Wednesday, December 30, 2015

US Building construction practices, revisited

In 1999, after the 03 May tornado outbreak of that year, I wrote a web essay on home construction practices and how that affects wind damage.  The recent December tornado events have re-awakened this topic, and it seems appropriate to offer some additional remarks after 16 years have passed with virtually no comprehensive change in construction practices.

The damage surveys I (and others) have done since then have continued to reveal not only the inadequacy of existing building codes, but also just how widespread violations of existing building codes are.  The existing codes remain, for the most part, pegged to a 90 mph standard for resistance to structural damage from winds.  The operational EF-scale puts 90 mph winds (a 3-second gust) at the low end of EF-1 tornadic winds (86-110 mph).  According to this standard, an EF-1 tornado (or anything stronger) is considered to be capable of initiating structural damage.  This isn't a very good standard for most of the United States east of the continental divide.  If a home is poorly anchored to its foundation (which is, unfortunately, all too often what is observed in American frame homes, despite such practices being below code standards), an 80 mph wind might well be able to slide it off the foundation, resulting in total loss of the home.

The reason for the widespread occurrence of code violations (in all buildings, including schools, not just homes) is simple.  Although structural enhancements can be added to new construction for about $1000 or so, the real issue is the time it takes to add those clips and strapping (see Fig. 1) to the frame and roof.  The added cost to the homeowner (passed on by the builder), amortized over a 3-year mortgage, is trivial.  For homebuilders and contractors, the key to profit is speed of construction.  In far too many cases, this means "shortcuts" are taken by the builders.  For instance, the code standard for attaching the wall plate to the foundation is the use of "J-bolts" embedded in the concrete, with washers and nuts tightened onto the threaded end of the J-bolt (see Fig. 1).

Figure 1.  An example of strapping used to attach a wall stud to the wall plate and the use of a washer and nut to attach the wall's bottom plate to the concrete foundation via a J-bolt.  Toe-nailing the stud to the bottom plate is poor practice (but acceptable by most current building codes) because it offers little resistance to forces acting to lift the wall.  The strapping uses nails (or screws) that are at right angles to lift forces, thereby creating much more resistance to those forces. 
Image courtesy of Tim Marshall. 

Surveys after tornadoes reveal too many examples where builders have installed the J-bolts, but failed to attach the washer and nut to the end!  That makes the J-bolt completely useless but of course it saves time!  Another common practice is for builders to be granted an "exemption" (by local governments) from codes requiring the use of J-bolts, allowing builders to use powder-driven cut nails for attaching the wall bottom plate to the concrete foundation.  This results in an extremely weak attachment (Fig. 2) when lift forces are applied to that attachment, as they are in tornadoes.

Figure 2.  A powder-driven cut nail left behind in the foundation after the wall bottom plate was torn away.  Note the damage to the concrete caused by the process of driving the nail through the board into the concrete.  Sometimes this shatters enough of the concrete to utterly negate the attachment of the nail but it would not be visible to the builder.  Image courtesy of Tim Marshall.

In my surveys, I've seen that shoddy, sometimes appallingly weak construction practices are widespread.  Buying an expensive home is no guarantee of high quality construction.  We see about as many code violations in expensive homes after tornadoes hit as we see in low-cost tract homes.  We also have seen that in many (not all) cases, the homes rebuilt after tornadoes are no better constructed than the destroyed homes they replaced.  The lessons learned from previous tornado event evidently are not being used widely to change construction practices.

If the standard for wind resistance to structural failure were raised in the tornado-prone parts of the US (everything east of the continental divide) to 120 mph (in the middle of EF-2 tornado winds - 111-135 mph), this would result in a substantial reduction in tornado damage.  Structural damage would primarily be associated with EF-3+ tornado events.  Flying debris in tornadoes from structural failures initiates considerable additional damage and increases the casualty risk to anyone caught in the tornado (Fig. 3).  Enhanced construction codes would thereby reduce tornado damage considerably and also lower the casualty risks.

Figure 3.  Damage from the 03 May 1999 tornado in Oklahoma City/Moore, OK.  Note the prevalence of broken 2X4 timbers within the debris - these are structural frame elements that may have been carried considerable distance by the winds.  FEMA image taken by C. Doswell.

Note also that even in the strongest tornadoes (EF-5), only a tiny fraction of the damage path experiences the strongest winds (at most only a few percent of the total damage area).  And EF-3+ tornadoes represent only about 10% (or less) of all tornadoes.  Limiting damage to parts of a tornado track with EF-3+ winds would represent a significant reduction in the amount of structural damage, and reduce casualties, as well.

At the very least, there's a need for more rigorous enforcement of building codes.  It would be an important advance if all buildings actually were built according to the existing building codes, to say nothing of additional benefits from enhanced code requirements.  We as a nation need to be benefiting  from our experiences with tornadoes, not ignoring the lessons they've provided.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Just who is responsible for your safety in tornadoes?

Media coverage of the late fall/early winter tornadoes that have been occurring this year includes their entirely too common efforts to seek out and give voice to those victims who say "the tornado struck without warning", despite the facts almost always showing precisely the opposite.  In most examples, timely forecasts and warnings were issued in advance of the event, sometimes literally days in advance!  I've seen this happen almost without fail every time we have major tornado impacts - over the course of my 40-year career, this has been an element in media coverage virtually in every example.

I consider this to be irresponsible reporting.  According to their clearly biased view of things, if people actually received a warning, that's not news.  It's only newsworthy when the perception is that the meteorologists dropped the ball and failed in their responsibilities.  The media should be ashamed for perpetuating the public misconceptions about the weather information meteorologists are providing for them.  So how does this false perception arise so frequently and consistently?  Why can such interview subjects be so readily found?

I've not done the surveys and research, but it seems pretty clear to me that when people interviewed by the media make the counterfactual "it struck without warning" statement, what they mean is that no one contacted them personally and told them that they needed to take shelter.   Sometimes they say that they didn't hear any tornado sirens, as if that's the only medium by which warning information can be conveyed.  Sirens can reach people who are outside in the vicinity of a siren - they're not the best and most important mechanism for disseminating tornado warning information!

What this mostly indicates to me is that some people - often those whose story is featured by the media - are simply not accepting any responsibility for their own personal safety.  In many cases, there's information about tornado threats that's available many hours, and even days, in advance of the storms.  The main point of providing this information is simply to let people know that there's a heightened tornado threat and that they need to maintain situation awareness during the time before storms develop and approach them.  Although such forecasts are not inevitably followed by major tornado events, they're sufficiently accurate to serve their intended purpose of helping people be prepared should the need arise.  Even in a major tornado outbreak, most people are not affected.  It's only the unlucky few who find themselves in a tornado's path.  But everyone should be responsible enough to keep up with the developing weather situation in cases of an enhanced threat level.

Once storms develop, the warnings are issued - in most cases, at least 15 minutes or so before the impact of the approaching tornado.  The warnings are not perfect and many of them turn out to be false alarms.  As noted, even when tornadoes do occur, the vast majority of people are not struck.  The state of the science simply won't permit perfectly accurate, extremely precise warnings and the number of perceived false alarms can only be reduced slightly by applying the best knowledge science has to offer.  The cases with the types of storms that produce the powerful tornadoes responsible for most fatalities are already handled pretty well by the forecast/warning meteorologists.  The primary problem with reducing false alarms is that it increases the likelihood of failing to warn for a tornado.  So what do people want?  Relatively frequent false alarms, or relatively frequent failures to issue a warning for an actual tornado?  Those are the only options.

It's not now possible, nor is it ever likely to be possible, to issue tornado warnings only for people who eventually will be struck by a tornado.  That's an ideal very far from the reality of what we meteorologists can do.  Even given that, however, it's evident that tornado forecasts and warnings have been saving lives here in the US since they began in 1952.  That means many thousands of fatalities have been prevented by a system that isn't even close to perfect!  While the forecasts and warnings can be improved with improved science, the existing products are not "broken"!

There's an asymmetry in the penalty function for tornado warnings.  There are ZERO tornado fatalities in a false alarm!  However, failing to issue a tornado warning for a fatality-producing tornado has a much higher penalty.  The result is a tendency to over-warn.  Tornado warnings are biased toward overforecasting tornadoes because meteorologists have a binary decision to make:  a warning forecaster either warns or s/he doesn't warn.  It's possible to reduce the bias for overwarning by issuing warnings with graded threat levels - in effect, a probabilistic threat forecast - rather than a yes/no forecast.  But such a system has yet to be implemented operationally, in part because of public demand for a virtually nonexistent certainty regarding what will happen in the weather.

