Friday, March 24, 2017

What does the public want from a weather forecast?

Note ... this is a slightly modified re-post of a guest blog here.

I’m among the first to complain about people offering their opinions about what “the public” wants from weather forecasts, rather than collecting evidence through a process of literally asking a representative sample of people.  However, the latter is not something easily done.  “The Public” is not a homogeneous block of people with equal needs and expectations.  Rather, it’s quite diverse and it’s not obvious to me even how to go about collecting a sample that might be accepted as representative (by those whose expertise is in doing such surveys).  There are some social scientists who have such expertise, I’m sure.  I might even know some of them.

Nevertheless, I’m going to go ahead and offer my unvalidated opinion regarding this issue, anyway.  I’m working with the notion that “the public”  in this context excludes all meteorologists and those who already are adept at using weather forecasts effectively.  My perception is that most people don’t pay much attention to the weather most of the time, and know little or nothing about how it works, or what we meteorologists can claim legitimately to know about the atmosphere.  When they hear a forecast, if they think it might actually matter to them on a particular day (for whatever reason), they want the forecast to be perfect so their lives will be spared (if hazardous weather is possible) and/or they won’t be seriously inconvenienced by the weather as they go about their business.

Regrettably, forecasters never know with absolute certainty exactly what’s going to happen – high uncertainty typically is present on a day when the weather is changing rapidly.  I’m not going to go into a long-winded discussion of the sources for weather forecast uncertainty, but they generally arise from the fact that the weather evolves from some starting structural state to some other state according to atmospheric physics that we know only imperfectly.  We don’t even know the starting point with absolute accuracy.  It’s sort of like putting together a complex itinerary for a trip, where we don’t know exactly where we’re starting from, and we have incomplete and imperfect knowledge of how the transportation system operates.  We will almost certainly wind up in a different place than what our original destination was thought to be, although in the case of weather forecasting, it usually turns out we come fairly close most of the time, despite being forced to use incomplete information.

Wanting forecasts to be perfect is natural and very understandable.  We think our own lives are too complex to be completely and accurately predictable, but if we can rely on the weather forecasts to be perfect, it makes our decision-making a lot easier.  Re-schedule that picnic if it’s going to rain.  Water your garden if it’s going to stay sunny and dry.  Go to the pharmacy to refill your prescription before the heavy snow flies.  In fact, this is just what's happening on most days as a result of the existing imperfect forecasting systems we use – people can and do make use of our forecasts for just this sort of decision-making despite the imperfections of the forecasts.  If someone makes a bad decision and everything goes bad for them because of the weather, they can always blame the damned forecaster!  Some surveys I’ve seen make it clear that many in the public know and understand our forecasts aren’t perfect, but still some people become upset when the weather doesn’t follow precisely what they heard in the forecast(s).  Note that in the real world, one thing forecasters do is to update their forecasts based on new weather information.  Hopefully, it won’t come as a surprise to most people that our forecasts get worse, the farther ahead they are predicting.  Conversely, we improve as the “lead time” gets shorter.  Don’t expect the forecast for weather a week in advance to have the same level of accuracy as one 12 hours in advance!

When the forecasts are changing frequently as a result of new information, this is usually because of large uncertainties on that day.  Not all days are equally difficult to forecast, of course; our forecast uncertainty is not a constant.  In fact, our uncertainty is also not perfectly predictable!

Let me tell a personal anecdote that I’ve used often to illustrate the value of knowing and using the uncertainty information in a weather forecast.  Some years ago, on a fall football weekend here in Norman, there was a slow-moving, strong front in the OKC area (about 20 miles north of Norman).  On the south side of that front, skies were mostly clear and temperatures were expected to rise into the mid-70s (in deg F) in southerly winds, while on the north side of that front, skies were overcast with low clouds and rain with temperatures in the upper 30s or so, and a strong northerly wind.  It was about equally likely the front would stay north of Norman or push a few miles south of Norman by mid-day (around the time the game kicked off).  The forecaster didn’t have the option of saying that the weather that day had about a 50% chance of either option, so the forecaster was forced to make a choice.  As it turned out, the forecast decision that morning was for warm and sunny, whereas the real weather turned out to be miserably cold and rainy.  Tens of thousands of football fans were caught in summer clothing because they accepted the forecast, and they were not happy!  Since I understood the situation, I dressed for the warm option, but carried cold weather rain gear in my backpack.  It was a simple matter to prepare for both possible outcomes!  I’ve often told this story and then asked the audience:  “Would you prefer to be offered the whole story of the forecast, including the uncertainty, or do you just want the forecast without any uncertainty information?”  I almost never get anyone who chooses the latter option!  Is that surprising to anyone?  Nevertheless, many people just want to know what’s going to happen, even though most of them understand the science doesn’t allow them to have absolute certainty.

