Sunday, December 11, 2016

Student loans, universities, and big business

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

PhDs as a ticket for admin?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The will of the majority

A discussion on Facebook has stimulated this blog - the discussion ensued after I posted this old George Carlin video.  It seems pretty prescient concerning the current election situation, as the Trump "campaign" is encountering more and more manifestations of Trump's sleazy behavior, massive mendacity, and bizzare public claims.  It's difficult to know just what he does believe and what is just empty rhetoric.  Carlin's premise is that the public (or at least the majority of voters - that caveat will be unspoken but implicit in subsequent references to "the public") is responsible for the politicians.  If we don't like the politicians, it seems the public is responsible for the politicians we have.  Ergo, we have the voting members of the GOP to thank/blame for Trump.

The founders of our nation were very much aware of the potential tyranny of the majority.  If most of the people wanted to persecute a minority (say, Muslims), or establish a state religion (say, Christianity), they are prevented from doing so through the safeguards of the Bill of Rights.  Other aspects of the USA's Constitution limit the potential for abuses of the majority, including the electoral college and the balance of power among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.  Although supportive of representative democracy, the founders feared what the USA could become if the majority will was completely unfettered.  What has been happening since the Constitution was adopted is a gradual drift toward frustration with those safeguards.  People want their government to grant them what they want, even though what they seek may be bad for the nation, or will inflict harm on minorities.  This is an inevitable conflict in representative democracies.  The best path, it seems, is to remain in a state of approximate balance between the public's will and a government that declines to follow the will of the majority at all.  The secret to a successful democracy is not majority rule, but rather the protection of minority rights and doing what works best for nation as a whole (not pandering to special interests!).  As time has passed, the majority of our voters seem unable to bring themselves to vote against the very people who are ravaging the public, slowly undermining the bill of rights, pushing religion into government, and creating massive income inequality through welfare for the rich.

In other words, the majority seems determined to vote against their own best interests. This is where the people's will has taken us since the late 18th century, with anti-politics joining with a growing mood of anti-science/anti-intellectualism and a commitment to willful ignorance. This is what has become "representative" and has given rise to Trump as the human embodiment of a form of populism that involves narcissistic bigotry and a drift toward fascism in the USA. Trump has ridden the vote of the majority of GOP members to the nomination despite the GOP leadership's opposition, and is now at the very brink of the Presidency. 
The rise of Trump to the GOP nomination has been an amazing journey for America.  His popularity is widely attributed to the fact that he "speaks his mind" (including a large number of outright lies and many completely bizarre bigoted statements) and is not a career politician.  His supporters seem not to care at all about his actual words.  Instead, he's mostly just a symbol for their frustration with a system that seems unresponsive to their perceived needs.  They're unswayed by his gaffes and outrageous claims.

The current election has given us candidates from the two major parties that are widely despised by majorities within their counterpart segments of the population.  Of course, the choice between them presumably will be made by the American voting public.  Anyone choosing not to vote will avoid any responsibility for the election of either candidate, but will have chosen not to exercise a responsibility to the nation to have a role in its governance.  Some will vote for alternative party candidates that, at the present time in our history, have little chance of winning any national elections.  Such votes are not "wasted" - the value of voting is not determined by the outcome of the election - they can affect the outcome, as history has shown us.  Nevertheless, the majority of the public has adopted the 2-party system and evidently isn't inclined to depart from that choice in significant numbers, no matter how bad the candidates might be.

Hatred for politicians by the public is intense, which ironically is a sort of self-hate (a concept George Carlin was using in his comedy piece), because it's by the will of the voting public that those politicians remain in office!  Politician approval ratings are at rock bottom, but we keep electing the same people to office over and over.  The rise of Trump can be seen as a sort of "populism" - defines populism this way:  "populism is a belief in the power of regular people, and in their right to have control over their government rather than a small group of political insiders or a wealthy elite."  [The nation's founders were not all populists!]  Another populist candidate was Bernie Sanders, but he and Trump are very far apart on the political spectrum.  Bernie has since endorsed Hillary Clinton, whereas most mainline GOP politicians are now scurrying to disavow Trump.  Trump is what he's always been, but he created massive angst for the GOP faithful prior to the Republican National Convention and they're now regretting their attempts to close ranks behind him after he won the nomination.  I guess they hoped they could "control" him and winning the election was the crucial thing - history suggests that demagogues are not easy to control.  That nomination was decided against the wishes of the GOP insiders, for the simple reason that in Republican primaries, the will of the majority was to support Trump.  Well, the GOP majority got what they wanted.  Time will tell what they decide about the wisdom of their support for Trump.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Thoughts on "reverse racism"

NOTE  These comments are from two postings I made on Facebook.  I'm combining them here as a single blog, with a few minor modifications.

Interesting ... I just had an extended Facebook argument about the existence of "reverse racism". I assert that racism is NOT limited to prejudice against black people. Thus, I think so-called "reverse racism" [prejudice against whites] surely exists. My definition of racism is prejudging people on the basis of race (race is a fictional concept not recognized by modern science - see here).  A strict reading of my definition precludes any meaning for the phrase reverse racism - there is only racism, regardless of the races involved.

Whites have been in the majority in the USA for a long time, and that has allowed the development of an "institutionalized" prejudice against blacks now called "white privilege". White privilege is rooted in racism, therefore, which is in turn rooted in instinctual tribalism. I can understand the reasons that might lead to some blacks becoming deeply prejudiced against whites. Unfortunately, that is basically sanctioning what I call racism. What we need to eliminate ultimately is prejudice based on human instincts embedded in our genes - it will not be easy. But it does no good to NOT have conversations with others who may have different viewpoints. Understanding someone requires an effort to see things from their perspective. Not making that effort only perpetuates prejudice.

This single phrase "reverse racism" can have multiple definitions. Your opinions about the phrase depend heavily on what meaning you assign to it. There may be others, in addition to the three I've offered below.

1. a negative pre-judgment by blacks against all whites - black against white prejudice being the "reverse" of white against black prejudice

There clearly are those who fall under #1. It can't be denied that such people exist and there may or may not be valid reasons for it.  Returning tit for tat is quite understandable if you've experienced race-based injustice.  However, this clearly simple racism, if you define it as I've done.

2. institutionalized favoritism for blacks

This might include such things as so-called "affirmative action" programs, which seem to anger many whites, especially conservatives. At the superficial level, this sort of thing can be characterized as reverse racism. However, the motivation for it is to be to address a long, continuing period of discrimination against blacks as a result of white privilege. It's not really so much of an attack on whites as it is an attack on white privilege. Black people deserve the opportunity to prove themselves to be competent, and if they're given some benefit of the doubt, then perhaps this is the start down a path to eventual elimination of white privilege, whereby all are always given strictly equal opportunity. It's a small price to pay for centuries of discrimination against blacks and serves many positive ends. The whole "competency" argument often thrown up against affirmative action falls apart when you realize that many white people who have been given the benefit of white privilege have proven to be incompetent! Whiteness doesn't equate with competence, just as blackness doesn't equate to incompetence. The examples (counterexamples to racial stereotypes) are all around us!!

3. opposition to institutionalized white privilege

The idea that someone opposed to white privilege is automatically exhibiting "reverse racism" is obviously fallacious. Yes, blacks prejudiced against all whites (i.e., black against white racists) certainly would be likely supporters of doing away with white privilege. Nevertheless, that doesn't apply equally to all those fighting this battle for equal justice and opportunity. Many of those seeking an end to white privilege are not at all black. Frankly, it's a position I think should be the choice of all rational people.  I came to understand that the racism I encountered as a boy was not consistent with my experiences as an adult - racial stereotypes were demonstrably false - you can't claim to know anything about a particular human being solely on the basis of race.  If you must judge people, do so on the basis of what they say and, more importantly, on what they do!

