Sunday, August 28, 2016

Right or Wrong? - Colin Kaepernick not standing for the anthem

Well, that exploded quickly into a shitstorm, didn't it?  Many, if not most, comments I've seen in social media have interpreted CK's sitting down during the playing of the national anthem at a football game as disrespect for the nation and especially for those who have sacrificed so much for American freedoms.  The ones who wear their patriotism on their sleeves are all incensed about this form of personal protest over the oppression of blacks and other minorities in this nation.  Interestingly, even some of my acquaintances who are usually firm advocates of free speech see CK's actions as those of a "thoroughly disgraceful, propagandized, naive, horrendously ill-informed, dangerous and ignorant mentality".  Most, if not all, of such commentary is coming from white Americans who live in a bubble of white privilege, seeing the painfully slow progress of equality for minorities in the USA as having already all but vanquished the oppression of black people in the USA.  "America!  Love it or leave it!" they say to CK, as if freedom of speech - one of the most important freedoms in the panoply of constitutional guarantees - only applies to those who only sing hymns of praise for what is happening in this great, but sometimes flawed, nation.  They're saying if you find any flaw in the USA's failure to live up to its own ideals, you should get out and seek to find a better nation.  As if any protest about what is happening in America deserves only vitriol and hatred in response.  If someone's right to free speech offends you, then the offenders should leave and never return, it seems.  I'm not buying this perspective - patriotism isn't measured by the overt practices associated with symbols of America, but rather by the effort to make this nation live up to its ideals, including being equally benevolent to all people pursuing life, liberty, and happiness.

Let's get something straight, here.  Like the American flag, the national anthem (including the "rule" that people stand during its performance) is a symbol for the real substance of the ideals providing the foundation for this nation.  It's not the real substance itself!  Freedom of expression is one of those ideals and CK has exercised that freedom with his symbolic act.  However offensive it might seem, there's no law against non-military personal sitting during the performance of the national anthem, nor should there be any such law!  Pseudo-patriotism is embodied in the phrase "America - Right or Wrong!"  I remember this sentiment repeated loudly and often by the so-called "silent majority" during the Vietnam War years.  The same goes for  the sentiment of "America!  Love It or Leave It!"  Time has suggested the protests against the Vietnam war were about valid concerns and most people now seem to recognize that we shouldn't have been involved in that mess in the first place.  I prefer this statement, attributed to Carl Schurz:
“My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

When my draft notice arrived in 1969, I was convinced already that the Vietnam war was unjustified by any threat to American freedoms - it was a proxy battle in the Cold War.  [We won the Cold War because Communist dictatorships are fatally flawed and the Soviet Union collapsed of its own doing.]  I had three choices:  Serve in the military, go to jail, or leave the country.  I chose to serve for primarily selfish reasons.  I now have mixed feelings about my military service (in the Army, plus a hitch in the Naval Reserve).  I'm proud of having served when my country called, but in many ways, I wish I had not served the cause of an unjustified war that resulted in so many American and Vietnamese casualties for no good reason.  I served but I never accepted the notion that the decisions of our government (at all levels) are always correct.  To speak out against injustice in America is consistent with the highest ideals of America. It's not even close to a matter of disrespect for those ideals!  Quite the opposite, in fact.

The continuing oppression of African-Americans (and others) remains an ugly stain on the fabric of our national ideals.  Many people (white and black) have died as a result of that oppression throughout our nation's history.  People of color continue to die as a result of that oppression, including victims of discriminatory violence by law enforcement officers, as pointed out by CK.  I'm not a "blanket" cop-hater but I believe some police have committed unnecessarily violent acts in a discriminatory way - the evidence for that is plain for all to see.  And during an "investigation" of each incident of officer violence, they generally get a paid vacation before they're absolved of any responsibility for wrongful violence, with the implicit support of many of their fellow officers, some of who even lie to maintain solidarity with the "thin blue line".  Whistleblowers in law enforcement often lose their jobs and may even experience violence from other officers! The victims of this violence typically are blamed for what happens to them - that might sometimes be true, but there are many cases where the victim is subjected to excessive force for no good reason.  For calling attention to the issue of unnecessary violence by law enforcement, I've been labeled a "cop hater" - the fact is, the only cops I hate are those who commit unnecessary violence, and those who implicitly support such behavior by not preventing it, not reporting it, or committing perjury to absolve other law enforcement officers.  Cops need to uphold high moral standards of service in the performance of their duties - they should not be above the law!