Every forecast that doesn’t include uncertainty information is tantamount to withholding critical information from the public!  And the public needs to accept some responsibility to learn how to use that uncertainty for their own purposes – they have to set their own thresholds regarding uncertainty.  If the worst thing that could happen to you is getting a little wet, you can accept more uncertainty than if you stand to lose your life if some hazardous weather potential exists.  Unfortunately, low uncertainty, highly confident forecasts are just not possible in some situations.  We can’t predict precisely the path and intensity of a tornado, so a tornado warning generally always has relatively high uncertainty.  The same can be true for deciding just when and where winter storm weather will occur.  From a meteorological standpoint, getting the heavy snow band to within 50-100 km of its eventual location is an excellent forecast.  But that might mean the difference between heavy snow mostly in rural areas versus in a major metropolitan area.  Expecting that forecast to be perfect is just asking to be frustrated.  People can want a perfect forecast, but people in hell want a glass of water, too.  Are they going to get it?  Nope.  Likewise for perfect weather forecasts. 

C’mon people!  You know we can’t make forecasts with absolute certainty, so why keep complaining when it turns out we can’t make perfect forecasts?  The forecasts have been improving steadily, and are much better than we were even 10 years ago. The public is being well-served, as I see it.  Where we have a problem is communicating our uncertainty and the public is remiss in not working very hard in trying to learn how to use any uncertainty information we do provide.  It would be nice to figure out this bottleneck.  Sadly, I have no easy solutions to offer.


Sunday, March 5, 2017

My tribute to Dr. Edwin Kessler

Edwin Kessler came to be the first director of the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL), when he was appointed to the posting by Robert Simpson in 1964.  He was a relatively young and inexperienced man for such a position, so for someone as distinguished as Robert Simpson (more well known for his work on tropical cyclones) to have such high confidence in him reflects his recognition as both a scientist and as a leader in the science of severe storms.  More information about the early history of NSSL can be found here and here.



I arrived in Norman in the fall of 1967 to begin my Master's degree studies with Dr. Yoshi K. Sasaki as my advisor.  This was during the time of the Vietnam war and shortly after beginning my grad work, the student deferment from military service was abolished for grad students and I became a prime candidate for the draft.  The Director of NSSL was impressive to me and Dr. Sasaki's support allowed me to add Dr. Kessler to my grad student advisory committee!!  I finished my M.Sc. in haste (3 semesters), owing to the imminent threat of being drafted.  Dr. Kessler asked some tough questions during my thesis defense in 1969, but I managed to pass it, and so began my Ph.D. studies the following semester.  I was drafted in the summer of 1969, while working as a student trainee at the National Severe Storms Forecast Center (NSSFC) in Kansas City (for the 3rd consecutive summer).  You can read about some of my military experiences here.

Upon returning to my graduate studies in 1972, Dr. Kessler remained on my committee to the end of my student days.  He was responsible for delaying the completion of my doctoral program,  noting that he felt I had not done enough to satisfy his high standards for a doctoral dissertation.  I can't say that the additional requirements made me happy, but in retrospect, it was not a completely unreasonable request.  At my dissertation defense, he was satisfied with what I had done and I was relieved to be finished.  It was during my time at NSSL that I got the idea for my dissertation research.

I note that after I returned to the pursuit of my doctorate, Dr. Sasaki was leaving OU for a year of sabbatical leave, and he informed me I had to find a way to support myself for the year he was going to be gone.  In this 'crisis' I turned to NSSL and Dr. Kessler for help.  I applied for a part-time NSSL position and had the benefit of a military "veteran's preference".  I was hired for 30 h per week in August of 1974, remaining there until I graduated.  My supervisor was Dr. Ron Alberty, but it's clear that my opportunity was supported by Dr. Kessler.  He supported many other students and early career scientists beside me, of course.

After working again in Kansas City in the Techniques Development Unit of NSSFC for six years, I moved to Boulder and worked with the Weather Research Program there for four years, led by Dr. Robert Maddox.  When Bob moved to Norman to be the new NSSL Director, following Ed's retirement, I followed Bob soon thereafter.  I finished my NOAA career there in 2001.