I observe that racism is a form of tribalism.  We evolved as creatures who depend on social interactions for our survival.  Those in our "tribe" were much more important to us than those from other tribes.  Other tribes represented competition for resources and survival.  Other tribes had different cultures, different ideas, different religions, and in some cases, had a different physical appearance. Tribalism is deeply embedded in our genetic heritage - it was an important survival trait.  To be different is to be a threat.

Any social or cultural grouping can be considered a tribe, so there can be tribes within tribes (hunters, gatherers, scientists, clergy, carpenters, plumbers, etc.).  Minor differences in skin coloration, eye and nose shapes, etc. have stimulated tribalistic reactions whereby those who look slightly different are seen as an "inferior race".  Culturally assigned roles may have no valid basis in abilities.  This sort of thinking is in opposition to the facts as we know them from science.  Science tells us that all humans evolved from our beginnings in Africa - we all contain some of that original DNA and so all of us are "black" in that sense.  Race has become the cultural equivalent of the appendix - it no longer has any functionality and at times can be very harmful to us.  We need to discard the refuse of tribalism/racism and strive to work together for the common good.  Races are mythical - there is only one race:  the human race!  It will not be easy to overcome our tendency for tribalism/racism, but we need to do so as soon as possible.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Noah's Ark story - Is it history?

Let me be perfectly clear:  I consider the biblical story of Noah's Ark (like many biblical narratives) to be, at most, a human creation with essentially no connection to history, science, evidence, and logic.  The idea that some people choose to accept it as literal fact is both astonishing to me and an apparent tribute to their gullibility.

Let's ignore the fact that the putative supreme being, creator of the inconceivably vast universe, who is supposed to be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, has decided that his creations (we humans, made in his image) have turned out to be a mistake because we don't behave the way he wants, so he's going to impose nearly total genocide on those of us extant at the time, using a world-wide flood to wipe the slate clean.  If this divine being pretty much screwed up the job of creating humans on his first try (Adam and Eve, remember?), then he's not omnipotent and omniscient - such a being should never make a mistake!  And killing all but a tiny remnant of the entire human species seems pretty much the opposite of benevolent!

Putting those issues aside, then, let's consider the impossibilities and issues within this yarn.  Quick summary:  the only way the biblical account can be considered historical is through continuous magical intervention by a divine being, who must have the capability to break the laws of nature and logic at will in order to overcome the host of impossibilities through a massive set of supernatural miracles.

1.  There's just no known way to produce a rainfall that would cover the entire surface of the Earth.  That requirement is the only way to be sure of drowning all humans save for the chosen few and it must be global, not regional.  That would be roughly 29,000+ feet (about 5.5 miles - to cover the top of Mt. Everest) of rainfall in 40 days - about 30 feet of rain per hour for 40 days - at every point on the surface of the Earth.  It's physically impossible.

2.  What would be the effect on a boat that was continuously experiencing rainfall of 30 feet per hour (6 inches per minute)?  It probably would be pretty top-heavy from that continuous rain, and it might easily be swamped, especially if there were wind that produced heavy seas.  Further, the massive load of animals and food would have to be kept continuously in balance, requiring a lot of effort by a large crew (see #8).  It would be difficult, if not impossible, keep the Ark afloat during this impossible deluge.

3.  Fitting mated pairs of all living land creatures on the Ark is a physical impossibility.  To this day, we have only incomplete knowledge of all the diverse species, but back in biblical times, their knowledge of that was nearly negligible.  Hence, it would be essentially impossible today, to say nothing of the late Bronze Age.

4.  Predators would have to eat the prey animals to live, so winding up with all of them saved is impossible unless lots of extra prey animals beyond one mated pair for each species are brought on board.  That adds to the food and water needs of all those animals ...

5.  The amount of food and water necessary to keep all the animals alive for 40 days would fill the Ark completely.  It would be impossible to bring along enough food and water for all the animals on a 40-day boat ride.  Of course, the 30 feet per hour rainfall rate could alleviate any water shortage!

6.  Going to the far corners of the Earth in order to obtain mated pairs of all Earthly creatures (plus extra prey animals) would require pretty fast transportation and transport capacity for Noah.  This job would be quite a challenge even today, but such a task for a semi-civilized man in biblical times would be physically impossible.

7.  Even if Noah somehow accomplished the miracle of gathering up mated pairs (plus extra prey animals) of all the world's animals with the help of his supernatural pal, how would all those animals get back to their own parts of the world after the flood waters receded?  [Where did they come from and where did they go?]  Even if they survived and bred along their way back to their homes on all the continents, why is there no evidence of this literally incredible migration from where the Ark landed on Mount Ararat?  Would there be food to eat along the way?  How do they know which way to go?  And how hospitable would their native lands be after a mega-flood?  Such a journey is impossible since it involves different continents and would require more supernatural intervention.
8.  Sanitary conditions on the Ark would not be very good unless there were even more crew members swabbing the interior decks constantly to get rid of the urine and feces from all those animals.  The external deck might be kept clear of urine and feces by the 30 feet of rain per hour, but not the interior.  Such a large crew would add to the requirements for food and water (and living space) on the Ark.  This is another impossible task.

9.  It's not clear what the atmospheric conditions were like during this voyage.  If it was typical of conditions in the Middle East (disregarding any impact from the mega-torrential rainfall), it might not be very healthy for animals from other regions.  Some creatures might not be able to survive the voyage despite being rescued from drowning.

10.  What about microorganisms?  How would they be gathered and maintained?  This would have to include the host of pathogenic microorganisms who survive by being parasites on their hosts.  Wouldn't this have represented a challenge for late Bronze Age barbarians to even know of the existence of such living creatures?  Some might already be on board living in the mated pairs (and extra prey), but it would be impossible to select two infected individuals from each species so as to include all microorganism in the aggregate.  And those infections would be hazardous to the survival of all the large animal species during the voyage.  In fact, they could become an epidemic easily in the crowded conditions.  Another need for divine supernatural intervention.

11.  How did the land plants of the world fare during a time of being submerged for days?  How did they recover from that?  Would there be enough food available for returning herbivore mated pairs?  After 40 days of being underwater, if the sun comes out, things just don't instantly spring up again.

12.  How does a planet-wide flood kill creatures of the sea?  Or were they just left to their own devices?  What would be the effect of a gigantic deposition of fresh water (29, 000 feet of rain - a lot of distilled water) on the world's oceans?  Might be kinda tough conditions for sea animals adapted to salt water.  The story mentions no aquaria on the Ark!

13.  Depending on a single mated pair of each animal to repopulate the planet is now recognized to being a threat to the existence of each species, owing to a lack of genetic diversity.  Of course, a late Bronze Age man would have known nothing of such obstacles to the Ark story's successful outcome.

I could go on, but it's only piling more impossibilities and issues on top of these.  [I might add more later.]  The clear conclusion I draw from all of this is that the Ark legend obviously is not history.  Finding evidence for a regional flood in biblical times isn't even close to providing support for the Ark myth.  To believe so indicates tremendous gullibility and/or confirmation bias seeking to save the appearances.  This yarn is precisely the sort of mythical story that a late Bronze Age, semi-civilized man would make up as religious parable seeking to impose obedience on the faithful, in complete ignorance of the vast amount of science we've accumulated since this myth was created.  The more we learn about how the natural world operates, the less credible the Ark parable becomes.  Hoping to find evidence for the Ark narrative in the bible is similar to cherry-picking data to find evidence denying climate change, or being paranoid about "chemtrails", or believing in a flat Earth.

