Monday, June 30, 2014

A logical dilemma for a scientist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jim McGinn said...

You've been flushed. Fly fast little bird.

Chuck Doswell said...

Your flush is my honor, Jim.

George Hrabovsky said...

As a physicist, and something of a severe weather researcher, I am astonished that a physicist would be so blatantly stupid, other than the fact that scientists are humans and thus fallable. Clearly the author of the web site on Solving tornadoes has no understanding of basic thermodynamics, much less the intricacies of fluid dynamics. This person probably thinks a surface is a physical thing—like the top of a dinner plate—rather than a mathematical construct that we use to test things like stresses. One question clearly showed his ignorance, when he asked if the energy of tornado damage can from convection or the jet stream—as if they were mutually exclusive... So, Chuck, you are not alone in your attitudes. We ignore these crackpots at our peril. Ridicule based entirely in fact is a good way to go, assuming they don't retaliate with something more than words...

Jim McGinn said...

George: Actually I'm an expert on thermodynamics. Ask a specific question. (Fat chance that) Calling something a "mathematical construct," is a rhetorical trick. Yes, a surface must be a physical thing. (Gasses don't have a surface, BTW. The laws of physics are not optional.) You are a vague nitwit that will never take a stand on anything. All you losers got is vague rhetoric that can never be tested. Pure pseudo-science.
Lastly, address the issue you evasive twit: Should the relative weight of moist vs. dry air be measured? (Answer the frikin question.) Why not? What are you afraid of? The truth?
Science frauds always make general claims so that nobody can pin them down on anything.

Chuck Doswell said...


I am allowing your comment to be posted, as it illustrates nicely what I'm talking about. However, any further attempts by you to post here will not be accepted. Additional discussion with you is not going to be worthwhile.

Chuck Doswell said...

For the record: the molecular weight of water (H2O) is 2*(1)+16 = 18 (grams per mole). The molecular weight of air (mostly N2 [approx. 80%] and O2 [approx. 20%]) is 0.8*2*(14)+0.2*2*(16) = 28.8 (grams per mole).

If there is water vapor in the air, the water molecules displace some of the N2 and O2 molecules within a given volume, resulting in a lower molecular weight for the mixture of air and water vapor, the exact value of which depends on the mixing ratio of water vapor to dry air. Thus, air containing water vapor is less dense than air without any water vapor.

Chuck Doswell said...

Again, for the record, when water vapor condenses to a liquid, the droplets of water are indeed more dense than air. The density of liquid water is about 1000 kg per cubic meter, whereas air density is about 1.2 kg per cubic meter. Liquids are much denser than when in their gaseous form - there are many more molecules per unit volume when gases condense to form liquids.

Chuck Doswell said...

Finally, a large mixing ratio for water vapor in air is about 10 g per kg of dry air. If all the water vapor in a given volume were to condense to liquid water, the mass of the water in the volume would not change. However, because the water is now in its much denser liquid form, it could then fall out of that volume, leaving behind only dry air. The weight of the remaining air would be reduced by about 1%.

In the process of condensing, the water would release latent heat - water has a latent heat of 2260 kJ per kg. For a mixing ratio of 10 g per kg, that would amount to 22.6 kJ of latent heat per kg of dry air. The release of that latent heat within that volume would warm the remaining dry air.

To determine the amount of warming, we need the specific heat of dry air, which is 1.0 kJ per kg per deg C. Thus, the release of latent heat by the complete condensation of 10 g of water vapor per kg of dry air would raise the temperature of the air by 22.6 deg C!

It is this large release of latent heat from condensing water vapor that powers thunderstorms.

Dennis Cain said...

I am a “crackpot” and “ignorant Christian” by your judgment. In this blog you state some things that I whole heartedly agree concerning some of the aberrant ideas from “outsiders”. However, in the middle of your blog you took a left turn and stepped into territory in which you have no understanding.

You have no understanding of the ineffable holiness of the triune God. You have no understanding of the eternal God, the son, Jesus Christ nor the depths He descended to enter into this world as fully God and fully man (hypostatic union). You do not understand Jesus’ purpose was to offer himself as propitiation. You have no understanding that His resurrection validates everything that He said about himself and everything said about Him.

You will do well if to stick with your area of expertise and not step into realms you do not understand.

Chuck Doswell said...

Dennis Cain ...

I don't know you, so I can't "judge" you to be a crackpot or ignorant christian at this time. I know christians I don't deem to be ignorant, so if you're claiming that it's my view that all christians are ignorant, you're simply showing you don't know me at all.

As for not understanding your christian beliefs - I plead guilty. I never understood them - they make no sense to me and never have, and so I never accepted the core beliefs I was taught. I assume thr "left turn" you're referring to is my disdainful comments about the pseudoscience of creationism. One need not be a biblical scholar to reject the unscientific nonsense of creationism. Whole websites are devoted to that task. If you believe in creationism, perhaps that's an indicator that you are willfully ignorant about science. The extent of our interaction doesn't allow me to make a definitive statement at this time.

In any case, I feel quite free to express my opinions in my blogs about anything - not just meteorology. You have no authority to prevent me from doing so.

Anonymous said...

Dennis Cain...

I understand perfectly what you're saying bro. It makes perfect sense.
Jesus said... "I'm going to create man and woman with original sin. Then I'm going to impregnate a woman with myself as her child, so that I can be born. Once alive, I will kill myself as a sacrifice to myself. To save you from the sin I originally condemned you to."

Yep. Makes a lot of sense. You're certainly not a crack pot ;-)

RJ Evans

Dennis Cain said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.