Life is a journey. Let us meet at the intersection and share a story.
Author: Swarn Gill
I am a professor of the atmospheric sciences. I am biracial. I am Canadian. I feel grateful to be one of the lucky ones who had a good life thanks to hardworking parents and growing up in a part of the world that offered plenty of opportunities for livelihood and happiness. I want my writing to spread information, hope, smiles, and provoke thought.
The climate has been changing since the Earth began.
We have warm periods and cool periods. That climate.
Likely you have heard one of these arguments or some variation before. Look at any conversation about climate change and you will see at least some man-made climate change denier using it. It’s hard to even know exactly what they mean by the argument. I’m not even sure what argumentation fallacy to call it. Perhaps it’s just a non sequitur, but let’s try to break it down.
First, let’s start simply. If such people using the argument are trying to claim that what we are seeing is natural climate change, then they are misstating the argument. They should simply say. Yes the climate is changing, but there is insufficient evidence that man is the cause. I mean that’s not true, of course, but it would be an argument. Just one in which the person making the argument hasn’t adequately analyzed the evidence. The other implication here is that scientists in this field either don’t know that the climate changes naturally or that they don’t know what causes climate to change naturally, but just decided to come to a massive consensus across multiple scientific disciplines that it’s happening. This is also is ridiculous.
However, the way this argument is phrased it seems that the argument that is really being made here by those who use it, is that they think one of two things (or perhaps both):
Since climate changes naturally it can’t change because of human influence.
Since climate changes naturally there is nothing that can be done about it.
Let’s deal with the second argument first. And let’s even go so far as to say that the person is right. What we are seeing is just natural. Given the rate the temperature is warming this is cause for alarm, even if it is natural. It threatens many human populations, will increase drought frequency, extreme precipitation events, national security issues, species extinction, rapid sea level rise, etc. If this is happening naturally, then why shouldn’t we be trying to do something about it? If a naturally started forest fire threatens people’s homes, should we not put it out. Should we not build homes more securely to mitigate damage from hurricanes? We do so many things to try to mitigate and prevent damage and deaths from natural disasters, it seems ridiculous to me to make any such claim that natural climate change that threatens large populations of people and ecosystems worldwide isn’t something that we should be trying to do something about.
The first argument takes even less effort to counter. My favorite example is to use evolution, which of course happens naturally, but practically all farming, horse and dog breeding happens through man-made selection in order to increase food nutrition and create your favorite breeds of dogs and horses. Taken to the extreme we could simply say that death is a natural process, thus there is no such thing as murder. Or since death is a natural process there is no sense in trying to cure people of cancer.
Overall it is difficult to understand why this is such a common argument, and why this seems to be the final argument for so many to dismiss man-made climate change as a non-issue. Feel free to share this post with folks you know who have made this argument.
My 5 year old son is going through a bit of a phase right now where he is scared of being almost anywhere in the house by himself. Even in the day time. He wants someone to walk with him to the bathroom, his bedroom, the basement, etc. He says he’s scared that their might be monsters, while at the same time freely admits that he knows monsters aren’t real. But how does he know such things, other than the fact that his parents have told him so? My wife was able to prod the reason for his current phase out of him. He says that he thought he saw something like a monster in the dark once and since that time is when he’s started being scared going from room to room. So here there is a clash between something he “knows” because it is has been told to him by authority in his life and something that he has experienced. Now obviously he is misinterpreting his experience and there aren’t monsters. There is no way he can be reasoned with through conversation. It will simply dawn to him at some point after enough time has passed and no monsters have appeared that he might have been just imagining it. And in between he may see other disturbing shapes in the darkness that might worry him further. This will take time.
As a parent it is easy to be a bit frustrated with this, especially since it is enough work watching the 15 month old, and to now have to escort a 5 year old everywhere in the house, even when it is bright and sunny is a bit annoying. But then I remembered back to how I was no different as a child. One of my first memories, although more like an emotional imprint, is that I remember being scared of the moon. Apparently this happened around the age of two. I remember that the moon would sometimes be visible outside my window, and I remember being scared of it. I don’t remember when I got over that fear, but my dad says they had to move the bed so that I couldn’t see out the window from bed. Then everything was fine. Of course now I think the moon is full of romance and beauty and I can think of no logical reason why I would fear the moon. It
was clearly an irrational fear. When I was older, maybe around 7 I also remember being scared of a stuffed Daffy Duck. It sat next to my bed and like Daffy should it had big eyes with a fair amount of white. That white almost glowed in the dark, and so when I would see the Daffy Duck sitting upright near my bed it started to freak me out. In fact I have recollections of it just appearing to me that way rather suddenly, and not having frightened me prior to that. Maybe I had some experience that made me worried about eyes in the dark. I don’t know. Needless to say I had to hide the Daffy Duck and then everything was fine.