It was after I moved back to Norman in 1986, that my path was crossed again by Dr. Kessler, who was now retired but who was very active in politics as a champion of liberal, progressive ideals.  Thus, we shared the experience of "living blue in a red state".  Ed and I both were not pleased with commercial weather modification, so on one occasion, he and I were partners in challenging a weather mod operation in west Texas.  It was a slam dunk for us to show the locals what a sham the cloud seeding operation really was, so the county voted afterward to cease funding commercial cloud seeding operations.

Then came the fiasco associated with state support for building the so-called National Weather Center (NWC) to house most of the weather-associated organizations operating in Norman.  I won't say a lot about this, but more information can be found here.  Ed and I were on the same side, opposed to the process as a matter of principle.  It was rather ironic that his memorial service was held in the NWC atrium, since he had been so adamantly opposed to the process by which the state found the money to live up to their part of bargain between NOAA and the University of Oklahoma by robbing the oil storage tank cleanup fund.

Ed Kessler and I were not what I consider to be close friends, and I didn't always agree with his professional decisions as NSSL Director.  Nevertheless, I can without hesitation say that I admired his work as a scientist:  his work presented in the AMS Monograph "On the distribution and continuity of water substance in atmospheric circulations" is pure genius in its use of simple mathematical and numerical models to explore an apparently simple topic in great detail.  It's now out of print, but it contains the essence of the so-called "Kessler microphysical parameterization," the pure simplicity of which has led to its extensive use in numerical convective cloud simulations for decades.

Not being a radar specialist, I won't comment much about Ed's massive contributions to the operational implementation and research use of Doppler radars.  He probably would chafe at the title given to him posthumously by some as the "Father of Doppler Radar" - he readily acknowledged the valuable contributions by colleagues and would likely argue that Doppler Weather Radar as we know it is the child of many fathers, not just one man.

I'd be remiss in not acknowledging his support during the early days of scientific storm chasing (see here and here for my perspective on that early time in chasing).  Like most of the senior science staff at NSSL in that era, he was pretty skeptical about the value to science of chasing storms, but he nevertheless supported the project with real resources, without which the project might never have gotten started.

Thus, although not a close friend, Dr. Edwin Kessler was a person who played a significant role in shaping my life and my attitudes.  He was a mentor rather than a friend, and I always valued and respected his professional (and political) perspectives.  He was a generous man who made a positive difference in many lives and championed causes that have saved countless lives from severe weather events.  No doubt he leaves this world a better place for his time here.

My condolences to his family and close friends.  Many of us are grateful for their sharing of this great man.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Democracy being legislated out of existence?

Recently, GOP lawmakers around the nation are introducing legislation to make many sorts of protest illegal. I have news for these lawmakers: making some action illegal changes nothing. If someone's concerns about the loss of our rights as American citizens leave them willing to be arrested for defying an unjust or unconstitutional law, this legislation has no impact. If someone is willing to let our rights be eliminated one at a time via legislation, then they'll have to bear a large share of the responsibility for the destruction of American democracy.

Protest is a time-honored tradition of the USA.  The Constitution's Bill of Rights (freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, due process, restrictions on search and seizure, etc.) became the law of our land because the framers of the Constitution were concerned about the tyranny of the majority.   If a sheep and two wolves vote, the majority will be eating mutton for dinner!  The real key to democracy is not majority rule - it's protection of the rights of minorities!  Peaceful protesters in our history have been attacked by police and police dogs, shot by soldiers, shot with water cannons, tear gassed, arrested, and sent to jail for their efforts.  As MLK has shown us, an unjust or evil law can and should be broken, to draw attention to the injustice being perpetrated.  This also reveals the evil that results in the injustice. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s eventually created enough national revulsion over the states with Jim Crow laws and legal segregation, the people of our nation seemingly repudiated that injustice.  Now, it seems, the Trump regime has "normalized" bigotry of all sorts:  misogyny, racism, LGBTQ persecution, discrimination against religions other than xtianity, discrimination against atheists, and so on.  The bigotry never went away - it was simply not accepted in public discourse for a while.  The very notion of a progressive, a liberal, has been demonized and vilified.  It seems that our painful progress in seeking equal justice for all of us in our nation is vulnerable to it being cancelled by hostile lawmakers.  Legislation embodying such discrimination is being proposed at federal and state levels.

There's no need to do anything more in terms of the law than enforce trespassing laws in many cases of protest if you just want to silence dissent.  There's this false notion that a peaceful protest should never include breaking any law.  That's actually contrary to the long tradition of non-violent protest in our democracy.  Yes, trespassing is a crime, but the bigger issue is the injustice against which protests are organized.  Remember that in our nation's history, slavery was perfectly legal at one time.  Aiding slaves in their attempts to escape was, in fact, illegal.  Antisemitism was the law in Germany during the Hitler regime.  Dissent in autocratic regimes like Soviet Russia, China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, South African apartheid, etc. is often declared to be illegal.  Does this mean that protest about unjust laws is somehow tainted when laws are broken in a non-violent way?