In today's world, most people have many different options by which they can receive tornado forecasts and warnings.  Almost all of them require the user to make the decision to become situation aware.  People cannot simply assume zero responsibility for their own safety without running the risk of suddenly finding themselves in mortal danger.  Information about tornado hazards is readily available but people must make the effort to seek out that information without having to be told to do so.  They must plan for tornado hazards well in advance and take it on themselves to seek out information about what they can do to reduce the threat to their lives (and even their property).

The media need to become responsible for telling an accurate version of tornado events, rather than continuing to reprise the counterfactual scripted version of events that reinforces the myth of "it struck without warning".  The media have some responsibility here and to my mind, many of them are failing to carry out that responsibility.  The men and women who dedicate their lives to providing the public with the most accurate and timely weather information they can muster deserve our respect and admiration for their selfless efforts to inform.  They do not deserve to be portrayed as failing in their duties when the facts are clearly contrary to the media script.  Their failure to achieve perfection is far from being entirely their fault.

Monday, December 14, 2015

How do we defeat the terrorists?

I could probably expend a fair amount of effort discussing why the tactics we've been using to "defeat" terrorism won't work.  In essence, killing terrorists only serves to recruit more terrorists.  Vengeance is a bad strategy, as violence only calls forth more violence in return, in an endless cycle of futility and death.  It's the tool the terrorists employ, and if we employ it, we cede the advantage to them.  They're better at it than we, and that's something I'm pleased about.  I see no particular reason for pride in being better at violence than anyone else.

Today, I saw a FaceBook post about someone here in the US who did a random act of kindness to a muslim at a Starbucks, by paying the tab as a gesture of support for muslims.  It was an act of personal defiance to the Trump-ish fear-mongering against muslim Americans and muslims seeking refuge here.  It dawns on me that kindness and love for our fellow human beings is the only way we defeat terrorism.  The whole machismo thing about "kill 'em all!" and hostility toward muslims isn't working and never will, so the way to defeat them is to make it so clear that the west is not at war against islam, that the terrorists become utterly repugnant to most practicing muslims.  Without a support base, terrorist groups whither and die.  After all, islamic terrorism is aimed at both creating fear (and many of us have allowed that to be a successful tactic) and convincing muslims that the christian west is their enemy.  Our vengeance tactics will never eliminate the threat.

Is it not the christian way to love your "enemies"?  Is the parable of the "good Samaritan" not a cornerstone of christianity?  Has our jingoistic machismo simply forgotten the admonition to "turn the other cheek"?  Is hatred and xenophobia the christian path?  What I know about christianity is that hatred is not the important message of christianity.  In earlier times, christians sought to proselytize at swordpoint, as we now seek to export democracy at gunpoint.  It simply doesn't work that way.  Moderate christians long ago gave up the mentality that drove the Crusades.  Unfortunately, some muslims have yet to learn that lesson.  Certainly not all muslims, though.

It's no secret that I'm not a christian, but an atheist - an atheist born and raised in a predominantly christian world.  As an atheist, it appears to me that many Americans, in their politically-encouraged virulent hatred of muslims (or other ethnic groups, including jews and minority races), have completely forsaken the peaceful christian message of love for our fellow human beings.  They prefer violent suppression of the legitimate desires of minorities and vengeance visited on our 'enemies' as the answer to differences.  Yes, I suppose the terrorists laugh in derision at any sort of proposed peaceful response to their evil deeds.  But did not Ghandi preach of the sacrifices along the path of nonviolent opposition to oppression and evil?  Was his approach not ultimately successful?  Did not Martin Luther King preach the same message of nonviolent opposition to injustice?  Were his efforts a dismal failure?  Surely history vindicates optimism concerning the path of nonviolence.

Tribalism is an 'instinctive' evolutionary characteristic of humans that has become a major impediment to human progress.  Imagine the colossal waste of our world resources in wars! How much of value has been destroyed, including human lives?  Although loyalty to one's tribe can lead to many good things that benefit one's tribe, the concomitant distrust and hatred for those in other tribes has become a liability in an increasingly connected world where we're more and more dependent on each other.  We humans have to overcome our evolutionary tendency for distrust of those who differ from us in some superficial way or another.  Race and religion are foci for tribalism and yet both are increasingly irrelevant in the modern world.

I think the path to a world where terrorism is no longer a viable threat starts with the very christian ideals that so many christians seem to have discarded in favor of vengeance and violence.  If we show, not by our words, but by our deeds, that we're willing to accommodate other races, other religions, other 'tribes', then the terrorist message can be repudiated in the most powerful way possible.  If we respond to hatred with love, we can demonstrate to the muslim world that the terrorist message is a false one.  We can show by our actions that the principles we claim to live by are not mere empty words but a powerful plan for mutual accommodation.  Live and let live.  We can, in fact, revel in the diversity of our different cultures without the need for one culture to claim superiority over all others.  We have no message we need to export at gunpoint.  The only thing that truly matters is that we're all human beings, trying to cope with what life offers to us as best we can, while enjoying the simple pleasures we all share:  good food, good friends, family support, and a joy in being alive.

Give peace a chance.  Repudiate violence.  Resist the temptation of the terrorists to respond in kind.  Love one another.  In the end, love can conquer hatred.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

More on freedom of speech

Followers of this blog already know that I am a big supporter of freedom of speech (see here and here and here).  Free speech is a complex topic and I think all of us struggle with it from time to time.  It isn't so easy to define its limits.

The primary principle of free speech is that the freedom must be granted to everyone, especially those who say things with which we disagree.  Detestable groups like neo-Nazis and religious crypto-fascist fanatics must be allowed to express their opinions if the freedom of speech principle is to have any real meaning.  If we only grant that right to those with whom we agree, then we have transformed the principle into its exact opposite.  The principle is based on the assumption that in a free nation, the people don't need protection from ideas with which they disagree - we can choose for ourselves to accept or reject what others say.  Those of us living under laws protecting free speech can even tolerate groups we know would abrogate the principle of free speech were they to gain power, because we're confident that our way is the better way and most Americans will remain unconvinced that denying rights to others is what we're all about.

That said, however, there are limits to free speech.  One cannot legally incite violence, or threaten people's lives and freedoms with words.  The limit is that anyone's free speech is bounded by that territory in which speech is harmful to others in a physical way.  When speech infringes on someone else's rights and welfare, that speech must be considered unlawful.  Just because what we say offends or angers someone doesn't mean they need "protection" from that speech, but when the line is crossed into physical harm resulting from that speech, then it has gone too far.

Of late, the political rhetoric from hate-mongers like Donald Trump and his ilk has become increasingly inflammatory.  Talk of "cleansing" the land of those with whom they disagree, erecting walls, carrying out deportations, etc. has been increasingly divisive and is right on the border (pun intended) of stepping into the territory of illegal speech.  The USA has always prided itself in its principles even though many Americans have trouble with granting those principles to those coming from different cultures and different "racial" stock - bigotry and xenophobia have been with us since the beginning.  And one reason they're thriving of late is the rhetoric of self-serving politicians (or would-be politicians).  There has always been an undercurrent of bigotry and xenophobia in this nation, directed at African-Americans, Latinos, gays, Jews, Muslims, etc.  This disgraceful tendency's star rises and falls over time - like the membership in organizations like the Ku Klux Klan - and it seems of late that the national mood is increasingly bigoted and xenophobic. This seems to be in response to politicians inflaming such thoughts in their efforts to find enough votes to come to (or stay in) power.  Muslims and Latinos have been targeted for exclusion and even proposed deportation.  In some circles, even vigilante violence is being considered as a remedy for the perceived pernicious influence of racial and cultural minorities.  This is wrong and yet such ideas find fertile ground in some circles within the USA.

This inflammatory, hateful rhetoric is mostly within the bounds of what is protected speech, although some is perilously close to being illegal incitement.  Even when such rants stay within legal bounds, it must be accepted that there are consequences that flow from those words.  As we have seen, individuals have been so "inspired" by divisive speech from politicians that they have taken it upon themselves to commit violent acts, up to and including murder, against the targets of their anger.  The explanation of these incidents as isolated "nut cases" just doesn't wash.  The politicians want to be allowed to say what they want, but they simultaneously want to deny any responsibility for the consequences of their words.  This is unacceptable.

In today's America, I see an increasing polarization and inequality.  It's a formula for disaster: the terrible possibility of civil war looms.  Just because our nation survived one civil war doesn't immunize us from another, as world history shows us.  We simply can't stand by passively when the political rhetoric incites people to violence.  We must speak out against it.  Count me among those doing so.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Can the problem of mass shootings ever be "solved"?

Lately, the issue of gun control has again become topical on social media in the wake of recent mass shooting deaths.  It seems likely that very few people have changed their stance in response to the current spate of incidents.  And it seems likely that social media posts for and against increasing gun control will continue to be posted after events happen - and the US continues to experience a high frequency of mass killings with firearms.  Evidently the highest in the world, along with a large per capita percentage of gun owners.

