Monday, March 5, 2012

Why do I do what I do?

I just finished giving two presentations to two different groups within a few days of each other.  I think my talks went over well - at least based on the comments I received afterwards.  I also just finished reading a wonderful book about the 1925 Tri-State tornado that I'll soon be reviewing here.  And this nation again suffered a major outbreak of killer tornadoes (on 2 March).  This all got me to thinking about why people seem to appreciate the messages that always underlie my presentations.  It's my belief that the reason people respond favorably to my talks is that I say what I'm thinking, without sugar coating or resorting to innuendo to make a point.  I'm saying what many people want to say, but most of them feel too inhibited to say such things.  I decline to be so inhibited.

It was a long-standing goal of mine (since high school, actually) to be able to say what I think without having to censor myself for fear of offending someone.  When I earned my doctorate in 1976, I decided I'd reached that point, and I've never looked back or regretted that decision.  Yes, being outspoken has earned me a certain amount of enmity in certain circles and probably cost me a promotion (that I didn't really need).  The fear that many people have about speaking their mind may be unfounded in at least some cases, but that fear of retribution for being outspoken leads to self-censorship.  Of course, some people may indeed be punished in important ways for speaking their minds.  If so, I feel fortunate to have not been punished in any way that really mattered to me.  What I'm grateful for is that I've been able to be an advocate for certain things and a public critic of other things without any fear of retribution.  So when I take a clear and unequivocal position on something, there often seem to be people who let me know they're pleased that someone has been willing to say what I've said.  Of course, not everyone agrees with my positions.  For some reason, most of them decline to debate the issue with me, or even to disagree with me openly.  I much prefer they say what's on their minds, and I certainly have no means to visit retribution on anyone for disagreeing with me openly.  So the relatively scarcity of opposition bothers me because I always learn things from a rational argument, even when the outcome is that we agree to disagree.

Recent tornado outbreaks have reinforced many of the things that a few of us have been concerned about all along:  the danger of staying in mobile homes, the greedy opposition of the mobile home industry to any legislation that would seek to do something about the problem, the greedy opposition of the construction industry to changes in building code that would make buildings more resistant to damage from tornadoes and high winds, the management practices that inhibit the National Weather Service from doing the best possible job, and so on.  As a science professional, I feel obligated to share my opinions and my reasons for having them (typically involving scientific evidence).  I consider that a requirement associated with my duties.  Anything less would be a disservice to those who are depending on what my science can contribute to the welfare of society (worldwide).  My real obligation is to my science, not to any particular organization to which I might belong.  If I stay true to the science, the rest takes care of itself.

Reading the terrible tragic stories associated with tornadoes makes my participation in this science much more personal to me. The stories from the 1925 Tri-State tornado have an eerie similarity to stories about the most recent tornado outbreak.   I already know that I can't possibly understand how tornado survivors feel, simply because it's never happened to me.  For me, it's no longer possible to see these powerful weather phenomena in the same light as when I first began my career.  I began to grasp (however dimly) the devastating impact they can have on real people after the Union City tornado of 1973, when my chase team drove into the damage in the wake of the tornado (see item #32 here).  It adds an entire new dimension to realize that science isn't just a game I'm playing with the atmosphere - it's a process that can contribute something important to the society that has paid my bills for all these years.  I can give something back and offer some hope that in the future, society can be better prepared to prepare for and deal with these events.  Therefore, it's my duty to be as outspoken as possible.  I simply can't tolerate anything that would inhibit our society from doing its very best to respond to these tragedies in the most effective possible fashion.

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