A disturbing issue is the implication that some protests are being infiltrated by agents provocateur - people who either commit violent acts or try to induce others to do so.  This then is used to justify violent suppression of the protesters.  I don't know the extent to which this may be occurring, but it's an indication of profound evil whenever and wherever it occurs.  I also know that some people who join protests are not willing to play by the non-violent rules.  They may not be police agents but they are people whose agenda is not what the protests are all about.  Their actions also induce a violent response in some cases.

The Trump regime (including federal and state GOP legislators) has shown us strong evidence in its first month in office just what he and his cronies represent.  They're quite willing to trample on the principles and traditions of our democratic republic, inflicting harm on disadvantaged peoples, enabling the destruction of the environment we all must share, creating more and more income equality favoring the tiny, but wealthy minority.  This is an administration and Congress that may eclipse anything in our nation's history in terms of both incompetence and corruption.  They see the judiciary as their enemy, in blatant disregard for the checks and balances incorporated in the Constitution.  They see a free press as their enemy, ignoring its traditional important role in bringing attention to misdeeds by the government.  Dissent is deemed to be unpatriotic when in reality, dissent is one of the most patriotic things one can do in a democratic republic.

That so many Americans feel the need to protest this turn of events seems both natural and a positive good, even as the crypto-fascist oligarchy clearly pushes their personal greed out as their top priority and to hell with the needs of the rest of us.  How many protesters already have been arrested and detained in prisons?  What will happen if the chorus of dissent becomes louder and more vigorous?  Are internment camps and gulags and, yes, gas chambers in our future?  The current regime offers me no indication that they could not easily follow down a path that history has shown leads to cult-of-personality dictatorships, autocracy, oligarchy, and massive loss of rights by ordinary people.

Monday, January 30, 2017

My perspective about the poltical situation - 30 Jan 2017

A friend has asked me to compare what we're going through now to other political crises you've experienced in the US.  An interesting suggestion.  So here goes ...

I was born at the end of 1945, so my adult family members went through WWII and are widely considered to be members of the 'greatest generation'.  As in all wars, the crisis of WWII led to the nation running roughshod over the Constitutional rights of some Americans, notably the Japanese-Americans.  Since I have no direct experience with WWII, I can't say much about that crisis, except to note that the suspension of at least some Constitutional rights has happened several times in the history of the US wars.  I've read a lot about the Civil War, WWI, and WWII and the associated politics, but that doesn't make me a proper historian.

I was barely old enough to have much grasp of the Korean War, especially early on.  This was the opening conflict of the Cold War.  I remember seeing news from the 1953 peace talks at P’anmunj┼Ćm and how happy everyone was that the war had ended - with an armistice (not a peace treaty).  Technically, the Korean War never ended; North and South Korea are still at war.  This war was the time of Joe McCarthy and the House Unamerican Activities Committee - he was characterized by a sort of crypto-fascist extreme nationalism.  McCarthy overreached his mandate and was repudiated for his extremist views.

When I was in junior high, I had a Social Studies teacher who was a rabid anti-communist.  He harangued us with frequent fear-mongering rants about the dangers of soviet and Chinese communism. This fear caused me to do some investigating on my own, so I literally read dozens of books about soviet communism.  I wanted to understand why the soviets hated us so much, even as we were being taught to hate them.  The Cold War went on for many more years, and I remember being drilled about "duck and cover" in school in the event of a nuclear war.  I was raised at a time of intense suspicion, fear, and paranoia based on what I was told about the soviet threat.  You lived every day of the Cold War under a constant threat of nuclear annihilation.  My readings convinced me of two things: 1. the Russian people didn't really hate us, and 2. most Americans were ignorant about Russian history.  Like many wars, the Cold War was a clash of ideologies, not between ordinary people.  All of us were in constant danger of being killed in a nuclear war - for something as foolish as a clash over ideology.

The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 occurred when I was in high school.  It was to take the world to the brink of a nuclear holocaust, and that fear was quite real for many days.  JFK and Nikita Khrushchev finally negotiated a settlement that ended that terrifying threat.  To us, it seemed the evil soviets had been forced to back down. The real negotiations were not at all consistent with that perspective, but both populations were fed a bogus narrative that was politically expedient for the politicians who had threatened our very existence.