I won't be rehashing all the old arguments for and against enhancements to existing gun regulation.  It seems pretty clear that existing gun regulations have been notably ineffective at preventing mass shootings.  There are three fundamentally different motives for mass shooting incidents:

1.  Violent acts aimed at promoting some political or religious objective
2.  Violent acts committed by individuals who feel they have been done some wrong
3.  Violent act committed by people engaged in criminal activities

I'm not including herein any discussion of mass suicides using firearms.  The incidents under #1 could be considered to be terrorist acts.  The perpetrators often (not always) are willing to die in carrying out their violence, owing to a deep commitment to their cause, which can make it difficult to stop.   Terrorism promotes the causes of governments or religious sects by instilling fear in their target population.  Killing innocents is not only acceptable, but is often precisely the aim of the terrorists.  Those engaging in terrorism see no meaningful distinction between innocent bystanders and military forces, insofar as they have little or no concern for anyone opposing their cause.  A violent response to terrorism only aids the terrorists in recruitment of new terrorists to their ranks.  Yes, self-defense is a reasonable response if one becomes involved in a terrorist attack, but it does nothing to prevent more terrorist attacks.  Violence only begets more violence, in a perpetual circle of pointless vengeance.

Incidents under #2 are especially troubling because we aren't mind readers and have no capability for precognition (as in the movie Minority Report).  Most gun owners have no criminal record and are not certifiably insane.  By far the majority of them can experience personal setbacks (like divorce and being fired) without "going postal" - and they'll have little or no trouble passing a background check to obtain firearms and ammunition legally.  A small fraction of them suddenly lose control and lash out with violence, many times with substantial firepower (e.g., assault rifles with large-capacity magazines, thereby enhancing their ability to kill many people).  Many of them are not very concerned about being killed in the process of their vengeance, which (again) makes them difficult to stop.

Criminals, of course, recognize no particular obligation to obey any laws, and are more than willing to obtain firearms illegally.  These days, it seems that despite stiff penalties for crimes committed while armed, most criminals carry firearms.  They use them to ward off any efforts at self-defense by their victims, and to engage in "warfare" against their competitors in the crime business.  Most are not very concerned about casualties among bystanders.  Many firearms in the hands of criminals are obtained from non-criminal gun owners, often by those breaking in and entering homes (and businesses) to commit robbery.  The "war" by police on criminals can result in racial profiling (leading to excessive police violence) and "collateral damage" to innocent bystanders.  Most of them are not willing to die and, in fact, carry firearms as a self-defense measure (!) during their criminal activities.

Yes, it's a truism that guns are but a tool, and they don't kill without being in the hands of a human (except for firearm accidents).  Nevertheless, the rampant proliferation of guns in American society has many impacts that lead directly or indirectly to mass shootings.  It's easier to obtain a firearm than it is to become a legal motor vehicle operator (which includes penalties for irresponsible behavior, including forfeiture of the driving privilege).  Contrary to a popular slogan, an armed society is not a polite society - it's a violent society!

It seems impossible to have a dialog on the issue of controlling firearms with the aim of reducing firearm violence.  The topic is a deeply divisive one, with advocates on both sides adamantly resisting one another, challenging positions with the same old talking points without ever changing anyone's mind.  The NRA has been such an effective lobby that any hint of enhanced gun control cannot make it through Congress, so national enhancements to gun contral seem out of the question.  There's considerable variability among states regarding gun control, and at least superficially, there doesn't seem to be any consistent result associated with different levels of gun control.  It's a complicated topic!

What we need is research into the topic of mass shootings, but in fact, legislation to prevent such research by the Centers for Disease Control has been pushed through Congress and signed into law.  The issue of mass shootings is a challenge that has resisted any simple-minded "solutions" proposed and implemented.  Spewing the same old talking points back and forth is pointless but we seem unable to get beyond the talking points and slogans on both sides.

We owe it to ourselves and our children and grandchildren to stop the pointless arguments and come together for a real dialog.  Let most ideas at least be on the table, and let's think scientifically about what might work (or not).  If after due consideration and on the basis of credible evidence, some notion is unworkable or ineffective, put it aside and move on.  It's not worth repeating that this or that solution will not end all gun violence.  Real solutions don't have to be 100% effective to offer real progress on reducing the frequency of mass shootings.  It's not realistic to think that we can ever reduce the frequency to zero, so let's put that aside and start putting our efforts into finding methods to cut down on the massive number of mass shootings we have every year, without any requirement that it be 100% effective. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The evil of white privilege

Some recent news has revealed that some police have been planting drugs as evidence in prosecuting young black men and, as we have seen on numerous occasions, have been all too willing to use deadly force (or excessive force) preferentially on blacks and latinos.  Yes, of course, this sort of racist behavior is not typical of all (or even most) police officers.  And yes, of course, being a cop is dangerous and involves having to make split-second decisions.  But the widespread existence of tolerance for this behavior when it occurs is simply shameful.

I grew up in a lily-white Chicago suburb, with virtually no blacks or latinos and only a few Jews.  Hence, I had almost no experience with racial/cultural diversity.  My first real contact with a diverse sample of Americans came when I was inducted into the Army.  This turned out to be an unexpected benefit of my military service!  In that experience, I actually got to know and become friends with a quite diverse group of people.  The stereotypes I had heard as a boy were shattered by the reality of the experiences I had, and the main lesson I learned was that race is a meaningless notion.  Knowing that someone is within a particular ethnic group is to provide no meaningful information about that person.  You can only make meaningful judgments about someone after you get to know them personally and see by their actions just who they truly are.  Most evolutionary biologists recognize that race has little or no substantive scientific value - apart from superficial physical characteristics and cultural differences, you simply can't assume you know anything useful about a person when you recognize their racial background.  Default assumptions are often faulty.

As a white heterosexual male, I've experienced virtually nothing of the subtle and continuous discrimination that racial and gender stereotypes enable.  No opportunities closed to me.  No unjustified assumptions about my intentions and abilities.  No barriers to the chance to pursue my dreams.  It's only recently that I've begun to understand and appreciate the impact of the pernicious and pervasive treatment that many people experience on a daily basis as a result of white heterosexual male privilege (or "white privilege" for short).  Imagine, if you can, my white heterosexual male friends, the effect of being stereotyped on a daily basis, by police, by employers, by strangers, and many others while simply going about the business of living.  Imagine being seen by many as likely to be a drug dealer, a gang-banger, a vicious criminal, an ignorant laborer, an incompetent, a thief, a lazy welfare cheat - all by people who actually know nothing of who you are and what you truly represent as a human being.  All they see are stereotypes.

When someone speaks up to defend themselves from this sort of treatment, they're often labeled a racist (an ironic twist) and a dangerous trouble-maker!  The victims of this contempt and even hatred from certain segments of American society have to explain to their children why they're being subjected to ill treatment, having done nothing to deserve it.  They have to train their children in how to deal with police who should be protecting their rights, not violating them.  They have to take special care in how they dress, how they talk, and how they carry themselves in public to avoid the unwarranted default assumptions tied to racial and gender stereotypes that can lead to violence being visited upon them.

This is mostly invisible to most white, heterosexual males.  It's apparently not happening to us, so it's convenient and comforting to assume that white privilege doesn't really exist; to conclude that it's just some "politically correct" notion being foisted upon us.  We don't feel "privileged" because our privileged status is so pervasive, it's simply a constant background note.  Only if we could spend time in someone else's place might we come to understand and appreciate what white privilege does for us on a daily basis.  If we can picture what white privilege does for us by recognizing the impact of its absence, then we might be more willing to denounce the practice wherever and whenever it occurs.  The police tend to line up in a "blue wall of silence" when they see it happening - no doubt by a misplaced loyalty to their biased colleagues and by the threat of being ostracized by those colleagues who engage in discriminatory practices.  The majority of good cops should welcome the effort to cleanse bad cops from their midst.  As the old saying goes ... evil is perpetuated when good persons stand by and say or do nothing to prevent evil.

If we become close to someone with a different racial/gender background, we can learn from them just what their actual experiences have been.  It's not quite the same as experiencing it for oneself, but when hearing about what your friends actually have to deal with, anyone can begin to recognize white privilege for what it is - simple prejudice without any real justification.  Stereotypes and default assumptions about someone are not a justifiable basis for genuine human interaction.  For my white heterosexual male friends:  get to know your diverse acquaintances.  Among them you'll find people you want to have as friends, and some you don't want as friends - in the identical way your white heterosexual male acquaintances include people you like as well as those you don't like.  Pre-judgment on the superficial basis of race or gender is simply not consistent with reality.  Put such notions aside, if you can, and reach out to find friends among all your acquaintances.  You can learn much from their experiences, if you're willing to listen and try to understand.