You can interpret the biblical Ark myth in many diverse ways, but it just can't be literal history unless you're willing to accept the requirement for supernatural intervention throughout the whole process, making the impossible possible.  It's always a logical possibility that compelling evidence to support the preposterous Ark story might be found somewhere, but in the absence of that compelling evidence, I'm of a mind to see the Noah's Ark hypothesis as a totally human fictional creation, not historical fact.  And the story's plot line was stolen from other, earlier religions, to boot.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Right or Wrong? - Colin Kaepernick not standing for the anthem

Well, that exploded quickly into a shitstorm, didn't it?  Many, if not most, comments I've seen in social media have interpreted CK's sitting down during the playing of the national anthem at a football game as disrespect for the nation and especially for those who have sacrificed so much for American freedoms.  The ones who wear their patriotism on their sleeves are all incensed about this form of personal protest over the oppression of blacks and other minorities in this nation.  Interestingly, even some of my acquaintances who are usually firm advocates of free speech see CK's actions as those of a "thoroughly disgraceful, propagandized, naive, horrendously ill-informed, dangerous and ignorant mentality".  Most, if not all, of such commentary is coming from white Americans who live in a bubble of white privilege, seeing the painfully slow progress of equality for minorities in the USA as having already all but vanquished the oppression of black people in the USA.  "America!  Love it or leave it!" they say to CK, as if freedom of speech - one of the most important freedoms in the panoply of constitutional guarantees - only applies to those who only sing hymns of praise for what is happening in this great, but sometimes flawed, nation.  They're saying if you find any flaw in the USA's failure to live up to its own ideals, you should get out and seek to find a better nation.  As if any protest about what is happening in America deserves only vitriol and hatred in response.  If someone's right to free speech offends you, then the offenders should leave and never return, it seems.  I'm not buying this perspective - patriotism isn't measured by the overt practices associated with symbols of America, but rather by the effort to make this nation live up to its ideals, including being equally benevolent to all people pursuing life, liberty, and happiness.

Let's get something straight, here.  Like the American flag, the national anthem (including the "rule" that people stand during its performance) is a symbol for the real substance of the ideals providing the foundation for this nation.  It's not the real substance itself!  Freedom of expression is one of those ideals and CK has exercised that freedom with his symbolic act.  However offensive it might seem, there's no law against non-military personal sitting during the performance of the national anthem, nor should there be any such law!  Pseudo-patriotism is embodied in the phrase "America - Right or Wrong!"  I remember this sentiment repeated loudly and often by the so-called "silent majority" during the Vietnam War years.  The same goes for  the sentiment of "America!  Love It or Leave It!"  Time has suggested the protests against the Vietnam war were about valid concerns and most people now seem to recognize that we shouldn't have been involved in that mess in the first place.  I prefer this statement, attributed to Carl Schurz:
“My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

When my draft notice arrived in 1969, I was convinced already that the Vietnam war was unjustified by any threat to American freedoms - it was a proxy battle in the Cold War.  [We won the Cold War because Communist dictatorships are fatally flawed and the Soviet Union collapsed of its own doing.]  I had three choices:  Serve in the military, go to jail, or leave the country.  I chose to serve for primarily selfish reasons.  I now have mixed feelings about my military service (in the Army, plus a hitch in the Naval Reserve).  I'm proud of having served when my country called, but in many ways, I wish I had not served the cause of an unjustified war that resulted in so many American and Vietnamese casualties for no good reason.  I served but I never accepted the notion that the decisions of our government (at all levels) are always correct.  To speak out against injustice in America is consistent with the highest ideals of America. It's not even close to a matter of disrespect for those ideals!  Quite the opposite, in fact.

The continuing oppression of African-Americans (and others) remains an ugly stain on the fabric of our national ideals.  Many people (white and black) have died as a result of that oppression throughout our nation's history.  People of color continue to die as a result of that oppression, including victims of discriminatory violence by law enforcement officers, as pointed out by CK.  I'm not a "blanket" cop-hater but I believe some police have committed unnecessarily violent acts in a discriminatory way - the evidence for that is plain for all to see.  And during an "investigation" of each incident of officer violence, they generally get a paid vacation before they're absolved of any responsibility for wrongful violence, with the implicit support of many of their fellow officers, some of who even lie to maintain solidarity with the "thin blue line".  Whistleblowers in law enforcement often lose their jobs and may even experience violence from other officers! The victims of this violence typically are blamed for what happens to them - that might sometimes be true, but there are many cases where the victim is subjected to excessive force for no good reason.  For calling attention to the issue of unnecessary violence by law enforcement, I've been labeled a "cop hater" - the fact is, the only cops I hate are those who commit unnecessary violence, and those who implicitly support such behavior by not preventing it, not reporting it, or committing perjury to absolve other law enforcement officers.  Cops need to uphold high moral standards of service in the performance of their duties - they should not be above the law!

It's very difficult for most white people to appreciate the fact of their white privilege - it surrounds them in a cushion of protection from inequities visited on non-whites.  They don't experience the pre-judging, so to them it just doesn't exist.  Discrimination against blacks continues in many ways (some subtle, and others not so subtle) and we need to have a national "conversation" about this to seek solutions to the evil of unequal treatment.  We shouldn't be condemning someone who has the courage to force us all to consider what is going on and to challenge us to take actions to stop it once and forever.  We should be following Carl Schurz and seeking to set right any perceived wrongs in America!  That should be the duty of all Americans.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Thoughts on prejudice, tribalism, and racism

Looking back at the experiences of my 70+ years, one theme seems to come up again and again:  the people I have known stubbornly resist conforming to my stereotypes.  A stereotype can be defined as a preconceived notion, especially about a group of people.  Like everyone else, I'm associated with many different groupings of people and my life has shown me repeatedly that if I see a person who can be grouped within a particular association, membership in that association actually says very little about what sort of person any individual member of that group is.  One group to which I belong is the "tribe" of white male heterosexuals.  These are essentially accidents of birth - not choices I made.  I am also a meteorologist, a military veteran, a person who has used marijuana, an atheist, a citizen of the USA, a fan of drag racing, an artist, overweight, tall, bald, and so on and on. These other associations include both more accidents of birth and many specific choices I've made over the course of my life.

If you only know me as a member of the "white people" association, for example, what stereotypes of that particular grouping do you think apply to me?  All of them?  If not, which ones?  What does it say about you if you automatically believe those stereotypes of my "white people" tribe apply to me?  When I was a boy in the Chicago suburbs of Dupage County, most of the people I knew were WASPs - White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and I learned about a widely-held but rarely vocally expressed view of racial and cultural superiority associated with my "tribe" of WASPs.  Other tribes were looked down upon by many members of my WASP tribal association.  I knew a few Catholics, even fewer Jews, and essentially no African- or Mexican-Americans.  Interestingly, my best friend in high school was a Catholic and yet somehow that friendship apparently was tolerated by the members of my WASP tribe.  I was not vilified for being friends with a white male Catholic, and if anyone felt I was betraying my Protestant tribe, they never said it to my face.  Later, of course, I became an atheist - a group that many Americans despise and which is subject to discrimination.

