his supervision to become successful.   Ken was an excellent meteorologist, above all, and that showed in his teaching.  Complex topics made sense when Ken explained them!  And he sought to challenge students to improve in their weak areas, even as they used their strengths - a familiar theme, implemented in a new context.  The panoply of his successful graduates is powerful testimony to the acuity of his vision for what he should do to be successful himself.

His death leaves a hole in our weather community that can't ever be filled, to say nothing of the loss felt by his close friends and family.  Yet, those of us who mourn his passing are supported by the gratitude we feel for having been his friend and colleague, or family member.  Ken was a very, very special person, who leaves us the gift of his presence and the inheritance of his achievements.  It's selfish to dwell on our grief over his absence - he'd want us to move on, capitalizing on what we do well and seeking to improve on what we do poorly, as he showed so many of us how to do in so many ways.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Thoughts on the eve of the Fourth of July

As many of my readers may already know, I was drafted in August of 1969, after completing my first 9 semester hours of coursework toward my doctorate.  The occasion prompting the elimination of the student deferment for graduate students was the Vietnam war, and so while I was working as a student trainee for the summer in Kansas City, I received that fateful letter informing me I had to report for duty on such-and-so a date at the Chicago Induction Center.

As early as high school, it became clear to me that the Vietnam mess threatened to suck me in, and that threat had grown with time.  I would turn 24 years old that fall and had been reading about Vietnam and its history.  Even to a naive college student, it was obvious that our nation was headed toward the disaster that involvement in Vietnam would create for us.  The Vietnamese had a rich history of fighting against and repelling foreign invaders, and that was precisely what we were:  invaders.  I knew that the Vietnam war was a terribly bad choice for our nation, and our American freedoms were at no way at stake in Vietnam.

So, I struggled with the decision of what to do.  I had 3 options, basically:  (1) go to Vietnam, (2) go to Canada, or (3) go to jail.  The latter options both would have destroyed any chance I had for a career as I'd envisioned it.  So ... to serve my own ends, I reported for duty and the rest of that adventure followed its course.  For many years, I was ashamed of my inability to accept the consequences for resisting what I knew was wrong.  I still feel some of that shame, although time has shown me that my time in service had many positive aspects I didn't recognize during my enlistment.  For whatever reason, I still fulfilled my obligation to serve my country when called upon.  That's not something I'm ashamed of, at least by now.  As my father served before me, and my son has served (and still serves), so did I.  I feel no honor in my service, but I did serve.

I've never felt a lot of animosity for those who skated out of being in the military during the Vietnam era.  No, my animosity is toward those who supported that terrible war, even as they avoided any commitment of their own lives in that very conflict.  The chickenhawks.   Those unwilling to do what they said others should do.

To me it comes down to is this:  my country has not always been right to become involved in foreign wars.  In some cases - like WWII and the first Gulf War - that involvement was necessary.  This is not the case when it comes to our participation in the so-called "Iraqi Freedom" war and our continuation of the so-called "Enduring Freedom" war in Afghanistan.  The latter might have been justified early in its evolution, but nation-building in a foreign land with no democratic traditions is a terrible mistake.  Both of these bad decisions pushed through by chickenhawk politicians have proven to be nightmares in the same fashion as our war in Vietnam.  Hopeless messes with no logical "end game" - trying to build our brand of freedom in nations where foreign ideas are nearly universally loathed and foreign invaders resisted implacably and without limit on the means.  I honor those who stand by their principles and refuse to serve in such a war!  We support the principles of American freedom most meaningfully when we protest the wrongs our nation's government perpetrates.  When we decline to support those wrongs.  When we make sacrifices of conscience to draw attention to those wrongs.

I love the USA and the principles under which it was founded by those who declared our independence from English rule on 04 July 1776.  But my love of my nation is not of the "My country - right or wrong" variety.  I believe it's our obligation to challenge our government when it commits wrongful acts in our names.  Now, with my career in its final years, it's relatively easy for me to protest our involvement in pointless, unnecessary foreign incursions, with a huge cost to our nation - not just in the trillions spent on these debacles, but the cost to our young men and women, and the cost to the Iraqis and Afghanis we have killed.  Just like in Vietnam ...

It's the chickenhawks whom I most detest in all of this:  the rich and privileged who can use their circumstances, their wealth, and their influence to avoid serving in the wars they support and create.  They like to perpetuate the myth that our warfighters are there to preserve American freedom.  Bullshit!  Our young men and women are fighting for oil and corporate profits and political hegemony and ludicrous ideological notions, not American freedoms!  These are unworthy ends, incapable of justifying the tremendous costs inflicted by these ugly conflicts on foreign soil.  American blood (to say nothing of others) is being spilled without American freedoms being challenged by those "enemies" living in those lands.