A footnote:  if someone makes the default assumption that I fit some stereotype of a white heterosexual male (i.e, a "redneck"), without actually taking the time to know me as a person, that would also be a form of prejudicial discrimination.  Hence, there are some people who are not white heterosexual males, who actually are racists.  Sadly, such prejudices can be found within any group of humans.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

What distinguishes us from terrorists?

Clearly, opening our nation up to resettlement of refugees from Syria (and elsewhere) exposes us to the risk of allowing a few terrorists to infiltrate the US by masquerading as refugees.  And if one were to be a victim of an attack by one of those terrorists, I can only imagine the rage that someone might feel about the situation.  But let's just think a bit deeper about what's going on.  The refugees are fleeing the war and persecution by radical muslims - most of them have experienced directly the terror of living in fear of the radical theocrats.  They only seek to escape the horror of these brutal theocratic regimes in their own nations.

What actually would be accomplished by turning these refugees away?  Is it currently impossible for terrorists to gain entry into the US by any means other than hiding among refugees?  Will any effort to offer help to these needy people be outweighed by the possibility that some of them are actually terrorist infiltrators?  It seems obvious to me that turning our back on the refugees likely will cause some of the refugees to become supporters of the terrorists, if only as a means of self-defense.  Closing our borders will not prevent terrorists from gaining entry - some are already here and more will arrive even without this heartless rejection of people in desperate need.  It seems pretty evident to me that declining to accept refugees carries with the loss of any claim to being morally superior to terrorists (who also have utterly no concern for the suffering of the innocent).  We become no better than the terrorists by not caring about what agonies will be inflicted upon the innocent among the refugees.

It seems to me that the fundamental problem is that refusing the pleas of the refugees indicates an utter lack of empathy - the ability to put oneself in the situation of another person, and to understand thereby what they must be experiencing.  Empathy is the path to resolving differences and recognizing how you might feel in someone else's position.  If you feel religiously inclined, empathy and the compassion it creates is one of the messages in the new testament - the parable of the Good Samaritan comes to mind quickly.  We can be so consumed with tribalistic fear of people from other cultures that our xenophobia dominates our compassion, which is precisely the opposite of the message attributed to jesus christ.  That message is simply one of empathy and the recognition that we are all the same underneath all the tribalistic superficialities.

I have no wish to see more terrorists enter the US.  I would not want to see more Americans become terrorist victims.  I can understand the concerns, but what I'm trying to suggest is that turning our backs on people seeking our assistance is not the way to address the threat of terrorism.  In fact, it actually is a recruiting tool for islamic jihadists, who want to spread the notion that the West is waging war, not on terror, but on islam.  It really isn't in our best interest to shut the door on the refugees.  Further, history tells us that many people coming to America from foreign soil become the most fervent of American patriots.  If we refuse aid to the refugees, or discriminate against them if they are allowed in, we're only giving aid and comfort to the terrorists.  Our own self-interest should be considered here, and a xenophobic reaction to the refugees is contrary to that self-interest.  Shutting them out will not solve the challenge of terrorists on American soil.

Some have said that compassion is a weakness that will be exploited by the jihadists, who will be laughing at our weakness even as they kill us.  But is this putative weakness not the same "weakness" of jesus himself, as claimed in the new testament?  Is this "weakness" not one of our greatest strengths, as a nation?  What does the inscription on the Statue of Liberty say?
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
Surely these refugees are "tempest tost"!  Do we truly want to wash our hands of that message?  The message we should be sending is that secular America occupies the moral high ground, and is distinguishably the moral superior to the terrorists.  We should be putting our American (and christian) ideals into real-world practice, not honoring them with lip service even as we dishonor them with our lack of empathy for the suffering of others.  Ultimately, that's a better strategy for fighting terrorism than xenophobic tribalism and bombs.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Religion doesn't get a free pass here

With all the anger and sadness that's been generated by the terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut, many seem to want to describe the terrorists as demonic, inhuman animals and downplay any role that religion might play in islamic terror.  We always de-humanize our "enemies" to justify inflicting violence on them.  Well, religion doesn't get a free pass, here.  The Koran is full of calls for murder to be visited upon unbelievers (including, by the way, muslims guilty of "apostasy").  Islam is pretty far from a religion of peace if you simply read the primary source of their religious dogma.  The jihadists are giving their koran a fundamentalist reading, and accept the koran's words literally, rather than cherry-picking only the parts that seem peaceful and loving.

ISIS is openly seeking to return to a 7th-century version of islam, with its harsh shariah laws and aggressive conquering of territory in order to impose islam on everyone in full force.  They seek to hasten the islamic apocalypse, not unlike their christian counterparts. [They're quite willing to use modern weapons and the Internet to further their goals, however, in a classic case of fundamentalist hypocrisy.]  These people are not simply lunatics or wild demons - they're intelligent people who have adopted a particularly virulent perspective on islam and believe in it with what is clearly religious fervor.  That doesn't make them lunatics or demons - only people guided by a misguided flavor of their religious faith.  That version isn't shared by most muslims around the world.

They're too weak to impose their will in "set piece" military actions and are too small a minority to impose their will politically, but rather use the classic tactics of the weak:   guerrilla warfare and terrorism.  They seek to enlist more muslims to their cause by inducing the non-muslim world to wage war on islam, thereby recruiting new followers from among muslims angered by collateral damage from the absurd, unwinnable "war on terror".  The fear and anger they create by their terrorism is working.  The "solution" many in the West favor is that of military action, rather than seeking some other way to solve the problem of terrorism.  It should be evident that violence in return for violence is almost never a real solution to the problem (despite the prevalence of vengeance as an excuse for violence in so many movies), but we return to it again and again because vengeance is easily justified, despite the historical evidence that violence only creates more violence in return.  An eye for an eye leaves both sides blind.

I'm not saying we should simply surrender to violent attack.  We can and should defend ourselves, and we should seek out and bring justice to those who commit terrorist acts.  But as I've mentioned in the past, we should not limit our our responses only to military ones.  We must address the causes of terrorism, and one of the causes is religious fundamentalist extremism.  Religion cannot be divorced from many extremists acts (bombing abortion clinics, for instance).

Very few christians today would be willing to enlist in or otherwise provide support for a crusade against muslims - historically, of course, the Crusades were precisely a war by christians on muslims to "rescue" the Middle Eastern "holy land" from the "barbaric" muslims.  To the best of my knowledge, muslims have not forgotten about the Crusades, and it's understandable if they see the Western war on terror in different terms than we do.  The fact is that christians and muslims not only share the same deity (under a different name) but both consider the biblical Jesus to be an important part of their faith.  Further, beyond their religious dogma, the fundamentalist, extreme believers in both christianity and islam are really brothers under the skin.  For the most part, christians today dismiss those willing to commit violence in the name of jesus and christian dogma as "not true christians" or simply "nut cases".  Most modern christians want to wash the christian faith clean of any violence (despite its prominence in the bible - as well as the koran), and don't want to accept any responsibility for violence done in the name of christianity.  I see both religions, christianity and islam, as cut from the same cloth.  Most modern muslims also repudiate the violence and hate contained in the koran, not unlike the majority of modern christians who repudiate all the ugliness contained in the bible.  It's within those groups of folks that we might be able to find a solution to terrorism done in the name of religion.

Many of those same christians, however, of late are seeing islam as being responsible for the terrorism its extremists inflict on the world (which, by the way, also is being visited on other muslims as well as christians).  This is spawning the very hatred of muslims that the terrorists want to create by their deeds.  I've said many times, we're losing the war on terror, because (among other things) we've allowed ourselves to get worked up into favoring solutions of violent vengeance rather than a rational consideration of the causes of terrorism and what we ought to do to try to find real solutions rather than inflicting hate and vengeance on all muslims.  I'm not saying it's going to be easy.  I'm fresh out of magic bullets and I'm definitely not in favor of singing kumbaya around the campfire with terrorists.  We have to work out a non-violent solution between moderate muslims and the moderates in the non-muslim world.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Debates on the definition of an atheist

Today I saw a post about a Pew survey of atheists that said "Although the literal definition of 'atheist' is 'a person who believes that God does not exist' ... 8% of those who call themselves atheists also say they believe in God or a universal spirit." There are issues with this!  Many atheists will dispute that definition, saying that an atheist is a person who does not believe a god-deity exists.  Superficially similar, these are quite different definitions.  The key notion is that belief means an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists.  Belief in a deity, therefore, implies a state of mind with 100% confidence in the existence of that deity.  Similarly, if atheists believed with 100% confidence that God does not exist, then their belief would be the mirror image of a believer's faith in God.  Atheism could be seen as just another sort of religion, then.