The Cold War became hot again when we engaged in the Vietnam War - a tragic error in judgment by the US (including choices made by JFK and then LBJ).  Like the Korean War, the Vietnam War was not declared formally - in the jargon of the age, it was described as a "police action" fought not by police but by the military forces of the US.  Ostensibly, it was a matter of "containment" of communism - the so-called "domino hypothesis" that if Vietnam fell to communism, that evil ideology would spread across all of southeast Asia and on to the rest of the world.  By the time when the US was defeated in that war (after winning most of the battles decisively), it had divided the nation.  Conservatives felt we should have "won" the war by any means possible (even though there was no clear way to define what "winning" such a war would mean), but toward the end of our Vietnam troop presence, so many Americans were so opposed to the war that LBJ chose not to run for re-election.  The anti-war riots during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago happened under eyes of the media - as the chant went "The whole world is watching!"  I watched the TV coverage of that event.  Nixon (before he was forced to resign as a result of the Watergate political scandal and subsequent cover-up) tried to cast our departure from Vietnam as "peace with honor" ... but it was a defeat, pure and simple.

I will have only a little to say about the civil rights movement as it had developed around the time of the early beginnings of the Vietnam War.  It's evidence of another source of division in America. White privilege made much of that divisive clash invisible to me:  I was raised in a lily-white bubble, so I had virtually no understanding of what was happening at the time.  One couldn't help but feel ashamed of what was happening to black people in this nation, as shown nearly nightly on TV.  My time in the Army (including in Vietnam) began a process of clearing away the white foam that so limited my comprehension.  For the very first time, in that war, I actually talked with and worked with and played with black Americans  That clearing process continues to this very day, as racism has not ended in America - not by a longshot!

My nation has a long history of cyclic swings of the political center - sometimes left, sometimes right.  My perspective is that the conservative v. liberal struggle has changed from having a spirit of mutual respect and compromise for mutual benefit, to become so divisive and downright dirty that many people have grown deeply disillusioned with our government.  The government is paralyzed by uncompromising political ideology conflict.  It's become acceptable to propose unconstitutional policies in the political arena to gain political ascendancy.  Gerrymandering and voter disenfranchisement have solidified the dominance of the conservatives (GOP) in Congress.  Many people have lost faith in the principles laid down by our nation's founders.  Many are willing to be racists, to be chickenhawks (willing to send our troops into battle but unwilling to fight in those battles), to murder those who violate their personal sense of what is moral.

We've gone to war several times on the basis of an exaggerated fear for the threat posed by terrorism - which concedes victory to the terrorists.  Fear is their goal, and when we give in to that fear, they celebrate.  The reality of our continuing wars is what former President Eisenhower warned about:  those in the military and those engaged in war industries coming to dominate policy decisions regarding going to war to maximize profits.  In no war in my lifetime has there been a credible threat to freedoms in the USA against which to defend on foreign soil.  The biggest threat to American freedoms is neither foreign nations nor terrorist groups.  Rather, the threat to our freedoms comes mostly from the willingness of people to give up their freedoms for the illusion of security.  We seem to be able to tolerate NSA monitoring of email, social media, phone conversations without any warrant or probable cause.  The politicians passed the Patriot Act, ostensibly to combat terrorism.  We operate a prison in Guantanamo that is manifestly illegal, and contrary to American law as it is supposed to be practiced.  We have employed the discredited and widely disavowed practice of torture to obtain information from prisoners of our wars.

 My readings of history have shown me that many Americans are inclined to believe that we somehow are immune to becoming a fascist police state, an oligarchical kleptocracy, or even a theocracy.  I see no evidence to support that delusional belief in American Exceptionalism.  Quite the contrary, in fact.  I see evidence we're quite vulnerable to dictatorial fascism.  The belief that "it can't happen here" is pervasive - it opens a wedge in which a demagogue can enter at a critical time and win a power battle that results in a fascist cult of personality. The rest will follow ...

This brings me finally to the Trump regime.  Despite what my stubborn conservative friends believe, it can happen here.  We're facing a threat I see as quite comparable to that of Wiemar Germany in the years leading up to Hitler's appointment as Chancellor by Hindenburg in 1933.  Within a short time, Hitler pushed through legislation that gave him absolute power, and the rest of the tragic story of WWII follows from that.  Note that Hitler never actually won a democratic election - whereas we Americans actually have elected a pathological liar and narcissist who's already attacking the foundations of our secular, Constitutional democracy.  From where I sit, the threat is more frightening to me than anything I've ever experienced personally.  No, Trump has yet to suppress dissent with violence and he has not yet been granted dictatorial powers.  There are as yet no concentration camps.  If Trump's policies are fully implemented, it seems all too likely that where he and his GOP cronies are taking us is into a fascist cult of personality.  I hope the American people will come to their senses and repudiate this Trump regime.  Destroying our Constitutionally-based rule of law is not a sensible path toward improved governance by our elected officials.  As I see it, the Trump regime poses the greatest threat to American democracy short of a full nuclear exchange.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A mythical narrative - rejected