As time went by, I became aware of the discrimination that existed in my town against non-white Americans.  At some point, I heard that an African-American had tried to buy a house in my neighborhood and the neighbors (not including my parents) had banded together to threaten to buy the home rather than let a black family move into our tribe's territory!  I was not raised to be a racist, even though racism was rampant around me, so this discovery came as something shocking.  I was ashamed of my tribe's racism.  It seemed that my tribe was prejudiced against other tribes and would go to extreme lengths to avoid having to associate with those belonging to a different racial tribe.  If I chose to be close friends with an African-American (remember, there were none about!), how would my WASP tribe have reacted?  What if I chose to date a black woman?  I'll never know, but I think I know a likely response to such behavior.  I've learned that some members of my own family were/are notably prejudiced against other racial tribes, so I think I know what their response would have been had I been dating a black or Latino woman.

Having been drafted into the Army - an organization that one typically does not consider to be socially advanced - I was thrown into the company of a widely diverse group of people, including blacks, Latinos, farm boys, southern "rednecks", etc.  One of my lasting memories is meeting an 18 year-old African-American man serving with me in Vietnam who seemed very innocent and naive to me.  But it turned out he had some amazing strength of character.  He resisted what I felt was good-natured badgering from me and some of my friends about his innocence.  For instance, he would pray before eating in the mess hall.  He didn't curse, or drink, or smoke pot.  Some of the blacks in our company called him an "Uncle Tom" because he declined to be called "brother" by people to whom he was not related.  This was not the stereotype of an angry, "militant" young black male - he was comfortable with whom he felt himself to be and literally didn't care what anyone else thought.  I often wonder what has happened to him - I regret not taking more time to get to know him.  I was still learning back then, I suppose.

After my time in the Army, I returned to the mostly white world of my professional life, but in the course of that career, I became acquainted with a group of Mexican-American meteorologists who included some of the smartest people I've ever had the good fortune to meet.  Bam!  There went another stereotype.  I also met some amazing women who had become scientists, and some of them were at the very top of my profession.  Thud!  Another stereotype falls.  I have met and known outstanding African-American meteorologists.  Crash!  So much for that stereotype.  Despite all the barriers put in their way, these professionals have achieved much and have earned their professional standing, so don't tell me it can't be done!!  I was discovering that stereotypes and default assumptions based on tribal associations were phantoms that had no basis in reality.  I was going to have to abandon my notions of who people are based in the heuristic approach I had been using:  belong to group X, you're a good person, whereas if you belong to group Y, you're not a good person.  That simply didn't give reliable results and as a science professional, that meant it had to be rejected.

If you take some time to get to know someone, rather than assuming that their membership in some tribe tells you who they are and what to expect from them, you'll find inevitably they're simply human beings whose attitudes and behavior may or may not fit your expectations.   Perhaps some of them will be a good match for a specific stereotype you have, but not some others.  You just can't know that until you know them personally!

The evidence is around you if you take the time to abandon your default assumptions about other humans and learn about them as individuals, not members of some association.  Make the effort rather than pre-judging someone without any real evidence.  Learning how things look to other people is an excellent path to a deeper understanding of your own beliefs and behaviors.  Savor the rich diversity of humanity instead of seeing other tribes as lesser human beings.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Free speech and political correctness

Given the nature of the statements coming from Donald Trump and his myrmidons of late, the whole issue of "political correctness" has been a hot topic in social media.  Thus, this blog will be my take on the topic.

First of all, in the USA, freedom of speech is an important right of all Americans, protected by the 1st Amendment to the Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

I've discussed freedom of speech in my blog several times (here, or here for instance), with the most important aspect of free speech (in my opinion) being that if the protection of free speech does not apply to speech that we find offensive by virtue of being distasteful, rude, unpatriotic, disgusting, blasphemous, or offensive for whatever other reason, then the notion of free speech has no meaningful value.  There's no Constitutional guarantee that you won't be offended by what others might say.  In other blog posts, I've mentioned examples, so I won't bother with that here.

By the same token, based on what I'm hearing from Trump and his sycophants, there seems to be a desire on their part to experience no negative feedback in response to their exercising their Constitutionally-guaranteed right right to free speech.  In a nation dominated by white male heterosexual privilege (hereafter, WMHP) from its very inception, condescending epithets long have been used openly in American society to describe subjects of white male heterosexual contempt.  The subjects of that contempt further have been discriminated against in virtually every aspect of life, without any meaningful recourse to mitigate that discrimination.  The halls of power long have been the nearly exclusive domain of WMHP.

Recently, in the past few decades, there's been a growing sense of rejection of that contempt and discrimination.  Stereotypes have fallen over and over in the face of the reality (backed up by scientific evidence) that there is no rational basis for such bigotry.  Public opinion, backed by scientific research, is increasingly recognizing that we are one people and should all be treated equally under the law and in the course of our lives. 

Religion has been used by some to support their continuing belief in the foundations for WMHP.  But the rising tide of American society of late includes a rejection of the mythology of WMHP.  Many Americans have come to realize that various groups victimized by it should be afforded equal treatment under the law and not be subjected to discrimination.  Although the poisonous miasma of WMHP is not yet completely removed from American society as a whole, there has been growing acceptance for those segments of our culture who have been denied equal treatment and subjected to disdain (and irrational fear) in the past.

Thus, when the increasingly isolated and troglodytic segment of American society that continues to support WMHP voices its contempt for people not accepted by white male heterosexuals as equals, there's an increasingly vigorous response opposing that contemptuous speech.  In many cases now, blatant public use of bigoted epithets can result in someone being fired or losing some segment of their customer base.  This response to disrespectful speech is not a free speech issue - no government agency is putting people in prison for their vitriolic speech.  Private citizens simply are exercising their free choice to not be associated with bigots and bigotry.  Yet many who cling to the protective bubble of WMHP have the idea that being "politically incorrect" should be free from any non-governmental blowback for their use of insulting speech.  They want to suffer no consequences arising from being rude and scornful of others.  They pine for the "good old days" when they could express their bigotry openly and without anyone caring.  Trump has given voice to these bigots, bringing their poison out of the festering darkness of their hearts and into the open again.

Anyone can say (more or less) whatever they want (within some limits), but they also must accept that free speech can have consequences.   Most Americans have no wish to return to an earlier time when flagrant bigotry was the order of the day and WMHP prevailed over all.  Those bigots whining about the overemphasis on political correctness today are simply complaining about the consequences they experience for offending people when being rude and insulting.  Too bad.  I can't say I feel sorry for them.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

On disagreement's role in science

Some discussion has arisen about whether or not meteorologists who are not climate scientists can contribute to the discussion regarding global climate change.  A while back, I wrote a series of short essays about religion that I called "Leading Horses to Water".  This is one of those essays that I believe represents something we meteorologists who are not doing climate research can contribute to any discussion of global climate.
Previously, I’ve talked about the apparent controversy surrounding the science of global climate.  The media have put out so much misinformation regarding this topic, it’s hard to imagine how the communication between the scientists and the general public can ever recover.

One of the most egregious pieces of misinformation being put forth in the media is that there is much controversy within the science regarding the main issue:  that the global average temperature is increasing, and that the human contribution (the so-called anthropogenic part) through the emission of greenhouse gases is a major causative factor in that temperature increase.  This alleged controversy is being used to support the notion that the consensus science somehow is bad science.  The level of scientific agreement about these basic ideas is nearly unanimous.  But of course, what most people don’t know, and what the media seem incapable of grasping and thereby conveying to the consumers of their rubbish, is that disagreement is an essential and never-ending component of any science!  Disagreement continues within the science, even among those who agree about the consensus findings regarding anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

Any rational argument must come out of a basis of agreement.  Without that, all one has is people talking past one another.  The basis of agreement in science can be referred to as the scientific consensus.  It establishes certain principles and bodies of evidence as having a special status.  Most scientists accept the consensus.