What's wrong with belief, in either case, is that there's no absolute proof of the Abrahamic God's existence - or non-existence.  If such proof existed, there'd be no need to discuss this topic at all.  Everyone would already know for certain that God's existence or non-existence was an obvious fact.  If someone believes either claim with unshakable confidence, they must do so in the face of inadequate evidence to support absolute confidence in their claim - either belief would, therefore, be an act of "faith" where by faith I mean "belief in the absence of evidence".  Belief of either sort is, therefore, not rational.  

On the other hand, if your definition of an atheist means someone who does not believe in a deity (the Abrahamic God, Odin, Amun, or whatever), then it would be an outright contradiction in terms to have 8% of atheists say they believe in God or a universal spirit (whatever that might mean).  If someone claims to be an atheist and then turns around and says they're a theist clearly doesn't understand the definition of an atheist.  The funny thing about people who call themselves atheists is that we wind up disagreeing with each other a lot!  A continuing point of disagreement among atheists is the definition of atheist, as evidenced by the Pew survey result and the comments it has engendered among atheists.  Evidently, 8% of people claiming to be atheists don't understand the term! 

Many people who actually don't believe in a deity don't want to accept the atheist label, for reasons of their own, so they choose not to call themselves atheists.  Agnostic seems to some to be a less negative label than atheist.  An agnostic is someone who claims not to know for sure, but at the same time typically does not believe in God.  Agnosticism is a claim about a lack of knowledge, not a claim about belief.  A few atheists are absolutely certain there's no deity, a faith I don't share with them.  They would be "gnostic" atheists, and there are large numbers of comparable "gnostics" among theists.  I consider myself an "agnostic" atheist, as do most of the atheists I know.

It's quite possible to claim not to be affiliated with any organized religion and still be a theist (or deist, if you prefer).  [This was the case for several of the framers of the US Constitution, most of whom favored a "wall of separation" between church and state, to prevent the tyranny of one religion over all others.]  There are some who regularly attend organized religious services but in their own minds actually do not believe in a deity - closet atheists, if you will.  The issue of whether or not you participate in organized religion isn't relevant to this discussion, but not having a religious affiliation is in no way equivalent to atheism.

Most of the atheists I know prefer the definition I mentioned above - atheism is the negation of belief, not a belief.  There are many analogies:  baldness is not a hair color, off is not a television channel, not collecting stamps is not a hobby.  These analogies are intended to illustrate the simple point that unbelief simply is not a belief.  Unbelief leaves open the logical possibility that at some point in the future, absolute proof of a deity's existence could be found.  As things stand now, any logical discussion of God's existence (or non-existence) is limited to the degree of confidence (i.e., excluding absolute certainty) one might have in concluding that God exists (or does not), based on whatever "evidence" we can muster.  Absolute positions are irrational in such a situation, because that degree of confidence just can't be justified.

It's common in science that two scientists can look at the same data and come to very different conclusions.  Both may have what they consider to be good reasons for their opinions, but unless the data are unambiguous and of an extremely compelling nature, they may continue to disagree.  Science, contrary to a common misconception, doesn't deal in truth.  Absolute truth doesn't exist in science (although it does in mathematics).  All scientific ideas are subject to question and revision, typically when new evidence comes to light.  Scientists never claim to know all the answers, in part because to know all the answers would be the end of science!  No one has to "believe" in science.  There are vast amounts of compelling evidence that science works in a practical, factual way that doesn't involve faith at all.  The thing about facts is that they're facts whether or not you believe in them.
I've described elsewhere the sort of evidence I'd find to be compelling regarding the question of God's existence.  In the absence of that sort of compelling evidence, the way the world works seems to me to be entirely consistent with what you would expect if there was no such deity.  The Abrahamic God is full of contradictions and is irrational, immoral, and even has human failings (e.g., jealousy!), despite the claims of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence.  That deity makes no sense to me.
  I have an expanded version of my position regarding religion elsewhere, if you're interested.  Thus, it seems highly unlikely to me that the Abrahamic God exists, and the burden of proof lies with the theists, who are making the dubious positive claim that the Abrahamic God does exist.  I'm only making the statement that I'm not buying in to that claim.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

A Culture of Contempt

Some recent FaceBook postings brought up an old notion that's been something of a hot button issue for me.  In this case, it was a comment by an IT guy about how stupid the people were who s/he was supposed to be helping.  I understand perfectly how frustrating it might be to see computer-challenged people doing what are really dumb things - like not trying a reboot before calling for the IT folks, or forgetting to plug something in, or not backing up important files.  I can see that might motivate such disregard.  However, IT folks are a type of administrative support for the workers in the organization.  They don't actually do the productive work of their organization - their job is to help the productive people who do the actual work for which the organization exists in the first place.

Is there anyone who hasn't been frustrated with some snarky bureaucrat who rejects your applications because you're not filling out the paperwork correctly, or who stonewalls you in your efforts to do something because there's some sort of a rule against it?  What they do is give you all the reasons why you can't do something, rather than offering to work with you to find a way you can accomplish your intentions.  This shows an obvious contempt for the people who come to them for help.  From small businesses to giant corporations and massive government agencies, the presence of the bored, sarcastic, sneering admin type is a near universal.  Not everyone in such positions is that way, of course, but a widespread culture of contempt exists in the workplace (and elsewhere), at least in my experience, and I know many others have experienced it.

When I was in the Naval Reserve, my monthly drill weekend job was to work in the training office.  Our office existed to help all the sailors in the unit set up their training plans - mostly arranging for their annual (usually in the summer) period of "active duty for training" and obtaining the materials for the correspondence courses they needed for rank advancement.  I had no prior experience or training for this job (it was all OJT), so I found myself emulating the contempt for their customers of the other guys in the training office, rejecting their paperwork because they hadn't filled it out correctly and so on.  When our division officer (a very good officer and a friend) got wind of what we were doing, he called us all in and proceeded to read us the riot act about our attitudes.  I was filled with shame over what I'd been doing.  How many times had I been on the other side and encountered that contempt from some officious prick of a bureaucrat?  Needless to say, I (and the other guys in the training office) changed my ways and tried to be as helpful as possible.  The other sailors didn't know our job very well, of course, so it became our job to help them be successful in their goals, no matter how silly their efforts might seem to us.

One more anecdote in a related vein:  when I was a grad student, I wrote a computer program that, because I was such an incompetent coder, took about 12 hours to run on the machine we had at the time.  [Later, I was able to change the code to make it at least 10 times faster, but that's another story.]  The students who were the computer operators asked me to stand by while the job was running for a while in the evening, so if something happened early and the job crashed, I might be able to fix my mistakes and get the job done that night.  So I had a lot of time to sit and chat with the student operators.  One night they told me about one of the senior scientists in the lab was always unsatisfied with what the operators did, complaining to their supervisor about them all the time, often for things that weren't actually their fault.  So, naturally, the students found many creative ways to sabotage his jobs!  Tit for tat, baby!  Considering I could see for myself that the students were doing everything they could to make my project successful, I was horrified to hear about some self-centered scientist who treated them so badly.  I made it a point to mention how much I appreciated their efforts when I talked with their supervisor, in fact.  It makes no sense to create unnecessary trouble for people you depend on to get your projects done.  If for no other reason than self-interest (to say nothing about being a decent human being), you should always treat your "subordinates" with respect because your success depends on their help.  So the contempt culture can work both ways.

Very few of us work in a vacuum.  Virtually all of us depend on others to get our work done (right down to the maintenance staff), or we serve others who need our help.  There's no good reason to treat others with undeserved disrespect.  Every person in an organization has a job to do that is important to that organization.  Otherwise that job wouldn't exist.  Why treat co-workers with routine contempt?  There's no valid reason to feel a sense of superiority associated with you and your work, as you look down at whatever anyone else does.  This sort of disregard for the work of others is unfortunately pretty widespread.  Personally, I find that if I treat everyone as an important part of the work we all are trying to do, it pays dividends for me in many ways.  Furthermore, it simply feels good and seems to be the right way to behave.  You only get respect if you give it!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Strange bedfellows? - Meteorology and Social Science

I recently gave a talk at the National Weather Association's Annual Meeting in OKC on the role for social science in the weather forecasting business.  This is something I've long been saying is needed, as a result of my long friendship with the late Al Moller.  It was Al who first made it clear to me that just putting out a good forecast is only the start of a chain of events that must take place if the forecast is to be of any value to the users.  By the way, I should give credit to the late Allan Murphy for his insight that the value of a forecast is never determined by the forecaster, but by the user of the forecast.

