Thursday, July 3, 2014

Thoughts on the eve of the Fourth of July

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 30, 2014

A logical dilemma for a scientist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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