In a very real sense, every scientist is a salesman for his/her own ideas, competing in a “marketplace” of ideas, with the winners being given credit for improving our understanding of the natural world, and the losers being left to try to salvage what they can.  This is a perfect example of a rational free market, actually.  Ideas compete not on the public relations image, or a catchy advertising gimmick, or on pandering to the psychology of investors, but on the evidence that supports them.  If one idea provides a better fit to the evidence, then it wins a temporary victory.  I say temporary because new evidence can revive old, discarded ideas and push them to the forefront long after they were first proposed.

Science makes progress precisely because there is disagreement.  Without internal disagreement, a science is cold and dead.  Just because an individual’s idea is discarded in the marketplace of ideas (from which the so-called “consensus” emerges), this doesn’t mean that he/she slinks away utterly defeated.  A “loser” in the marketplace can redouble their efforts to uncover more compelling evidence, seek to devise an experiment that can provide a more stringent test of the ideas, or try to make a slight modification to their discarded idea to provide an improved fit to the evidence.  Ideas may be defeated now but can emerge later as new (but still provisional!) winners.  When no clear winner emerges, a host of competing ideas clash in the marketplace.  This is healthy, not some sort of scientific malaise.  Scientists improve their ideas by the criticism of their peers, and the science advances through that process.

Science establishes no idea on an absolute basis – science is not a religion, after all.  There are no sacred truths, no meaningful arguments by authority, no ultimate arbiter.  Its most respected ideas are promoted from their original status as  hypothesis to theory to law, but even laws can be superceded.  Newton’s Law of Gravity was supplanted by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, for example.

The AGW deniers, a tiny minority within the global climate science community and most confined to non-participants in global climate science, have failed to gain much traction in the traditional media for scientific controversy: peer-reviewed scientific journals.  Thus, they’ve resorted to using the public media, advancing themselves as the true scientists, being victimized by a vast conspiracy within the global climate change scientific community.  There are political and economic ramifications to maintaining the illusion of a scientific controversy regarding AGW, so there are others seeking to promote the deniers as persecuted champions of truth, when the fact is the whole campaign is a tissue of lies and deceit.  There is no scientific controversy regarding AGW, per se! 

The disagreement you read and hear from demagogues disguised as pundits in the media is not the wholesome, necessary conflict among those scientists who are pushing the frontiers of our understanding of the natural world forward.  The disagreement being promoted by the media springs from those who dislike the reality of AGW for their own reasons, often pecuniary or political or both.  The mere existence of disagreement in science is not news, nor does it indicate anything wrong with the science.  It’s the natural state of a healthy, active science.  But this public conflict, outside the traditional place for the marketplace of scientific ideas (in refereed journals and scientific conferences), is not about the normal scientific disagreement.  It’s about personal agendas, about politics, and corporate greed advancing its interests above the public good.  Remember the pseudo-scientific conflict about the health effects of smoking?  Perhaps you should ask yourself who gains from the promotion of claims about non-existent scientific controversy!  Is it the science?  Is it the public?  I think not.

The public has a right, nay, a need to know the truth, but people have to work and think to separate truth from falsehood, science from pseudo-science, real disagreements from manufactured false controversy.  They need to learn how to recognize the demagogues and reality-distorters from those who are attempting to help us all make important decisions for the future.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Thoughts after Orlando

I'm going to weigh in on this one, although the facts are not yet all in.  I'm willing to do this because I'm not actually drawing any conclusions (unlike some) about that tragic event, at least not yet.  What is factual is that this murderous act was evidently set off when the shooter witnessed men kissing.  So he targeted a gay bar in Orlando (which he apparently frequented!), and gay bars are where many gay people go to be able to be openly gay without fear.  Except the shooter was about to change that forever.  After this despicable crime, is there anywhere for gay people to go to feel safe about simply being themselves?  Certainly there's little sanctuary in churches, most of which continue to preach that homosexuality is a sin (and some even go so far as to say it's a sin worthy of death), and in society at large.  Overt homosexuality is still considered disturbing or repulsive.

Growing up in the ultra-conservative suburbs of Chicago, everyone I knew considered it to be a serious insult when you called someone a "queer/faggot".  I was brought up in that culture, and simply went along with it because everyone was in agreement:  fags were detestable and homosexuality was a vile act.  I was taught to hate. This has been the American perspective for generations, nurtured by fundamentalist christians who quote various biblical passages condemning the sin.  With this sort of sanctioned contempt, violence against gays has been a constant drumbeat in our "christian" culture.  Never mind that many of the most strident of those condemning homosexuality have been shown repeatedly to harbor homosexual tendencies themselves - a sort of self-hatred manufactured by the revulsion of the heterosexually-dominated culture.

We even have "conversion centers" aimed at "curing" the "sickness" that many see homosexuality to be.  Bashing gays is a full-time occupation for such intellectual giants as populate the Westboro Baptist Church.  Our culture is rife with those who demonize others for "choosing" the "homosexual life style".  Why would anyone choose to be a homosexual?  It makes absolutely no sense at all to do so, given our cultural history where homosexuality is condemned so vigorously.  Homosexuals who 'come out of the closet' to their friends and family often find themselves repudiated and reviled by the very people who should love them the most.  Does it make sense that someone would choose to do that to themselves?  C'mon, get real! Homosexuality is NOT a choice!

Having grown up with all of that cultural conditioning, I was OK with all of that revulsion for a long time.  I wasn't gay and didn't understand how someone could actually prefer to be so.  I didn't want some gay guy coming on to me to participate in his perversions, after all.  "Fag" as an insult?  Sure, I could see that.  Stay the hell away from me!

However, I began to find people I respected in my profession who clearly were homosexuals.  These were good people, great friends, and never once did they ever make even the slightest attempt at having sex with me.  [Am I that unattractive?  (joke)]  In my youth, I was raped by an older "friend" as a boy but this was clearly not a sexual act.  It was one of violence.  He was not a gay man, he was a pedophile.  To equate gays with pedophilia is simply an absurd myth, believed mostly by ignorant gay-bashers.  None of the gay people of my professional acquaintance ever made any sexual advances to me.  Ever.  None of them have ever even been accused, let alone convicted, of being pedophiles.

In my life, there came a time when I was presented with an unexpected "situation".  A gay friend was 'outed' accidentally and the circumstances literally forced me to decide just how I was going to deal with it in public.  Certain of my homophobic acquaintances urged me to repudiate my long-time friend, who was now publicly known to be gay.  Was I going to have to turn my back on my friend because he was now revealed openly to be a homosexual?  That was an easy choice - not just "NO!" but "HELL, NO!!"  My respect for those people upset by my choice has been declining ever since.  I will not turn my back to my friends because of their sexual orientation.  Period.  It's none of my business and never has been.  They are who they are, irrespective of their sexual preferences, and I have no reason to distance myself from them on that basis.

So where does this personal history leave me with respect to the Orlando tragedy?  Whatever might have been the complex motivation for the shooter, the deed almost certainly was driven by homophobic hate encouraged by many cultures, including ours in the USA.  Otherwise, why target a gay nightclub?  Like many of us in the last few years, I've learned to overcome the hatreds I was taught and we've seen a dramatic change in favor of equal rights for the LGBTs, who can now begin to imagine a day when sexual preferences go back to being purely personal and not something to be used to insult and condemn.  Religion has a long history of using guilt about sexual behavior as a means of control, and until all the major religions abandon their tradition of condemnation regarding sexual preferences, we'll continue to see suffering as a consequence of that self-imposed guilt. Religion (muslim and christian) long has been an enabler when it comes to violence against non-heterosexual people. Let us turn our backs on that!