Anyway, I've presented this concept in several talks, usually with a tweak or two based on my most recent thoughts regarding the topic.  For a forecast to be effective, it must be:

1.  Honest
2.  Accurate
3.  Received
4.  Understood
5.  Believed
6.  Helpful in making a decision

Only the first two items are under the control of forecasters.  Once a forecaster transmits a forecast, the rest of the steps depend on others.  Forecasters are paid to forecast, not to do all these other things.  Meteorology is what they are educated and trained to do.  We shouldn't expect them to become social scientists, as well!  Moreover, most forecasters know little or nothing about how to go about helping the users make good decisions.  Note that most users have to account for many other factors that go into making a decision besides the weather, and most forecasters know little or nothing about those other factors most of the time.  Weather information is just a part of the decision-making process.  The thing is that progress in forecasting is written in to the system, so while this blog is mostly about social sciences, the meteorology will be forging ahead, without doubt.

The existing watch-warning system, which began to take form in the mid-1960s, has saved many lives.  It's not a "broken" system, despite the fact that it likely is far from perfect.  I think I can justifiably assert that no one actually knows just how effective it is, but there are obvious declines in fatality and injury rates that seem to justify the existing system.  If we intend to change it, let's follow the famous dictum (often erroneously attributed to the Hippocratic Oath): First, do no harm!  Don't make stupid bureaucratic decisions in haste, just for the sake of doing something, without first having a clear picture of the shortcomings of the existing system and having a proposed change that has been given something like peer review - some sort of vetting process that includes participation by both forecasters and users, who after all are the ones with the most at stake in any changes.

We meteorologists need help from social scientists: experts in communications, psychology, economics, etc., where we have no expertise.  We need participation from them so that any studies that review the current situation and any proposals for change will take human factors properly into account.  We need surveys of what the public knows and actually does under the current system, over a very broad spectrum of users, since "the public" is pretty far from a monolithic block.  Ideas for changes need to be given thorough testing to see if they actual improve upon the existing system by helping users make their own decisions.  We do not necessarily need to be telling users what to do!!  What we really need is to learn how to make our products more effective at helping users make good decisions with the information we can realistically provide for them (including uncertainty information!)

Although the movement to get social science into meteorology has been percolating for quite some time, and has become something of an "in" thing to advocate, what's been absent is much real collaboration between meteorologists and social scientists to produce actionable results.  We don't need more conferences, workshops, and other "feel good" exercises.  We need folks to roll up their sleeves and start getting some useful results to provide a scientific basis upon which to move forward.  No more kumbaya songs around the campfire, please.  Let's make something real and substantive, not just endless palaver.  When we make changes, they need to be tested to make sure they're doing what we wanted them to do.  The process should be one of never-ending evaluation and revision (see below).

If social science is to have a role in weather forecasting, and I think it should, then what might it look like?  Does it make sense to have a token social scientist in every forecast office?  I think that makes little sense.  What about a Social Science Center, comparable to the Storm Prediction Center?  I think the NWS will have heartburn in setting up something like this.  What do they know about the skills needed to make it be effective?  How would they know to pick the right people and what resources to provide for them?  I think the best path for integrating social science into weather forecasting is for the NWS to have a budget that includes the funding specifically designated to support ad hoc collaborative efforts with social scientists, who would stay with their own institutions but form working partnerships with meteorologists  to answer specific questions.  This gives the most flexibility and avoids the creation of isolated "lone wolves" or some bureaucratic agency that would be a stranger in the strange land of weather forecasting.

Further, the NWS needs to understand this effort is not some sort of one-time project.  It must be a continuous process, because the social, cultural, technological, and meteorological landscapes are constantly changing.  We shouldn't have to wait decades for it to become painfully clear the system needs to evolve in the face of change.  However, it will take some time to gather data about what works and what doesn't work with the current system, and even more time to develop and test proposed changes.  Finally, before implementing anything, there should be an extensive public education campaign to help users understand the forthcoming changes.  Let's not make the same mistake we made when probability of precipitation (PoP) was implemented in the mid-1960s.  We're still paying the price in credibility for that one!

If this is done right, it will be a boon to weather forecasting and our whole society will reap the benefits.  Please, let's not screw it up this time!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The recurrence interval - a PR disaster for meteorology

The terrible floods that occurred recently in South Carolina have triggered the usual brouhaha over the notion of the "recurrence interval", with the SC event having been said by some to be even more rare than a "1000-year" event.  The general public mostly takes this to mean at least 1000 years should pass between such events, so it seems weather disasters of this sort must be "freak" occurrences, demanding some sort of special explanation.  Unfortunately, a ready "explanation" for this event has been that it was caused by anthropogenic (i.e., human-caused) global warming (AGW).  Even some people who should know better have jumped onto the AGW bandwagon with regard to this event.  I'll return to that shortly, but first I want to try to dispel some of the misunderstandings associated with recurrence intervals.

Atmospheric events are not "periodic" - that is, they don't occur at regular intervals in time.  If that were so, weather forecasting would be a heckuva lot easier and considerably more accurate.  Hence, the perception that a recurrence interval is based on some periodic atmospheric behavior is simply a misunderstanding of the term's meaning.  Forecasting is difficult, in part, precisely because weather is most definitely not periodic!

Recurrence intervals generally are calculated by fitting some sort of statistical distribution (e.g., a Poisson distribution) to the existing record of events.  It doesn't take much knowledge to realize that we don't have a record of heavy rainfall events longer than about 200 years (in the USA), so how can we come up with a meaningful definition of a "1000 year" event?  The answer is simple - we can't. To do so is an exercise in extrapolation, and extrapolation is well-known to be a risky thing to do.  If we had 10 000 years of data for every location in the USA, we might well be able to have a plausible definition for a 1000-year event at all those places, but such data simply don't exist.  What we can say, from our knowledge of the occurrences we have observed, is that the SC floods were an event that is outside of prior experience (in SC).  This doesn't mean it's a "freak event" for which some exotic explanation must be offered.  Curiously, given that weather events happen when the ingredients for such events are brought together, the chances for a similar event to occur soon after one event has already happened are relatively high.  If the weather brought those ingredients together on one day, there's an increased probability that it might happen again soon after.

For flash flooding, in particular, it's not at all uncommon for heavy rain to occur on two (or more) days in succession.  The first event saturates the soil, creating the hydrologic conditions that make it possible for a flash flood on the second day.  This has happened many times in the history of flash floods around the world.  It seems silly to refer to an event as a 100-year (or 1000-year) event when it happens on consecutive days!  It's quite acceptable to use recurrence interval terminology in the context of communication among scientists, because (hopefully) they understand what the term means.

Fortunately, the notion of recurrence intervals is almost never mentioned in the context of major tornado outbreaks or high-impact tropical cyclone landfalls.  Most people (at least in the USA) seem to understand that these are not "freak" events, but rather occur at irregular intervals when their ingredients come together.  They occur somewhere in the USA every few decades or so ... frequently enough that the public is reminded of the possibility that such things can happen.  Major rainfall events also occur at irregular intervals, and often enough that people should get the right message:  really big events can happen somewhere in any given year.  But for some reason I can't explain, the reference to recurrence intervals is common with respect to heavy rains, and so this issue comes up over and over again.  It's a public relations nightmare that we should stop inflicting on ourselves.  In scientific papers, discussion of recurrence intervals is more acceptable, but making public statements about them is just confusing and makes us look silly.

Finally ... was this event "caused" by AGW?  In a word ... NO!  The event happened because the ingredients for a flash flood-producing rainfall event were brought together.  Nothing particularly exotic was required and those ingredients were not, on their own, remarkable or unusual.  It's always rare for really heavy rainfalls to happen in any given location and this was an example of a somewhat atypical weather pattern in which the flash flood-producing rainfall ingredients to be brought together.  The threat of an additional event - landfall of Hurricane Joaquin - was never realized, fortunately.  Nevertheless, the numerical weather prediction models were quite accurate in anticipating the heavy rainfall event in SC days in advance; the forecasts for heavy rains were quite good, as a result. 

A somewhat more nuanced description of the role of AGW in this event is that AGW is thought by many climate scientists to make it likely that extreme flash flood events will become more frequent.  This event is consistent with that prediction but, on its own, doesn't provide "proof" that AGW was a contributing factor.  There are indeed scientific studies that suggest that heavy rainfall events are becoming more frequent.  Thus, it's appropriate to say that this SC flood case is one more piece of evidence to that effect.  But to say that this event was caused by AGW is simply not scientifically acceptable.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Abortion, murder, morality, and reality

I expect that this one will elicit strong reactions from certain circles, but here goes ...

Recent discourse on social media has brought to light what seems to be a telling argument against any abortion:  that it's a form of murder and, therefore, is considered both illegal and immoral.  I have no reason to dispute that abortion kills an unborn person.  I prefer not to go down the path of debating the details of when "life" begins or what differences exist between a fertilized egg and a person.  I'm happy to leave those arguments to others.