When I was a boy living with my loving, caring parents, I was introduced to a mythical narrative.  A religious narrative.  This story never made any sense to me and I never accepted it as anything other than a myth.  My parents no doubt were moved by good intentions for me, but I now see what they did was to indoctrinate me in this mythical narrative.  Brainwashing was inflicted on me so that I would live by and perpetuate the narrative as they had.

The Narrative

It begins with the claim that there is an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent deity who knew everything about everything, could do whatever it wanted (including either violating the laws of physics or even re-writing the laws of physics), was everywhere all the time, and even knew what we were thinking.  For reasons of its own, it created the universe (in 7 days) and everything in it, including people and the laws of physics.

This deity created us and our world, and promised eternal life to those who worshipped it.  Unbelievers would be sent into an eternity of torment simply for not believing.  The story started with two people who were to become the progenitors of all humans, living in a lush garden.  The man was created from dust, and the woman was created from one of the man's rib.  The woman fell under the spell of a talking snake, who convinced her to eat fruit of the tree of knowledge and she then convinced her man to do likewise.  This was the first sin (acquiring knowledge) and blame for this sin has been imposed on everyone ever born since then.  The man and women were ejected from their garden paradise and went on to beget the entire population of humans.  At some point, this deity became exceedingly unhappy with the human race (the creations of this perfect deity, recall) and murdered all but a select handful of humans with a world-encompassing flood.  After that, at various other times, groups of people angered this deity by straying from what the deity defined as the right behavior and were murdered in diverse ways.  It was perfectly fine to take and own slaves if they didn't belong to the chosen tribe.  Women were the property of their men and could be abused as their men saw fit.  Other tribes were subject to being murdered (including women and children) with the deity's blessing (and assistance, should the need arise).  Rape was not considered important enough to be a Commandment.  Homosexuals were to be killed.

Eventually, the deity who created everything decided it needed to provide an escape from original sin, so it took human form, somehow separate from itself and a mysterious spiritual form of itself, and allowed itself to be murdered by the Romans.  At the end of 3 days, it arose from the dead and rejoined itself to itself.  Now the original deal had been altered:  the key for a human to escape damnation, and a happy life after death, was to believe in the divinity of its human form self as his/her lord and savior.  As usual, unbelievers were still consigned to eternal agony.

Since this deity is omniscient, it clearly knows whatever you're going to do and even what you think, even before you're created.  Your fate is known to the deity even before you're born - you and your fate are created at the same time.  Thus, this deity knows if you're going to accept its terms for you to escape everlasting torture, or not.  But somehow, in such a situation, you have "free will" to choose to believe or not (unless you're born in a nation with a different religion, which is a clear signal that all believers are obligated to spread the "joyful" news that you can be forgiven your ignorance and sins if you just believe in this deity's divine self in human form).  In effect, your human life is meaningless and your fate is fixed in an everlasting pain if the deity created you to be a disbeliever. 

For a certain period of time after creation, the deity was visibly manifest many times, and eventually, in human form, walked among humans for about 30 years before being killed - only to rise from death and ascend to heaven, back to himself.  Since then, the deity ceased to be visible in any way.  If you're going to choose to believe in it, that belief has to be based on faith because there's no longer any credible evidence for the existence of this deity.  In fact, the world as we know it is entirely consistent with the nonexistence of this deity.  It's quite a leap of faith to accept the narrative, so the indoctrination (brainwashing) of children into acceptance of this narrative is a necessary mechanism for its continuance.  For a time, it was considered quite acceptable to force people to worship (or at least pretend to worship) this deity.  It's no longer fashionable but some believers still find it quite acceptable and would do so if they could.  And many force their children to at least pretend to believe in the narrative
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Having become a scientist, I've learned this narrative embodies the absolute antithesis of science - belief without evidence.  I never accepted it, but knowing how science works has shown me that the narrative is virtually certain to be mythical nonsense.  I don't "believe" (in an absolute sense) that such a deity doesn't exist, but I find the absence of evidence for its existence to be a compelling argument that it's quite probable that the deity is nonexistent.  The sacred documents are no more credible evidence for the existence of this deity than a comic book is credible evidence for the existence of a real Superman.  So probable, in fact, that my working conclusion is that the deity is a myth.  I leave open the small logical possibility that I'm wrong in that conclusion, but I'm awaiting a convincing demonstration of that.