I'm pleased to see the widespread agreement over renouncing the homophobia that underpins the Orlando shootings.  I'm encouraged by the growth of tolerance for LGBTs.  Perhaps we can eventually emerge from the darkness and into the light of real tolerance.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Thoughts on decision-making in the face of uncertainty

Many people struggle with the notion that weather forecasts are uncertain.  They have to make binary decisions in the course of their lives:  go on that picnic, bring that umbrella, pour that concrete - or not do those things.  Weather plays a role in many such decisions, and people seem to know that forecasts are not perfect and never have been, but they persist in being upset when they make a decision based on weather that ultimately doesn't pan out, at least as they understand the forecast.

Perhaps I'm oversimplifying this, but it seems to me that the real challenge with decision-making in the face of uncertainty is the absence of accurate uncertainty estimates.  If weather forecasts are always wrong, you could always do the exact opposite of what the forecasts say and have it work very effectively for you - a permanently, completely wrong forecasting system would be just as valuable at a permanently, completely right forecasting system!  A forecast need not be perfectly accurate to be of value to users!

Of course, no weather forecasting system is perfect and there never will be such a perfect system.  If you know the uncertainties in the forecast, there are techniques by which you can manage your decision-making so as to optimize your results.  That optimization incorporates knowledge of both the losses experienced associated with not taking some action and having that weather event actually occur, and the cost of taking that action.  This is called the cost-loss problem.  If the cost of taking some action to prevent losses from some weather event exceeds the losses if the event occurs, it makes no sense to ever take such an action.  Different circumstances demand different decisions.  Optimizing the results of your decision-making requires you to have knowledge of your costs and losses, in addition to an accurate estimate of the uncertainties.

Sadly, it's well known that people often have difficult with knowing the true risks associated with hazards.  For example, although tornadoes are very scary to many people, the reality is that the probability of being killed in a tornado is pretty low.  There are much greater risks associated with, say, food poisoning in fast-food restaurants, or driving motor vehicles.

Most people struggle with understanding the probabilities related to weather uncertainties but they have a reasonable idea of some uncertainties.  For example, uncertainties tied to their jobs are usually more or less familiar to the workers.  If your work involves manufacturing something, you usually know about the likelihood of producing a defective product.  Similarly, uncertainties related to your home are often reasonably well-understood.  You generally know something about the chances that your water heater will fail.  When the uncertainties pertain to the weather, most people generally have no idea what those probabilities might mean and how to use them to make choices.  It's not that they need to know abstract probability theory to begin to grasp what weather probabilities (the language of uncertainty in weather science).  Most forecasters never did very well in probability and statistics!!  But people can use a concept effectively even when they don't actually follow the abstract mathematics.  Card counters in blackjack are making effective use of their knowledge of uncertainties - so well that casinos don't allow card counters to play!

Part of our problem is that traditionally, weather forecasts have not been expressed in probabilistic terms.  The use of probability of precipitation (PoP) was introduced in the mid-1960s but there never was any sort of public information campaign to help forecast users understand them - an awful oversight!  Curiously, even many forecasters don't know the proper definition of PoPs, although with experience and some feedback, they can become very adept at estimating their uncertainties in terms of PoP.

The end result of having little or no understanding of weather forecast uncertainty - and all forecasts are uncertain to a greater or lesser extent - is that forecast users will develop all sorts of heuristic methods for making choices.  Many of these are likely to be rather less than optimal use of the information the users have.  And apart from PoP and some severe weather forecasts, uncertainties are not mentioned in forecast texts and broadcasts.  Since that information is known, at least in the minds of the forecasters, this amounts to withholding needed knowledge from the users!  If we don't include the uncertainty information in some form, users must guess about that uncertainty, and their guesses often are wildly incorrect, such as thinking that forecasts are "wrong" the majority of the time.

Users can handle decision-making in the face uncertainty only when they know the uncertainties reasonably well from being familiar with them.  Unfamiliar uncertainties (as are those in weather forecasts) are inevitably mysterious and are a source of anxiety in decision-making as well as the source for cynicism about the forecasts.  People demand, unreasonably, that forecasts express the weather in binary terms - this event either will or won't happen - even though they must already know forecasters can't do that very well all the time.  What they evidently want is for weather forecasts to make their complex decisions (including much information that forecasters can't know anything about) for them.  Forecasters simply can't and shouldn't do this. We need to help our users understand more about our uncertainties or this situation will never improve, and users will continue to get less value from weather forecasts than what forecasters are capable of providing. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Can we do away with tornado F/EF-scale ratings?

Let me state at the outset that I have no doubt meteorology will be saddled with the curse of F/EF-scale ratings for a long time to come, so this is mostly an exercise in futility.  Why do I dislike these ratings?  The main problems I have with them are discussed here.  The essence of why they bother me and seem so counter-productive is that they represent an effort to provide a simple summary measure of something that's very complex.  I suppose having a rating is better than not having any information about the intensity (i.e., windspeeds) in a tornado and thereby assuming they're all the same.  But that's not the only choice we professionals have.

Consider just one damage indicator, say a particular type of framing attachment in a typical American frame home.  A host of complex issues are associated with the failure of that particular type of attachment, such that if you could test a large number of such attachments by subjecting them all to the winds in a wind tunnel wherein you knew the windspeeds accurately, you would find that there's no single value of the windspeed that would cause that type of attachment to fail.  Instead, because each such attachment is a unique combination of components, the failure of that type of attachment would be associated with a range of windspeeds.  In doing a survey of tornado damage, you would not be able to know precisely what windspeed caused the failure of that attachment - rather, failures would occur within a range of windspeeds.  This is true regardless of what damage indicator you use.  At best, a given amount of damage can never be said to have a single, precise value of windspeed that would cause that amount of damage.  Thus, in the absence of any way to measure the windspeeds that produced that damage, the best one can do is know the distribution of windspeeds that cause that amount of damage.  You might choose the media (or the mean) within the distribution to represent some sort of a guess, but doing so is intrinsically wrong from a scientific viewpoint.

Further, we know very little about the actual spatial and temporal distribution of windspeeds in a tornado, even for those few tornadoes sampled with mobile Doppler radars.  It's common to idealize the airflow in tornadoes using some simple model, such as that of a so-called Rankine Combined Vortex.  All one needs to do to convince oneself that most real tornadoes probably don't fit that model very well in detail is look at some tornado videos.  The actual winds in a tornado, especially those with multiple vortices, can be vastly more complex than any simplified vortex model.  It's these real winds that interact with real objects in the path of the tornado to produce the observed damage.  This is a very important fact that makes it currently impossible to know by objective measurement what windspeeds are associated with any particular element of damage.  The time sequence of winds experienced by some damage indicator simply isn't known.  Plus the presence of debris in the wind - which alters the wind distribution - adds an additional level of complication.  Thus, a complex, debris-laden windfield interacting with objects whose failure points cannot be known precisely makes this whole issue vastly more complicated than what can be expressed by some single summary number.  Reality is staggeringly complex and the idea that one number can offer much insight is too absurd to consider.