To me, the fact that abortion kills an unborn person is the critical issue, and most opponents of all abortion adhere to the notion that all life is sacred and we should never allow murder to be legal.  I'll get back to that shortly, but I want to consider just what it might mean to assume that all life is sacred.  For those of us that eat animal flesh, we kill animals (or, have them killed for us and prepared in neat packages at the grocery or served to us in restaurants) all the time in order to feed on their flesh.  That bothers some people so much that they become vegans, eating only non-animal foods.  But of course, that usually involves consumption of vegetables (and fruits, of course), typically "killing" the vegetation (or at least interrupting its growth) in the process.  There literally is no way to avoid ending life in order to survive.  In many cases, humans have interfered in the natural genetics of animals and plants to maximize our food production.  Many so-called "primitive" peoples went out of their way to "thank" the food from which they derived sustenance in order to survive, through rituals comparable to saying "grace" before a meal.  It's the way of nature that life feeds on life, killing the food in the process in order that we can steal its energy to keep us alive.  So just how sacred is all life to us?  Ever eaten lobster or shrimp or crayfish?  How do we eat them?  Often by plunging them alive into pots of boiling water!  Guess we don't consider their lives to be all that sacred!  Other examples abound, including such things as "trophy" hunting.  All life is, quite evidently, not all that "sacred" to us if "sacred" is taken to mean that we should never take that life to serve our own purposes.

Can we somehow survive by some means other than killing other life?  Unless we learn how to accomplish photosynthesis in our own bodies, this seems to be an unobtainable ideal.  At best, we can try to be grateful for the contribution to our lives by our food products and seek to minimize any suffering associated with their domestication and sacrifice of their lives.  That's another whole debate of its own and I'm not wanting to go there in this blog.  OK, so whatever idealism might be behind the notion that all life is sacred, we must nevertheless kill to survive and the lives we destroy to sustain ourselves are testimony to the fact that such idealism is hopelessly ... well, idealized, and impossible to achieve on a comprehensive basis.

So, if all life isn't sacred, is all human life sacred to us?  The fact of the matter is that if we examine our actual behavior and how we respond to our circumstances, all of us can find circumstances in which the taking of human life (murder) is considered acceptable.  For example, most of us feel that if someone threatens us with bodily harm, then it's morally defensible to respond to that threat by killing the threatening person.  Sometimes we refer to that as "self-defense" or sometimes as "justifiable homicide".  I'm pretty confident that by far the majority of the proponents of ending all legal abortions (which won't end illegal abortions, naturally) would accept that murder in self-defense (or in defense of others) is quite acceptable.  There might be some debate over what circumstances murder is justifiable, but it doesn't change the fact that murder is "legal" and morally acceptable to almost all human beings, under certain circumstances.

And of course, there's the vast apparatus we have developed to kill humans in large numbers - war.  Although there are "rules of war" that can be applied to define circumstances in which killing is not permissible in war, there's the usual debate over just what those circumstances might be.  Many people believe that murdering POWs or non-combatants is not acceptable - and yet it happens in all wars on all sides.  For war fatalities (that is, the person(s) killed in the process), there's no essential difference.  They were murdered, plain and simple.  Losing your husband (or father or son, or their female counterparts) to an enemy's bullet has exactly the same impact as if it were done by some deranged criminal on a murder spree.  So long as we fight wars for reasons (always of arguable merit), it's pretty obvious that this is yet another situation in which we don't let our notions of the sanctity of human life interfere with killing people "justifiably".

Another exception to the rule is when the death penalty is imposed for certain crimes.  Just what crimes deserve the death penalty is always at issue, naturally.  People vary considerably in their positions about the death penalty.  There's always a sort of inconsistency about the state killing people for killing other people and that bothers many opponents to the death penalty.  Some governments feel quite expansive about what constitutes a capital crime, a concept that hardly has remained constant over time.  Most of us no longer feel that a pickpocket deserves to die, for instance.  Being opposed to Communism or Islam might still get some people killed, however.  Not all countries or states have the death penalty, of course, but whether your government(s) allow it or not, many people (some of whom would be numbered among the extreme opponents of all abortion) would find it morally acceptable to murder a child molester (or a cop-killer or a serial murderer or a serial rapist or an abortion doctor), for example, even though the laws of the state have no legalized death penalty.

So, finally we arrive at the issue of abortion.  Are there no possible circumstances under which abortion might be acceptable?  Not according to some people, virtually all of whom do feel that murdering humans can in fact be quite justifiable - under certain circumstances.  Of all the arguments against abortion, I find the "slippery slope" argument among the weakest of them.  It seems to me that abortion should not be considered the primary means for birth control, but many (not all, of course) opponents of abortion on religious grounds also are opposed to birth control measures.  Nevertheless, if someone can find it possible to accept murder under certain circumstances, they shouldn't be uncomfortable with abortion under certain circumstances.  The only thing to debate is just exactly which circumstances justify abortion.  Virtually all the opponents of abortion under all circumstances on the "sanctity of human life" argument are being inconsistent and hypocritical.

OK - let the debate begin.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

For the record: Understanding what probability forecasts mean

For reasons mostly related to the failure of the National Weather Service to develop a pre-release information campaign, the public has been puzzled by the meaning of probability forecasts ever since the Probability of Precipitation (PoP) was introduced in the mid-1960s.  That oversight can't be rectified easily but as we contemplate changing the content and wording of forecasts, that lesson looms large - or it should.  The concept of uncertainty is best expressed as probability, but other ways (such as odds) might be more intuitive for most of the public.

Expressing a rain forecast in terms of probability (e.g., a "40 percent chance of rain" - which is equivalent to a 60 percent chance of no rain) always refers to a specific space-time volume.  That is, the forecast is for a specific area during a particular time span.  It might be for a particular metropolitan area during the next 12 hours, for instance.  If you don't know the the forecast's space-time volume, you don't yet know enough to grasp the intended meaning.  (There's a 100 percent chance that it will rain somewhere on the Earth in the next 10 years!  There's a zero percent chance of rain within the next 5 seconds when the skies currently are a cloudless blue.)

Another factor to consider is the "lead time" of the forecast;  this is the time between when the forecast is issued and the beginning of the valid time for the forecast's space-time "window".  Today's forecast for today is much more likely to be accurate than today's forecast for tomorrow.  In general terms, the limit of predictability for weather forecasts is somewhere around 7-10 days, depending on the weather situation.  Some forecasts are more difficult (and, hence, more uncertain) than others.  At the predictability limit, the forecasts become so uncertain, they are no more accurate than forecasting the climatology - the average of all weather events for that date.  They are said to have zero "skill" (which is not the same as accuracy - skill is relative accuracy - compared to some simple forecast, such as persistence, climatology, or some objective forecasting system).

You also need to know what event to which the word "rain" applies.  In most cases, this means enough rain to be "measurable" (typically, 0.01 inches).  The event being forecast could be different from that, but most PoP forecasts are for measurable rain.  In any case, it's another essential piece of the puzzle.  The less frequent an event might be, the less confidence forecasters can have in predicting it.  The probability of measurable rain is considerably higher than that of a rain event producing 10 inches (roughly 254 millimeters) of rainfall.

So, armed with knowledge of the space-time volume for which the forecast is valid and the nature of the forecast event, the probability value is a quantitative expression of the confidence that such a rain event will occur somewhere, sometime within that space-time volume.  The level of certainty (or uncertainty) can be estimated objectively using any of a number of methods (spread of ensemble members, Model Output Statistics, etc.) or subjectively.  Subjective probability estimates can be calibrated with experience, such that all calibrated forecasters looking at the same data would arrive at similar probability estimates - subjective probabilities need not be understood as mere "guessing"!  Assuming they follow the laws of probability, subjective probability estimates are legitimate expressions of forecaster confidence.  Although some forecasters might be more confident in their abilities than others, if the forecasters are calibrated properly, they will mostly agree about their probability estimates.  Real forecasters can become reasonably well-calibrated in about a year, given proper feedback about their forecasting accuracy.

If the forecast is for a 40 percent probability (two chances out of five ... or four out of ten), then any one forecast can be neither wholly correct or wholly incorrect.  The only times when a probability forecast is either right or wrong is for forecasts of zero and 100 percent.  We measure how good the forecast is by its "reliability" - a perfectly reliable probability forecast of 40 percent means that on the average, it rains somewhere within the space-time value 40 percent of the time whenever that 40 percent probability forecast is issued.  When it rains, of course, we should expect higher probability values, and lower values when it doesn't rain.  Perfect forecasting would consist only of (a) 100 percent probabilities when it rains, and (b) zero percent probabilities when it doesn't rain, but that level of certainty is impossible (for many reasons, both theoretical and practical).  Thus, it rains one time out of ten when the probability forecast is for 10 percent (assuming reliable forecasting).  Rain on a 10 percent probability is not only not necessarily wrong;  it is just what we expect to happen (10 percent of the time!) when we make such a forecast.