It's very difficult for most white people to appreciate the fact of their white privilege - it surrounds them in a cushion of protection from inequities visited on non-whites.  They don't experience the pre-judging, so to them it just doesn't exist.  Discrimination against blacks continues in many ways (some subtle, and others not so subtle) and we need to have a national "conversation" about this to seek solutions to the evil of unequal treatment.  We shouldn't be condemning someone who has the courage to force us all to consider what is going on and to challenge us to take actions to stop it once and forever.  We should be following Carl Schurz and seeking to set right any perceived wrongs in America!  That should be the duty of all Americans.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Thoughts on prejudice, tribalism, and racism

Looking back at the experiences of my 70+ years, one theme seems to come up again and again:  the people I have known stubbornly resist conforming to my stereotypes.  A stereotype can be defined as a preconceived notion, especially about a group of people.  Like everyone else, I'm associated with many different groupings of people and my life has shown me repeatedly that if I see a person who can be grouped within a particular association, membership in that association actually says very little about what sort of person any individual member of that group is.  One group to which I belong is the "tribe" of white male heterosexuals.  These are essentially accidents of birth - not choices I made.  I am also a meteorologist, a military veteran, a person who has used marijuana, an atheist, a citizen of the USA, a fan of drag racing, an artist, overweight, tall, bald, and so on and on. These other associations include both more accidents of birth and many specific choices I've made over the course of my life.

If you only know me as a member of the "white people" association, for example, what stereotypes of that particular grouping do you think apply to me?  All of them?  If not, which ones?  What does it say about you if you automatically believe those stereotypes of my "white people" tribe apply to me?  When I was a boy in the Chicago suburbs of Dupage County, most of the people I knew were WASPs - White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and I learned about a widely-held but rarely vocally expressed view of racial and cultural superiority associated with my "tribe" of WASPs.  Other tribes were looked down upon by many members of my WASP tribal association.  I knew a few Catholics, even fewer Jews, and essentially no African- or Mexican-Americans.  Interestingly, my best friend in high school was a Catholic and yet somehow that friendship apparently was tolerated by the members of my WASP tribe.  I was not vilified for being friends with a white male Catholic, and if anyone felt I was betraying my Protestant tribe, they never said it to my face.  Later, of course, I became an atheist - a group that many Americans despise and which is subject to discrimination.

As time went by, I became aware of the discrimination that existed in my town against non-white Americans.  At some point, I heard that an African-American had tried to buy a house in my neighborhood and the neighbors (not including my parents) had banded together to threaten to buy the home rather than let a black family move into our tribe's territory!  I was not raised to be a racist, even though racism was rampant around me, so this discovery came as something shocking.  I was ashamed of my tribe's racism.  It seemed that my tribe was prejudiced against other tribes and would go to extreme lengths to avoid having to associate with those belonging to a different racial tribe.  If I chose to be close friends with an African-American (remember, there were none about!), how would my WASP tribe have reacted?  What if I chose to date a black woman?  I'll never know, but I think I know a likely response to such behavior.  I've learned that some members of my own family were/are notably prejudiced against other racial tribes, so I think I know what their response would have been had I been dating a black or Latino woman.

Having been drafted into the Army - an organization that one typically does not consider to be socially advanced - I was thrown into the company of a widely diverse group of people, including blacks, Latinos, farm boys, southern "rednecks", etc.  One of my lasting memories is meeting an 18 year-old African-American man serving with me in Vietnam who seemed very innocent and naive to me.  But it turned out he had some amazing strength of character.  He resisted what I felt was good-natured badgering from me and some of my friends about his innocence.  For instance, he would pray before eating in the mess hall.  He didn't curse, or drink, or smoke pot.  Some of the blacks in our company called him an "Uncle Tom" because he declined to be called "brother" by people to whom he was not related.  This was not the stereotype of an angry, "militant" young black male - he was comfortable with whom he felt himself to be and literally didn't care what anyone else thought.  I often wonder what has happened to him - I regret not taking more time to get to know him.  I was still learning back then, I suppose.