The narrative (above) is how I was taught about this deity.  I'm not a biblical scholar and I'm not familiar with "academic" aspects of religion, but I'm quite capable of seeing that this narrative is simply preposterous.  It was written thousands of years ago by recently barbaric tribes in the Middle East who obviously had no inkling of how the world would change or how the universe really works.  The idea that the existing sacred documents are literally the words of this deity certainly underscores that the deity in this myth is far from omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent.  There are contradictions, logical fallacies, and even historical errors in the bible.  Despite biblical reassurances, bad, even horrible, things happen to "good people" (believers) all the time.  The deity seemingly does nothing to prevent those things.  People thank this deity for all sorts of things they deem good, and ignore the bad things, and they say nothing of all that humans and science do for other humans.  Many evil deeds are perpetrated in the name of this deity.  This deity manages somehow to be on both sides of warring groups all the time - people who believe that what they do is what the deity wants them to do typically use that to justify awful deeds.  Religious faith isn't necessarily a virtue - it's often used as justification for evil.

Today, apparently, you have to die to get any concrete evidence for the existence of this deity and the reality this narrative - if there is no such thing, of course, death brings nothing but eternal oblivion.  Anyone in the USA who chooses to do so is free to accept this myth as reality, but they're not free to impose their beliefs on me.  And their freedom to accept this narrative is limited to those practices that do no harm to nonbelievers or those who have different religious beliefs.  This narrative is nonsense and not worthy of consideration by a rational person. 

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Student loans, universities, and big business

Some recent FB posts have stimulated this blog.  From where I sit, student loan programs have evolved from marginally affordable low-interest loans into predatory loans.  After only four years of college, student loans now saddle graduates with massive debt in exchange for what amounts to declining potential for that satisfying job with good pay and benefits. It takes many years to pay off those loans, and in some cases, it's become well nigh impossible ever to be free of that student loan debt.  A college degree never was a guarantee of satisfactory employment. The only thing guaranteed is that if you don't have that diploma, you won't even be permitted to apply for many good jobs.

Thus, of late, the universities are running a loan sharking system that forces many students into deep debt and yet can promise them absolutely nothing in return, even if they graduate with distinction. Many large state universities have become businesses, not centers of learning.  Such universities now actively  discourage faculty from failing students because that can terminate the gravy train prematurely.  These corporations masquerading as institutions of learning now siphon massive wealth from the middle and lower classes into the universities, and badger their alumni into supporting the university. Their governing bodies are now often dominated by wealthy local business leaders, not people committed to and experienced in education.  The inherently progressive notion of helping students become contributing members of society for the benefit of all has been replaced with something resembling the dark vision of education embodied in Pink Floyd's The Wall, with students on a treadmill ending in a sausage grinder.

When I was in college and grad school, I didn't need any loans, so I entered the workforce basically debt-free.  My parents (middle class) were able to afford supporting my undergraduate education and I contributed some by working in the summers.  When I entered graduate school, my research assistantships paid me enough to be able to avoid student loans.  I was also the beneficiary, after my military "sabbatical," of G.I. Bill benefits.  Well-paid, satisfying employment wasn't guaranteed but those good jobs were available.  I entered the workforce in 1976 with my doctorate, and have enjoyed 40 years of very satisfying work as a severe storms meteorologist. Sadly, the opportunities I had are more or less no longer available.
 
Times have changed since those halcyon days, and definitely not for the better.  University tuition and in-residence education are decreasingly affordable.  Many scientific research institutions are now being run on what amounts to a business model and permanent secure employment is disappearing.  The way much research is done now demands short-term projects (3 years or less) with a list of deliverables, mostly "low hanging fruit" rather than risky long-term efforts with high potential value but without the luxury of guaranteed results. Increasingly, employees must find soft money for themselves even to have a job at all.  Workers hired to soft-money projects can be out of a job by the end of the funded project; last hired = first fired. Predatory capitalism is running literally out of control in our big-time universities and even in our research institutions,  forcing everyone - students , faculty, and scientists - into the business line.
 