Except that's precisely what the existing F/EF-scale ratings are trying to accomplish.  There's no hope that in what remains of my life and for the foreseeable future, it will ever be possible to have wholly objective, high-resolution measures of tornado windspeeds.  Yet, we continue to use these rating systems with hard boundaries between categories, and category boundary values that are essentially arbitrary and without any real significance.  Is it really plausible to say that an estimated windspeed of 199 mph (EF-4) is actually distinguishable from one of 200 mph (EF-5)?  Can we really make such a distinction based on various observed levels of damage to damage indicators?  Does it make sense to call a tornado an EF-5 based on a single damage indicator at one point in an extensive damage path?

The science of tornadoes is riddled with uncertainties, so there can be no plausible reason to accept as meaningful some single summary measure based on making numerous simplifying assumptions and creating arbitrary categories.  Science has learned how to make those uncertainties work for us in coming to conclusions, via the methods of statistics.  If we're going to have a scientific data base that's of much help to the science, it shouldn't be using the F/EF-scale rating of tornado windspeeds as some sort of meaningful measure.  Distributions of estimated windspeed, probabilities of windspeed values associated with particular damage observations - these are much more appropriate tools with which the science can work.  Every professional knows already that such ratings have many problems and are a very crude way to think about the phenomena.

I get that the public may not care about the subtleties here.  There may well be pressure to produce some sort of summary measure for the masses of non-scientists.  Fine.  Let someone decide how to do that, hopefully based on some reasonable application of science and engineering.  But professionals surely can do better than condensing all the complexity and accompanying uncertainty into one summary number.  I say we should do away with the ratings, at least at the science level.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

American greatness, redux?

Candidate Trump (or Drumpf, if you prefer) has promised to "make America great" if he's elected.  As shown in this dramatized video of a fictional rant, America is no longer so clearly the greatest nation in the world.  We fall well short by a host of quantitative measures.  We can argue the numbers in the video, but the basic point is unquestionably valid.  If we ever were the greatest nation, we seem no longer to be so "exceptional" through leading the world in positive attributes.  American exceptionalism should be dead but still has many adherents here.

I love my country as much as anyone, but I don't turn a blind eye to its negative aspects.  If we want to make our nation great again, is it likely to happen just because we elect an incompetent demagogue to the Presidency?  Trump hasn't been very clear about the details of his plan to make America great, but he has shown himself to be a colossally arrogant narcissist, an incompetent businessman with multiple bankruptcies, a misogynist with multiple failed marriages, a "chicken hawk", a racist, a crypto-fascist, a homophobe, a xenophobe, and completely uninterested in leading diverse people to work together in a spirit of compromise for the common good.  He appeals to some of the darkest sides of the American character and has conducted a campaign that panders to those base elements in many Americans.  Even the GOP is struggling to accept him as their candidate, and he may well have destroyed the party of Lincoln, at least temporarily.

How can his election make America great again?  I just can't see that happening.  To see why not, let's go back to colonial America.  Thanks to the arrogance of the English monarchy, they had managed to alienate many of their colonists and declined to negotiate any sort of mutually acceptable settlement of their grievances.  The colonists finally had had enough of this spirit of non-cooperation and disrespect, so they revolted.  A revolution is the end result of divisiveness, and the colonies left the British Empire for good because there was never a good faith effort to accommodate the issues to the mutual satisfaction of both sides.  This left the colonists no choice but to separate from England.  The fruit of the English policies was revolution.  Their dogmatic intransigence eventually led to armed insurrection.  That's essentially how insurrections begin - when the political process can't resolve disputes among people

Less than 100 years later, in a time of deep internal national divisiveness, a Civil War was fought by Americans against Americans over the cause of slavery.  There was no way to come to a compromise on what was seen in the North as a moral issue, and the secession of the South led directly to an armed insurrection - a revolt - that was met with a military response.  The South was doomed to lose that war, and yet some in the South never wanted to give up their cause for independence.  That spirit of treason, combined with continuing racism, resides in America to this very day, and is not exclusively a southern issue.  Racism in the US remains a festering sore that divides us from one another.  The founders of this nation never resolved it, leading to the Civil War.  Racism's continuity in American culture is a repugnant fact that Trump panders to in order to win support.  His plan to make us great apparently doesn't include much in the way of racial equality for all Americans.  Can a racist America ever be great again?  I think not!

Today, we are in a state of deep divisions in our society.  We seem unable to act on behalf of what is good for our nation because, in part, many people see the government as an enemy - the source of problems rather than a solution.  Minor armed revolts by armed militia-type groups or cults are becoming all too frequent.  Party politics has destroyed the spirit of compromise for the common good that the nation's founders tried to write into the Constitution.  Large corporations and lobby groups like the NRA are dictating policy to the government.  The GOP-dominated Congress has spent the last 7+ years blocking virtually everything our President has sought to accomplish, with a vitriolic hatred heaped on the President that likely has its roots in racism, despite claims to the contrary.  We seem obsessed over issues that divide us into camps that demonize each other, rather than seeking to work together to achieve compromise.  The very word "compromise" has taken on a very negative meaning - to compromise is to betray your cause, it seems.  We're closer to a revolutionary bloodbath than at any time since the period leading up to the Civil War.  How can a candidate focused on the divisions within our nation lead us to greatness?  I think the answer is clear:  he can't and if elected, he won't.

Trump worries me, but what really bothers me is how blind his supporters are to the man's character.  He might well be right when he says he could commit a murder and his supporters would never waver.  This potential fascist dictator has the votes of many otherwise intelligent people.  History suggests that demagogues like him are not worthy of public support.  They won't make America great - instead, they'll destroy everything this nation was founded to be.  Our people have become anti-science, anti-intellectual, anti-government, and profoundly ignorant - they're more interested in being led than in accepting responsibility for what's happening and working together to solve problems.  Well, I suppose Mussolini did make the trains run on time ...

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A "busted" tornado forecast, in retrospect

26 April 2016 (coincidentally, the 25th anniversary of a major tornado outbreak in the Plains) is a classic illustration of the challenges associated with tornado forecasting.   The connection between the synoptic-scale weather systems and the occurrence of a major tornado outbreak ("outbreak" means different things to different people – there's no formal definition) is complicated and depends heavily on details at smaller scales.   One can get the synoptic-scale forecast mostly right but the development of tornadic supercells can be quite sensitive to the detailed structure and evolution at scales ranging from the size of a single storm to features on scales thousands of km across.  In meteorology, getting all of those details exactly right in the forecast is something that more or less never happens.  We can forecast tornado outbreaks in advance with varying levels of confidence, but they're never a sure thing.  Sometimes the details conspire to ruin the forecast.  What looks portentious, even a few hours in advance, can unravel quickly, such that the event doesn't unfold as forecast.

This case reflects certain facts about how severe storm forecasts work at the Storm Prediction Center.  The "culture" of the office contributed to the way the forecasts evolved.  If the situation looks like a possible outbreak, there‘s pressure from a variety of sources to give advance notice of upcoming tornado outbreak potential.  Once a forecast is issued, subsequent forecasts tend to maintain a relatively high level, even when new information (or a new forecaster) might suggest a downgrade of the forecast.  There's a reason for that:  users are uncomfortable with vacillation of the threat level, and if the threat is downgraded, and then even newer information means a return to enhanced threat, the indecision can come across as incompetence.  In other words, it can be unwise to back off the threat level.  Moreover, there's an asymmetric penalty for missed forecasts:  a false alarm for an event that never occurs can't result in human casualties and destruction, whereas an unforecasted event that kills people can be cause for investigations and possible disciplinary action.  This makes overforecasting almost inevitable.

