Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Crackpots and scientific journals

I've been hearing from folks with diverse ideas about tornadoes for decades - by phone, by snail-mail, and now by email. Tornadoes seem to attract more than their fair share of attention from non-meteorologists. Some of these are people who have some serious issues - for example, those who make various claims about having special mental powers to control the weather. Others are technical professionals in other fields, including those who may actually know quite a bit of math and physics, but are blissfully ignorant of the relevant science. For example, I've been dealing with papers making wild claims about electromagnetic forces in tornadoes for decades - see here for a discussion (item #38).

Recently, I corresponded via email with a person who had some idea or another about tornadoes. It was evident from the beginning that I didn't want to know anything about his idea because I was pretty certain it was something off the wall, as evidenced by his verbiage. If I can avoid becoming involved in a discussion about someone's bogus notions regarding the atmosphere, I'll do so. Anyway, I told him to submit his ideas to a scientific journal and see what happened.

As it turned out, he sent it to the American Meteorological Society's Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences (the 'premier' science journal for the AMS). The outcome was quite predictable - rejection. However, the editor chose not to provide detailed reviews of the manuscript, contrary to standard procedure for journal submissions. I suspect the editor probably decided, as I did, that the ideas contained in the manuscript were without any redeeming value, and may not even have sent it out for external peer review. The author received what amounted to a one-line review (probably from the editor) rejecting the paper for containing 'dynamical statement errors'. I understand that editors wouldn't want to waste the time and effort of reviewers for a paper that's evidently without much merit.

However, I find this abrupt dismissal of a person's ideas to be disturbing, arguably to the point of being unethical. No matter how bizarre someone's concepts might seem to be to an experienced scientist, I believe that even a crackpot deserves something more than a one-line dismissal. This brusque treatment looks to me to be something of an ethical lapse on the part of the JAS editor.

If I were in the editor's shoes, I'd feel obligated to try to point out at least the primary important shortcomings of such a submission. I believe a journal editor can and should screen manuscripts to avoid wasting the time of reviewers with obviously unworthy submissions. However, that editor should be willing to give something substantial to the author(s) to let them know what they need to do to offer a revised manuscript that might meet minimal standards. Even a crackpot deserves that much respect.

Given all the brouhaha about global climate change skeptics, it seems to me that those of us who support consensus science have an ethical obligation to avoid summarily dismissing ideas that run counter to the mainstream. If they contain major errors, then the author(s) of those ideas should be informed of those reasons for rejection in a reasonably detailed way. One-line rejections are clearly patronizing and insulting, unworthy of the science we represent.

Monday, June 14, 2010

A bureaucratic mistake

All large organizations tend to become top-down driven. Decisions of all sorts get made at some level of administration, sometimes even by relatively minor functionaries within the system, and then are imposed on those who must live with and/or implement those decisions. It takes a huge effort to reverse those decisions, despite the ease with which they get made in the first place. The National Weather Service is, of course, such an organization.

Sometime back, a decision was made, for some reason, to take down the the upper air sounding system at Dodge City, KS in mid-June of this year for some sort of system change. Once that decision was made, no argument was permitted to change the target date, no matter what. The foolishness of this decision is tied to the fact that this date is just past the peak in the severe weather season for the Dodge City area (and surrounding countryside) and those soundings are critical information for forecasting the occurrence of severe weather. The soundings also are important for documenting atmospheric structure, which is an important element in severe weather science (including for the Vortex2 field campaign). The absence of the Dodge City sounding was keenly felt by some of us on 13 June 2010, when supercells, some with tornadoes, occurred in the Oklahoma panhandle - within a huge data void in the operational upper air data created by said absence.

I'm sure that some minor bureaucrat in the NWS hierarchy had a reason for choosing this time to take down the Dodge City sounding system. But I'd be willing to bet that if that same functionary were forecasting the weather in the vicinity of Dodge City, s/he'd be howling bloody murder about the stupidity of this decision. Therein lies the problem, of course. Bureaucrats make decisions, all right, but without any concern for the practical, working-level consequences of those decisions. Why? Because if any of these same system functionaries ever had to do an honest day's work forecasting (which is, after all, the only productive activity of the National Weather Service), they've long ago forgotten what it's like to dirty their hands on the forecasting bench. I've met enough of these administrative coneheads to know that many of them have never been forecasters and so have no idea what impacts their decisions have, and couldn't care less what those impacts are. They're simply selfish careerists who don't give a damn about the productive operations of the agency for which they "work".

So the operational forecasters and the science are made to suffer, simply because some bureaucrat made a stupid, but apparently irrevocable, decision. Oh yeah - top-down bureaucracy at its finest!