Given the way things are going now in this nation, anti-intellectualism and anti-science attitudes are on the rise within the swelling ranks of the educationally-deprived.  This is not an environment that portends a growth of support for scientists and other intellectuals.  In fact, as it stands, they're labeled "elitists" and their findings called into question by the scientifically ignorant.  People seem to have forgotten the important role science and technology have played in the superpower status of the USA.  Investing in, and encouraging educational growth in science and technology is the "capital" that has made the nation strong and a world power.  Business people are too tightly focused on P&L sheets to appreciate the notion of investing in our youth for the long-term health of our nation.  They see only the profits from their predation and have no reason to curb their greed based on income from the middle and lower classes.  They're contributing little or nothing to our long-term stability and success.  They have no concern for the future.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

PhDs as a ticket for admin?

Vickie and I were discussing this topic on our western trip and it triggered a lot of memories about my experiences with the educational system.  I mentioned some of this in my guide to grad students, but this includes some new thoughts since I wrote that "book."

First off, the way the education system works (at least as I've observed it) at the doctoral level is that the the primary emphasis is on demonstrating one's ability to do meaningful original research in your chosen field.  Often, a student's dissertation research is their first example of original work (i.e., not dished up as a project by one's major professor).  If the topic is assigned by their advisor, then the student will graduate as a "cripple" - having not yet shown themselves they can do research without assistance from their advisor.  A key element is that the idea for the project must be entirely their own.  From where I've sat, I've seen a lot of cases where this important requirement is not met, leaving the graduate to have to learn how to do this on the job!  This can have a bad outcome for everyone.

OK, I don't want to belabor that point here, but it's important to understand that a dissertation is often the first chance a student gets to show what they can do entirely on their own (as it would be in many research jobs they might have).  Doctoral education emphasizes research over classroom learning - or it should!  Sadly, many new PhDs go out into the world unprepared for the reality of the workplace and so often "disappear" into other situations.  As I was completing my doctoral dissertation, I recognized the absence of any experiences during my academic program that would have helped me overcome the hurdle of being able to dream up projects that are both solvable and worth solving.  There are lots of worthwhile projects that are essentially unsolvable, and lots of solvable problems that aren't worth the effort.  I think this is a teachable skill, but virtually no one teaches it.  For someone dedicating a career to scientific research, it seems to me that a course or two that offered a chance to begin to develop experience at formulating research topics would have been helpful.  My advisor wisely gave me no personal advice on how to do this, so I was forced to learn it entirely on my own.  Which I did, fortunately.  As did most of his students.

Now, however, we come to the primary issue of this blog post:  in many places of professional employment, it's becoming common at high levels of administration to require that applicants have a doctoral degree.  My concern focuses on the value of a standard doctoral program with its emphasis on scientific research when employed in a high level of administration.  I believe most PhD programs do virtually nothing to prepare a student for an eventual administrative position.  Of course, there are some people with research backgrounds who seem "instinctively" able (i.e., untrained) to be great managers.  A lot of being a good administrator is tied to having excellent "people skills" in order to support the working-level researchers (who can be quite idiosyncratic!). There also are "business" skills associated with finding and allocating resources for a research team.  Teamwork skills (as both a leader and a follower) are very important, as are communication skills (both verbal and written).  It's important for every administrator to understand that s/he can't be a success if the staff worker-bees aren't successful at their research (or whatever).  Administration is not productive work on its own, but it can be a big factor for those who actually perform the productive work for the organization (e.g., scientific research).

All too often, I see people promoted from the ranks of working-level science into admin positions for which they are grotesquely unsuited.  This usually breeds discontent among the working scientists and can be disastrous for morale.  Often, the only way to rid the staff of such incompetent managers is to promote them (and they are already well beyond their level of incompetence).  In my case, I resisted the temptation to "climb the ladder" because it would have necessitated my having little or no time to do the research I love.  Why give up something I enjoy to do something for which I have virtually no training and no desire to do?  It made no sense to me, just as having a PhD be a qualification for an administrative position makes little sense.  The primary benefit to having a former researcher in charge of a team is that they should be able to relate to the workers - but all too often, researchers promoted from the ranks become terrible managers or, at least mediocre in their position because they lack the necessary skills.

If someone aims at becoming an administrator in a scientific or technical field, there should be courses and seminars at the doctoral level that offer them some content they'll clearly need in such a position.  If a doctoral program has no such supplementary material (i.e.  in addition to the research experiences), then that diploma should not be viewed as suitable to apply for an administrative position.  Alternatively, some intensive training program for a management position could be offered - provided it's not just a "feel good" exercise that everyone passes.

Although I never had any ambition to be a manager, I've seen for myself the havoc that a bad manager can wreak within a professional program.  I may not be qualified for, or interested in having a management position, but I think I can recognize both good and bad management.  In science, my experience is that good ones are relatively few and far between.  If you find a good one, stick with him/her!