After my time in the Army, I returned to the mostly white world of my professional life, but in the course of that career, I became acquainted with a group of Mexican-American meteorologists who included some of the smartest people I've ever had the good fortune to meet.  Bam!  There went another stereotype.  I also met some amazing women who had become scientists, and some of them were at the very top of my profession.  Thud!  Another stereotype falls.  I have met and known outstanding African-American meteorologists.  Crash!  So much for that stereotype.  Despite all the barriers put in their way, these professionals have achieved much and have earned their professional standing, so don't tell me it can't be done!!  I was discovering that stereotypes and default assumptions based on tribal associations were phantoms that had no basis in reality.  I was going to have to abandon my notions of who people are based in the heuristic approach I had been using:  belong to group X, you're a good person, whereas if you belong to group Y, you're not a good person.  That simply didn't give reliable results and as a science professional, that meant it had to be rejected.

If you take some time to get to know someone, rather than assuming that their membership in some tribe tells you who they are and what to expect from them, you'll find inevitably they're simply human beings whose attitudes and behavior may or may not fit your expectations.   Perhaps some of them will be a good match for a specific stereotype you have, but not some others.  You just can't know that until you know them personally!

The evidence is around you if you take the time to abandon your default assumptions about other humans and learn about them as individuals, not members of some association.  Make the effort rather than pre-judging someone without any real evidence.  Learning how things look to other people is an excellent path to a deeper understanding of your own beliefs and behaviors.  Savor the rich diversity of humanity instead of seeing other tribes as lesser human beings.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Free speech and political correctness

Given the nature of the statements coming from Donald Trump and his myrmidons of late, the whole issue of "political correctness" has been a hot topic in social media.  Thus, this blog will be my take on the topic.

First of all, in the USA, freedom of speech is an important right of all Americans, protected by the 1st Amendment to the Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

I've discussed freedom of speech in my blog several times (here, or here for instance), with the most important aspect of free speech (in my opinion) being that if the protection of free speech does not apply to speech that we find offensive by virtue of being distasteful, rude, unpatriotic, disgusting, blasphemous, or offensive for whatever other reason, then the notion of free speech has no meaningful value.  There's no Constitutional guarantee that you won't be offended by what others might say.  In other blog posts, I've mentioned examples, so I won't bother with that here.

By the same token, based on what I'm hearing from Trump and his sycophants, there seems to be a desire on their part to experience no negative feedback in response to their exercising their Constitutionally-guaranteed right right to free speech.  In a nation dominated by white male heterosexual privilege (hereafter, WMHP) from its very inception, condescending epithets long have been used openly in American society to describe subjects of white male heterosexual contempt.  The subjects of that contempt further have been discriminated against in virtually every aspect of life, without any meaningful recourse to mitigate that discrimination.  The halls of power long have been the nearly exclusive domain of WMHP.

Recently, in the past few decades, there's been a growing sense of rejection of that contempt and discrimination.  Stereotypes have fallen over and over in the face of the reality (backed up by scientific evidence) that there is no rational basis for such bigotry.  Public opinion, backed by scientific research, is increasingly recognizing that we are one people and should all be treated equally under the law and in the course of our lives. 

Religion has been used by some to support their continuing belief in the foundations for WMHP.  But the rising tide of American society of late includes a rejection of the mythology of WMHP.  Many Americans have come to realize that various groups victimized by it should be afforded equal treatment under the law and not be subjected to discrimination.  Although the poisonous miasma of WMHP is not yet completely removed from American society as a whole, there has been growing acceptance for those segments of our culture who have been denied equal treatment and subjected to disdain (and irrational fear) in the past.

Thus, when the increasingly isolated and troglodytic segment of American society that continues to support WMHP voices its contempt for people not accepted by white male heterosexuals as equals, there's an increasingly vigorous response opposing that contemptuous speech.  In many cases now, blatant public use of bigoted epithets can result in someone being fired or losing some segment of their customer base.  This response to disrespectful speech is not a free speech issue - no government agency is putting people in prison for their vitriolic speech.  Private citizens simply are exercising their free choice to not be associated with bigots and bigotry.  Yet many who cling to the protective bubble of WMHP have the idea that being "politically incorrect" should be free from any non-governmental blowback for their use of insulting speech.  They want to suffer no consequences arising from being rude and scornful of others.  They pine for the "good old days" when they could express their bigotry openly and without anyone caring.  Trump has given voice to these bigots, bringing their poison out of the festering darkness of their hearts and into the open again.

Anyone can say (more or less) whatever they want (within some limits), but they also must accept that free speech can have consequences.   Most Americans have no wish to return to an earlier time when flagrant bigotry was the order of the day and WMHP prevailed over all.  Those bigots whining about the overemphasis on political correctness today are simply complaining about the consequences they experience for offending people when being rude and insulting.  Too bad.  I can't say I feel sorry for them.

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.
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.