Note that if the forecaster knows nothing (i.e., has no confidence), then the best forecast to make is for the climatological probability in that space-time volume.  This is usually a much lower value than 50 percent (a value that many people might incorrectly interpret as "pure guessing") - if the climatological value for the given space-time volume on that day of the year is 20 percent, that's the best possible "know nothing" forecast.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Economic systems and how they've changed us

Today, I just found out our dishwasher motor/pump (all one assembly that can't be repaired - only replaced) has failed.  Since the price to replace it is a significant fraction of the cost of a new dishwasher, we would probably be better off buying a whole new one.  A similar thing happened to our clothes washer a while back.  Manufacturers now sell insurance on appliances: they call it an "extended warranty" where we customers are betting they didn't sell us a piece of junk that will fail prematurely.  Their knowledge of their products' failure rates are built into the cost of the extended warranty, so they still make a profit on the average when their products (or services) fail. What's their incentive to make a quality product? Pride in their product? Hah!! It's all about the almighty profit motive.  The bottom line is more important than quality, nowadays.

Things didn't used to be that way.  Many manufacturers took some pride in the quality of their product (or service) and backed it up with support for the customer when problems arose.  Things weren't manufactured to stifle maintenance back then.  Rather, the products could be repaired for relatively low costs most of the time, until the product just plain wore out from long use.  The clothes washer we replaced recently was bought when we lived in Kansas City, underwent a few reasonably-priced repairs, and eventually gave up the ghost after 37 years of use!  Repair is becoming an obsolete concept. We buy some product, it craps out, we throw it away, and buy a new one. That's where corporate America has gone, and we're forced to ride along.  Similar issues arise for service businesses.  Who likes their choices in the Internet/phone/television provider business?  Most people I know hate their service providers but have no real choice because none of them produce quality service!

The way the big corporations can sell us affordable products is to design them to fail in such a way that we can't afford to fix them.  They've outsourced the actual manufacturing facilities in many cases, so they pay low wages to foreign workers who are so poor they have to accept low wages.  Even "Communist" China has followed this path, not permitting workers to form trade unions and keeping wages artificially low.  Workers have little incentive to do a good job, since they're often paid piece work wages, not by the hour.  The shoddy products are shipped to the US, the corporations push extended warrantees on the customers, who feel the need to be protected from catastrophic premature product failure.  It's become something of a scam.  And the river of money flows up the corporate ladders.

As "free market" capitalism developed, it became clear that an unbridled profit motive puts a lot of pressure on companies having pride in their products and concern for their employees.  Mega-corporations like Wal-Mart squeeze out the smaller businesses that try to make a decent product and stand behind it.  Once they've crushed the small fry, then they're free to plunder their customers, and they wrap themselves in the flag in the process.  Capitalism at work, right?  Ignore their takeover of government by buying off the politicians, convincing us that the way to paradise is through the "free market" even as the corporations tap the government teat for tax breaks and subsidies to pad their profits.  And they're huge, rich proponents of de-regulation.  Guess where that has lead us!  Remember that housing bubble that burst in 2007 and its subsequent fallout?  It was the removal of most restraints on the "too big to fail" lending institutions that created it.

Teddy Roosevelt took on the corporations in what was called "trust busting" that established some regulatory control over big corporate "trusts" (monopolies), which had grown fat and rapacious.  As it stands, we're in desperate need of some trust-busting in today's world.  The big companies have created a "plunder economy" whereby the public is robbed for the benefit of corporate management.  Not much trickles down to the workers in this kleptocracy, and virtually nothing for the customers.

Conservatives like to describe capitalism as a sacred part of the American way, a path that has inexorably leads to prosperity for all.  Properly regulated capitalism has in fact been successful in building a reasonably high standard of living - but the US is no longer at the pinnacle of living standards.  The profits we've created for the military-industrial complex through nearly constant warfare have left us bereft of surplus cash, even as corporate management salaries soar to incredible levels.  It's capitalism that has exploited the public, even as conservatives scare the public with the bogeyman of socialism.  Socialism has become a frightening word to many conservatives, laden with negative associations.  Anything that might cause the corporate profits to decline is buried in an avalanche of cries of "socialism" and "interference in the free marketplace".  This conveniently ignores that the marketplace is no longer "free" - but the big companies get most of the welfare, not the disadvantaged.

I'm no fan of unfettered socialism, either.  Socialism has inherent disadvantages that inevitably show up over the long haul.  The Chinese understood those disadvantages well enough to "relax" their form of socialism in a way that looks remarkably similar to the American kleptocracy.  The only entity that has the clout to rein in the greed of the corporations is the government.  Responsible regulation of any economic system can produce a workable environment for the majority of people - the only difference is that the regulations would need to be adjusted to fit the existing economic system.  Socialism requires different interference that capitalism. 

Several years ago, I read a great book called In Search of Excellence -its main thesis was that the most successful, long-lasting businesses were those that did two things:  (1) treated all their employees well and included them in the profit-sharing when the company made a profit, and (2) treated their customers well by making a quality product (or service) and dealing fairly with the customers when something went wrong.  This is very far from what I believe we're seeing in most big corporations today.  Evidently, excellence is no longer felt to be an important corporate benchmark.

I'm no economist, but down here at the customer level, it sure seems as if we're being victimized by an old enemy:  corporate greed at the expense of the public.  When corporate profit and huge management salaries are the primary goals of business management, then anything goes, it seems.  A plunder economy is not what made America great, but it can cause the whole thing to come crashing down.  The recent stock market crash could be a harbinger of worse to come.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

El Niño - "Godzilla" or just another actor?

It seems this year is another in a lengthening string of occasions when El Nino (more properly, the El Nino-Southern Oscillation that includes La Nina) becomes a big media story, anticipating how it will affect the weather during this coming winter.  The developing El Nino this year may be at record or near-record intensity, which could magnify its impacts on the weather, so even a respected oceanographer felt compelled to describe it with the adjective "Godzilla" during a media interview.  Of course, the media grabbed onto this label with its typical overblown enthusiasm.  Shades of "Snowmageddon" and "Frankenstorm"!!

The "Godzilla El Nino" has become the focus for some controversy in the scientific community, however.  Many meteorologists dislike the use of such hyperbole, preferring that the public face of our science be more restrained, as scientists try to be when communicating with their colleagues.  Others feel that the use of such language helps get the message of science across to the lay public.  A well-written science story doesn't need bombastic language to get its message across - in fact, it can be argued that such excesses muddy the clarity of the message.

I've made no secret that I'm not among the supporters of wildly dramatic language.  First of all, an unintended consequence could be the creation of unnecessary fear in some folks regarding what could become an impending disaster.  Another unintended consequence is public pushback against the "hype" such terminology creates - some segments of the public are sick of all the "gloom and doom" the media convey about upcoming weather events.  There's no hard evidence that the use of such hyperbolic terminology does anything to attract more attention to the message that scientists are trying to convey, nor is there evidence to suggest that the purely factual information content of that scientific message is conveyed more effectively to the consumers as a result of the inflated descriptions.  If the claim is made that melodramatic terminology is actually an aid to effective communication, the burden of proof is on those who make such claims.  Let there be a carefully-done survey that demonstrates this is indeed the effect of sensational verbiage.  Absent that, count me among the skeptics!

Furthermore, and more importantly, it's pretty bad science to equate the strength of a given El Nino to specific weather events or seasonal weather trends at a specific location.  ENSO is just one among a host of global and regional climate "oscillations" that are all operating concurrently.  How this year's El Nino affects the global weather pattern is determined by the complex interaction among all the known oscillations that influence the weather pattern, to say nothing of factors affecting global weather about which we scientists know little or nothing. It's been shown, for instance, that snowfall in Washington DC can be at or near record levels during a strong El Nino, but can also be near zero during a strong El Nino.  By itself, El Nino is not a good predictor of local, seasonal weather patterns.  To create all this brouhaha about this year's El Nino is just bad meteorology and conveying a message that is not justified by the science. 

A more rational approach would be to indicate that an intense El Nino, which is what this year's event is likely to be, could create serious impacts, for which some segments of our society would need to prepare in advance.  It would be important to indicate that this is not a statement of absolute certainty, or even close to that level of confidence.  Rather, it suggests one potentially important development among many possibilities, but the likelihood is high enough that it deserves to be mentioned as a possibility - it is not a forecast for a "Godzilla" creating widespread havoc and destruction, but something that might require some advance planning for that possibility.  Do we really need to "hype" an event to get people to understand our message so that they take appropriate actions?  If so, then we can blame the media, but we also might have to share the responsibility for failing to state our message in clear and understandable terms.  The consumers of media (Aren't we all?) have been desensitized, perhaps, by all the sensationalism.  But that's another topic ...