Our founding fathers supported asymmetric warfare against the British to earn our independence.  We should be able to relate to those who seek self-determination through asymmetric warfare, even as we may disagree with their principles.  Surely we can understand people who resent having a foreign system imposed on them by powerful foreign invaders.  It's easy to feel empathy toward those who simply want to be left alone to follow whatever course they choose.  It's only when they choose to impose their course on others that we have any viable argument to oppose them - and military intervention is not our only alternative in opposition.   We in the USA can't claim the moral high ground when our history is laced with examples of unjustified interventions in the affairs of other nations.

I think the Fourth of July represents a good time to reflect on what we are doing and why we're doing it.  Let us mull over what is truly at stake, here and now.

Monday, June 30, 2014

A logical dilemma for a scientist

It's widely accepted that the Internet is awash with nonsense, as well as vast amounts of good information.  All sorts of wild notions are given "equal time" with other notions supported by genuinely knowledgeable people.  A thinking person understands that and behaves accordingly, not accepting any single source and seeking out information to get a balanced perspective.  Since the very beginning of my meteorological career, I've been dealing with "crackpots" on a regular basis.  First by mail, then by email, and now via social media.  There's a fuzzy boundary between truly innovative thinking and outright nonsense, and I've been dealing with "outsiders" (i.e., those who are not severe storm meteorologists) for decades.  I have files of interactions with crackpots.  An extremely high percentage of the "ideas" from outsiders are pure nonsense, despite the very rare instances when an outsider actually brings something worthwhile to the forefront (e.g., Alfred Wegner - the meteorologist who first proposed "continental drift" - known now as plate tectonics).  For every such example, there are hundreds of claims that are pure bullshit.

A recent example is the physicist who wants to erect walls to prevent the "clash of air masses" that purportedly "causes" tornadoes.  Recently, he even had to gall to respond to his meteorologist critics by asserting that their physics education was too weak to grasp his brilliant ideas!  This, from a physicist without any meteorological background!

Another recent example is found here, where the person clearly doesn't understand the physics of atmospheric gases.  He questions fundamental physical laws but provides no meaningful basis for his lack of belief in them.  There's no basis for his wild claims about the relative densities of moist versus dry air, inter alia.  Thinking "outside the box" is one thing - making counterscientific claims with no substantial evidence is quite another.

The issue that confronts us is this:  by responding to these nonsensical ideas, are we not affording them more respect than they deserve?  Are we not prolonging the "debate" with the authors of these unscientific notions when we attempt to refute them?  Would it not be better simply to ignore this blizzard of balderdash?

Well, for one thing, the public media, including, but not limited to,  social media on the Internet - in their technical ignorance - often don't allow these sleeping dogs to lie.  Crazy ideas like the "tornado wall" are news!!  The media bring them up over and over, incessantly bombarding their readers with questions for which they (i.e., the media) are too ignorant to answer.  By leaving the questions hanging, the media lend credence to unscientific notions.  Even when they provide quotes from actual practical scientists disputing crackpot hypotheses (not theories! - in science, the word theory has a much different meaning than in colloquial speaking), I suspect many readers are left thinking the crackpots have some legitimacy.  Scientific ideas are not settled by debate ... they're either validated by the logic and evidence, or they're not.

Thus, the public is bombarded with crackpot notions like chemtrails and the HAARP conspiracy.  The decline of respect for science in this nation, combined with abysmally bad science education (where creationism is taught as legitimate science by some public schools dominated by ignorant christians), is fueled by the barrage of outright bullshit from the media.  If we don't respond in some way to this flood from the cesspool of scientific ignorance, we run the risk of seeming to advocate it with our silence.

In my experience, there seems to be no way to get across any sort of nuanced notion by appearing on the regular (non-Internet) media, such as TV or radio.  Hence, I have a general policy of not doing interviews for the media - with rare exceptions.  My few pitiful sound bites and abbreviated presentations of nuanced notions inevitably are overwhelmed in the crushing cascade of crapola.   I always come away from such experiences feeling frustrated with how little I'm allowed to say.  There's a constant push to get away from typical scientific thinking, where "shades of gray" are the norm and ideas are presented with many caveats to prevent misunderstanding - toward the black and white world of dumbed-down short sound bites.

Science, as it really is practiced, requires deep, nuanced understanding.  Some scientists may be notably effective at presenting scientific ideas to the public (e.g., Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson), and so are given more time to present those ideas.  Most of us are hampered by the fact that in order to understand the subtleties, one must have some background in science.   If we keep it short to fit the apparent assumed short attention spans of media "consumers", we run the risk of leaving something important out - either for brevity per se, or because we were rushed and forgot to add it to our presentations.

