Wednesday, February 25, 2015

VORTEX - SE: A political scientific boondoggle

It's come to my attention that a project to study tornadoes in the Southeastern US has been created, via political 'pork barrel' machinations.  This project is predicated on the following basis:

"The southeastern United States commonly experiences devastating tornadoes under conditions that differ considerable from those on the Great Plains region where tornado research has historically been focused.  NOAA/NSSL has a newly funded mandate to collaborate with the National Science Foundation in better understanding how environmental factors that are characteristic of the southeastern U.S. affect the formation, intensity, and storm path of tornadoes for this region."

Several institutions within the southeastern US have been pushing this sort of idea for years.  With the help of their Congressional delegations, they evidently have succeeded in forcing this absurd project on the rest of us.  They assert that tornadoes in the southeast are different, and that their regional storm problems therefore have been overlooked.  There's little doubt that tornado fatality counts in the southeastern US are higher than elsewhere, but it's never been demonstrated that this is the result of a difference in the meteorology of tornadic storms in the southeast.  There are many non-meteorological reasons for high death rates in the southeastern US - this blog isn't the venue for a complete discussion of those non-meteorological explanations. 

Nor has it ever been shown that tornadoes in the southeastern US are the result of some (as yet, unspecified) difference in the physics of severe storms and tornadoes.  To the contrary, there is every reason to believe that the meteorology of severe storms and tornadoes is the same the world over.  Absent a compelling demonstration of an important difference in the meteorology, this program is based on an unvalidated hypothesis. 

Yes, the climatology of tornadoes in the southeast differs from that of the Great Plains.  For instance, there's a well-defined tornado "season" in the plains:  tornadoes occur with high frequency in the months of April, May, and June on the plains, and relatively low frequency at other times of the year.  In the southeast, tornado frequencies generally are much lower than the peak months of the plains tornado season, but those relatively low frequencies only decrease substantially during the summer months in the southeast.  Thus, although tornadoes are less frequent in the southeast, they can occur at almost any time of the year, including in the winter.  The reasons for this are clear to most severe storms meteorologists:  they have to do with the ingredients for severe storms and tornadoes, which come together often in the early to late spring on the Plains, and rather less frequently in the southeast but without a clearly defined "tornado season".  This is a clear indication that severe storms and tornadoes in the southeast are more or less identical to comparable storms on the Plains.  The only difference in the regions is the climatology of the ingredients, but the ingredients are everywhere the same!  It seems quite unlikely that any particularly useful meteorological insight is to be gained by this project.

The proposed program is patterned after the already completed VORTEX and VORTEX2 field observation campaigns in 1994-5, and 2009-10, respectively.  These observational campaigns included mobile radars, instrumented vehicles to intercept storms, and so on.  Doing a similar project in the southeast will be much more challenging, owing to the presence of extensive trees, substantial orography, a high frequency of low cloud bases, and a higher overall population density compared to the Plains.  Visibilities needed for successful storm intercepts are just not common in most of the southeastern US.  This renders even more questionable the basic concept of conducting such an exercise in the southeastern US, since it adds to the danger level for the participants, who will be much less able to see and avoid storm hazards in the course of their observational assignments.

This situation is simply an example of how some institutions can game the system to secure funding for themselves.  Unfortunately, government funding is basically a zero-sum game.  What existing programs and projects will have to be cancelled or delayed because of this boondoggle?  This is not the path to scientific cooperation and collaboration - rather, it's divisive and will damage the relations among scientists for decades to come.  This is not a good idea in any way, and it speaks loudly that this ill-advised reallocation of scarce scientific resources is the result of political posturing rather than a reflection of sound scientific justification.

English as the language of science

As a "beneficiary" of the widespread dominance of English in science, I'm often embarrassed by my inability to speak in more than one language. When people apologize to me for their English, my response is always that their English is far, far better than my ability to communicate in their native tongue.  I've often wished that we Americans routinely were schooled in another language at the same time we learn our native tongue, as happens in many nations in Europe. A good argument could be made that we Americans should be taught Spanish at the same time as we learn grammar in schools.  Spanish allows the easy extension to other European languages:  French and Italian, for instance.  Of course, it would nice to speak German, and Russian, and Mandarin Chinese as well.  The problem is that many people, including myself, have limited aptitude for learning new languages, and the time spent doing so takes time away from things we need to do to advance our scientific careers.  It's all too easy for me to defer the effort since most all of science these days is conducted in English.

Forcing non-native speakers to make presentations in English usually results in awful  presentations, forcing them to listen to presentations in English inhibits their ability to understand, and forcing them to write in English frequently results in nearly unreadable manuscripts.  It's NOT "efficient"! Attending international conferences can be quite painful, as people forced to use English struggle mightily to make themselves understood.  I assume they have a genuine wish to communicate their scientific work, but their limited mastery of English makes it very challenging, and often unsuccessful.  I cringe during such presentations and breathe a sigh of relief when they finish.

I think if everyone spoke the same language as their first language, that surely would be "efficient" but most people cling to their own native language as a form of tribalism, resenting strongly the forced imposition of another language on them. I've not experienced it directly, but it's not hard to grasp why that resentment arises.  Cultural tribalism is inevitable, no matter how much we might hope otherwise.  It's not necessarily a completely bad thing:  from my perspective, language is intimately tied to culture, and I surely have no wish for all the diverse cultures of the world to merge into a global mirror of American strip malls, American movies, chain stores and restaurants, and suburbs.  I like to experience different cultures and learn about other viewpoints.

The ascendancy of a language in science is tied, I believe, to the ascendancy of the science done in that nation. It becomes a self-reinforcing tendency: the more important the science done in your particular language, the more scientific colleagues need to be able to communicate via that language. We Americans have benefited, language-wise, from the rise of England as a world power and its scientific prosperity in the post-Renaissance era. As American science declines in significance, thanks at least in part to economic decline (as well as rampant anti-intellectualism and anti-science campaigns by fundamentalist religious extremists), the use of English as "the" language of science will decline. However, as this article suggests, there's a sort of hysteresis as a result of earlier work forming the foundation for current work.  There always will be a need to read foundational scientific works, at least in translation, if not in their original language.  Nuances in one language may not be translated properly in another, so there's always a benefit from the ability to read the original works, to see and understand the original presentations rather than subtitles or other translational forms.

It's quite unlikely that a universal native language will ever arise, despite the clear and obvious advantages of having one primary language.  Our languages are a big part of who we are as cultures and I doubt that many would surrender that willingly.  Hence, I believe it's important to encourage children, whose ability to learn languages is undiminished, to learn at least one other language at an early age.  America has "benefited" from the dominance of English far too long and far too deeply.  Most of us have surrendered our ability to communicate effectively with the non-English-speaking part of the world.  It's bad enough for our society to be in such a position but, beyond that, it's quite detrimental to our science.  I envy my scientific colleagues who are fluent in at least one other language.