In this case, there were some indications from the forecast models that the probability of a major tornado outbreak was decreasing as the fateful day approached, but the outlooks continued to raise concerns that a tornado outbreak could occur.  I don't necessarily see that as an error; it's realistic given the current state of our science.  An interesting facet to the case is that in the morning outlook on the day of the event, the forecast tornado probability was still only 10%.  The outlook was not upgraded to "High Risk".  I believe this is a plausibly accurate reflection of forecaster uncertainty.  However, the media were continuing the drumbeat of concern for a major event - the issue of the media is not going to be dealt with here.  Technically, a severe weather outlook is not focused only on tornadoes, and the nontornadic aspects of the forecast worked out pretty well.  Therefore, my comments here are restricted only to the forecast of a significant tornado outbreak with multiple, long-track, strong to violent tornadoes (EF2-EF5)

In my view, and this is purely a personal opinion, the biggest "mistake" from the SPC was issuing a PDS ("Particularly dangerous situation") watch in the early afternoon.  This was not warranted by the information of which I was aware (I was out storm chasing).  Whatever explanation might be offered in justification of this decision is in direct contradiction to the observed events.  I'm sure if offered a "do-over", the choice would be not to make it a PDS watch.

Make no bones about it.  Tornado forecasting isn't an easy job and perfection is out of the question.  I mean no disrespect to any forecaster involved in this event but we have to accept that the outcome is generating some backlash that's quite understandable.  Uncertainty is inevitable and probability is the language of uncertainty; by whatever verbiage we use to express it, we meteorologists need to communicate our uncertainty to our users such they accept the real capabilities of meteorological science as applied to the task of forecasting tornadoes.  By all means, we need to find out how to communicate with our users so that they understand our message, and know how to respond in the appropriate way to our weather forecasts.  We simply can't provide a 100% level of confidence in the forecast information we provide.  Our users must learn that they bear some responsibility for their own self-interests.   Weather hazards can present people with life-and-death situations, so in their own best interests, they need to pay attention and learn how to make the best use of what the science allows us to provide.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Understanding white male privilege

I wasn't brought up as a racist or misogynist, but I was born and raised in a virtually completely white part of the Chicago suburbs, in Dupage County.  As it turned out, that "purity" wasn't accidental.  The community was that way because that's the way the people who lived there wanted it to be.  My father was predominantly of English ancestry, and my mother was predominantly Swedish, so my ancestry is virtually lily-white.  There were few people in my town who weren't Protestant or Catholic but we did know two Jewish families, at least.   It wasn't until I was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam era that I encountered much of human diversity.  We were thrown together by the military and had to learn how to deal with the challenges of getting along with people having different backgrounds as best we could.  Curiously, it worked, for the most part.  A lot of the attitudes I grew up with were revealed to be without any real basis.  I still found people with whom I didn't get along, but before you could decide about someone new, you had to get to know them.  Knowing only their skin color and ethnic origins didn't provide much in the way of useful information about that individual.  Some people might fit a stereotype, but you wouldn't know that until you knew the actual person.  I learned I even could get along with those who did fit a stereotype, more or less.  It might be one of the most positive aspects of my time in the Army!

Once I reached upper level undergraduate status, I put my head down into my studies and pushed on to my professional goals (apart from my "sabbatical" in the Army).  Without even thinking about it, I've been living in predominantly (if not totally) white neighborhoods all my life, in the company of mostly white male colleagues.  The key is that this fact never really came to the forefront of my consciousness.  Since my family and I could afford a decent home, there was no need or reason to live in a ghetto of low-income housing.  Thus, I'm still mostly insulated from the diversity of our nation to this very day.  When I went back home for my 50th Anniversary Reunion of my high school graduation class, I found the school to be much more ethnically diverse than it was when I was there.  The area is still mostly white, but apparently there've been significant numbers of non-whites who have moved in.  Good.

The whole point of this brief personal history is to suggest that I've been the beneficiary of white male privilege all my life.  The accident of my birth has put me into a privileged position to become a STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) professional, and it took me a long time to realize my good fortune.  It's only been through the slow accumulation of non-white, ethnically diverse, and female friends that I've become able to see through the fog of my situation, and to appreciate it for what it has offered me.  In exchange for that privilege, it seems to me, I have a responsibility to be an advocate for truly equal opportunity for all.  It's why I identify as a "liberal" - it's not so-called "liberal guilt" I feel, but rather the need to do whatever I can to help break down the barriers that have limited the opportunities for non-white people and women in general.  My friends, over time, have shared their experiences and viewpoints with me, allowing me to see things through their eyes.  Although my friends and I tend to agree about many things, there are still points where we can disagree and still maintain our friendship.

The challenge is to be able to feel empathy for someone without actually having their experiences.  Learning how ethnic profiling is made manifest in the lives of the non-privileged is something I feel we should all try to do.  If we can't literally exchange our gender or ethnicity with someone else, then we should at least seek to know people who've had to live in the absence of white male privilege, and how they have to deal with it.  Talk with them.  Ask them about their experiences.  Listen carefully to what they say.  Think through what they've said and try to imagine yourself having such an experience and how you might react to it.

I feel no particular guilt for having benefited from white male privilege all my life without even realizing it.  Does a fish really appreciate the water in which it swims?  But if I can do something to help someone achieve what I have achieved, should I ignore that person's troubles if they're not a white male?  Of course not!  Most of the non-privileged people I know are not asking for any special favors - far from it, in fact.  They take pride in their ability to overcome the unnecessary, stupid obstacles that have been put in their path, along a road that isn't necessarily easy, even if you are a white male. Their accomplishments mean more to them precisely because they were achieved in spite of the pointless obstacles put in their path.  But we need to be concerned with removing those obstacles.

As I write this, Ken Burns is airing a new documentary on PBS about the life of Jackie Robinson.  His story is far more complex than what most people know - I certainly have learned things about him I didn't realize (or remember, if I ever knew them).  His life is testimony to the ignorance and falsity of gender and ethnic prejudice.  Jackie Robinson had to endure awful things visited on him by his teammates and baseball fans - without responding.  His entire life, right up to end, was heavily committed to seeking equality for Americans of African descent.  It was pointed out in the documentary that his entry into Major League Baseball was the death knell for the Negro Leagues from whence he came. 

It's interesting to me, then, that I have a distant personal connection to the Negro Leagues:  a Dr. Raymond Doswell is an official of the Negro League Baseball Museum.  He's of African descent.  I don't know his genealogy, but it seems there's a chance one of his ancestors carrying the Doswell surname was a slave in Virginia under one of the "Virginia Doswells" [English folks who came to the US before the Revolution and became landed gentry - that isn't my direct ancestral line, however.].  Slaves sometimes took the surnames of their masters, or were children who carried the master's surname, being a product of the master having his way with his female slaves.  I'm pretty certain the surname Doswell didn't come over to Virginia from Africa.  We might even be distantly related.  I know of several black Doswells around the nation, many of whom are successful, educated, and prosperous members of their communities.  I'd be proud to claim them as distant relatives but in any case, they reflect credit on themselves and the name of Doswell!

Let's abandon the outdated tendency toward tribalism and associated bigotry we've inherited in our genes from a time when tribalism was a survival trait for our primitive ancestors.  Tribalism has outlived its value, and we can overcome our genetic tendencies.  There's no good reason to limit opportunities to anyone.  We humans need all the help we can get, and limiting our abilities to those of a minority on the planet (white males) is now extremely counterproductive.  We should be doing everything we can to encourage all people to pursue their dreams as best they can, and not be putting pointless barriers in their path.  We share a common humanity, after all.