So should we respond ... or not ... to the crackpots?  Is it worthwhile to seek opportunities to make presentations to the media?  Insofar as the media control the content, I say "No!"  But here on the Internet, the medium remains open to all.  The crackpots and the scientists are given equal opportunity.  I say we scientists should take every opportunity to discredit the crackpots here on the Internet.  We can take as much time as we want, and seek to provide evidence and logic to support our attempts to discredit the wild claims of the crackpots.

Friday, June 20, 2014

A look at the 'photojournalism' argument

So I've been seeing lots of arguments to justify photographing of a little girl who subsequently died from injuries in a tornado, and marketing of that photo.  Virtually all of them have called attention to other famous shocking images shot by photojournalists and published widely - an RVN army officer executing a Vietcong prisoner, or the firefighter holding a child he'd recovered from the rubble of the OKC bombing [who later died], and so on.

In general, photojournalists believe they have an obligation to record the truth of what they see, without regard to how others might feel about their photographs.  To me at least, this is especially so when the truth about a situation is not well-known (starving children in some far-off national civil war, for instance), or even being suppressed (as in many goings-on in Vietnam and other wars).  Heartbreaking images of victims of some sort of illegal or horrific activity convey the real-world consequences of those poorly-known or nefarious situations.  They can galvanize efforts to pull back either the shroud of cover-up or the shroud of ignorance.  I get that, and support it wholeheartedly.  I think if put in the sort of situation where unreported or unethical activity was going in front of me, I'd attempt to record for all to see what is not known.  I wouldn't deliberately seek out such a situation - I leave that for those who have the stomach for it.

But where is the widespread ignorance of the fatal consequences often associated with violent tornadoes?  What government agency is flooding the media with claims that tornadoes do no harm to anyone?  Yes, a photojournalist might be compelled to take such an image and it might be within the boundaries of photojournalism's ethics, but is that image needed to right some wrong, or to reveal something heretofore unknown?  What useful purpose was served by publishing that image?  A photojournalist made some money.  A public medium presented it as "news".   Anything else?

From a purely technical viewpoint, shooting and marketing the image is likely not illegal in any way.  Nevertheless, how does seeing the image make you feel?  Did you previously think tornadoes killed people in nice, neat ways?  Were you unaware of the threat from tornadoes?  Were you misled about tornado hazards by someone or some agency?  I'm pretty confident most people don't want to think about what tornadoes do to humans, so perhaps there's at least some reason to reveal the true horror of it.  Facing its reality might induce some positive action.  But as a viewer of the image, does it make you feel it was the right thing to photograph and publish?  I'll leave that to my readers.

After the 03 May 1999 tornado in the OKC area, my wife, who worked in the Norman hospital ER that night, told me about the horrible things she had seen coming in to the ER.  I had absolutely no wish for her to have recorded images of that agony for me to look at.  I'm pretty confident no one in an ER would allow such a thing!  After the Jarrell, TX tornado, I was told that the death toll had been difficult to determine after the event, in part because many of the victims had been cut to pieces by the tornado, making it very challenging to know to whom the scattered bodyparts belonged.  Again, I have no wish for anyone to share images of those grisly reminders of the violence of tornadoes. 

It's repugnant for me even to think about seeking out and finding horrific injuries inflicted on tornado victims, to say nothing of photographing them and selling the photographs.  I leave the seeking part to the trained and experienced first responders, who surely must go through some awful experiences in dealing with tornado victims on the scene.  I salute them for their courage and devotion to help people in awful circumstances.  I don't want to be within the damage path after a tornado.  If I'm nearby, my policy is to leave search and rescue to the professionals, and stay out of their way.

One thing that happens virtually all the time is when bodies are recovered in a fatality situation, they're covered up as soon as possible, until they can be taken to a morgue.  Why?  Surely it's out of respect for the dead and their families.  Would it be respectful to uncover them just so a photojournalist could record that carnage and perhaps win a Pulitzer prize?  I definitely think not, and I'm confident most (if not all) first responders would feel the same way.  If any photographs were taken before the bodies were covered, it would be for identification purposes, not for a photojournalist to record. 

In fact, in the case of the little girl in Nebraska, it's my understanding that first responders on the scene did ask the "photojournalist" to stop photographing the victims, but he refused to stop.  He's been backpedaling like mad to make himself out to be some sort of saint.  This is a troubled young man and his credentials as a photojournalist are pretty thin, it seems to me, although I don't know enough to be sure.  I actually find his story to be a pretty sad one, based on what I have heard second-hand, so I don't want to demonize him, despite my concerns over what he did before and after the event.  What I find especially disturbing now are the rationalizations I hear about the duties of photojournalists.  I ask again:  what would you do, given the situation of being there right after the tornado?  Would you take the shot?  Would you feel right about being paid for its use?

In my case, no ... and no.  Opinions vary, as usual.