All this made me think about fear. My friend Esme had a post where she asked her readers to come up with an analogy for fear and mine was “Fear is like water. We need a little to live, but too much and we drown.” I think this is a pretty good analogy. But even if some fear is good, there are rational and irrational fears. The fact that we would fear things irrationally makes no difference to evolution. We need to be creatures that feel fear, because there are actually things to fear in this world. And what we fear can’t be so hardwired into us, because then how would we be able to adapt to new threats and dangers? So we are just going to feel fear for all sorts of things, whether it is a poisonous snake, or the imagined menace of the eyes of a stuffed duck in the dark.
It seems to me that one of the purposes of our ability to reason (maybe the most important part) is that we can try to sort out the rational from the irrational fears. And then at a higher level of reasoning we can then try to prioritize those fears to help us make better choices about where we expend our energy to try to mitigate those things which pose the greatest threat. Anybody who is paying attention in this world knows that we are terrible at both of these things. One reason we might be terrible at this is that in general, nature really only cares that we live long enough to reproduce. As social species even if we died shortly after reproduction there would still be people in our community that could potentially raise those young. So we need to feel fear, and we need to feel it strongly to get us to the point of sexual maturity, but beyond that fear loses its utility. It seems to me that for most of us we live in a world where making it to the age of sexual maturity isn’t so difficult anymore, but our brains are still going to be wired to feel fear. And this fear can, and is exploited intentionally, or unintentionally every day.
But even if we do make a correct decision about something we should rationally fear, if there is nothing we can do about it, how do we as humans deal with such fear? The example that often comes to mind for me is how humans at the dawn of civilization, after we discovered farming and lived in close proximity to each other and animal feces, is death to diseases we did not have immunities to. Somewhere around 80% of the aboriginals in North America died of such diseases when the Europeans came. Things like small pox and influenza. Of course you can still be killed by such things today, but most of us don’t because we’ve had so many generations of living with these things our bodies have built up an immunity. Imagine living in those early days of farming and seeing people die in the prime of their lives from the flu. Not just one person who was already a bit unhealthy but many people. This would be a reasonable thing to fear. But what could one do about it? The microscope was not invented until 1590. It’s not that humans didn’t try to combat this reasonable fear, but in the absence of being able to know what germs, viruses, and infections were at that microscopic level, truly doing something about that fear would have been hard to do. The boon that farming brought would have easily given us a blind spot as to what might be the source of problems. When I really read the entirety of the Leviticus in the Bible it was clear to me that this was how we went about combating reasonable fears. Practical advice (for the time) mixed with storytelling. Science is really also about building a narrative for why things happen the way they do, and how to go about solving those problems. I do think narratives, and stories, are important for contextualizing fears. So we can say “Alright well here is a thing that I fear, and here is why it happens, and now I can start taking steps to avoid these things.” The problem being that when you have the wrong explanation, you can expend a great deal of energy and not really solve the problem, even if you do conquer your fear. To the local follower of some divine word, it must have been a great surprise to the one who believed and did as they were told that disease still ended their lives. Leaving those alive to suspect that the only reason the person died couldn’t be because they had an incorrect narrative for the fear, but that the person who died wasn’t following the narrative correctly or worse yet rejected the narrative secretly.
One of the things that I like about the scientific method is that built-in is a self-correction mechanism so that we can constantly question the narrative. Certainly there have been scientists who have stuck to a particular paradigm, or who let ego override their humility, but I think people who don’t really understand science, underestimate how much self-correction is built in to the methodology. Maybe that’s also why the biggest religious zealots have a hard time seeing science as fundamentally different from religion. We see the narrative science builds change; openly and unabashedly. Yet books remain unchanged. Of course, this isn’t strictly true, because narratives evolve, translators change things, and some beliefs fall away from various denominations, but the story that religion often tells is that it is unchanging and forever. Such is the nature of institutions.
Maybe fear can become addictive in the brain as well. Maybe this is why it feels like so many people are drowning in it today. I think that’s what makes me the saddest about religious fundamentalists or conspiracy theorists, because for all their narratives they just seem really afraid and all I can think is “Things aren’t really as fearful as you think.” This is also what angers me about fear mongering. It really might be the worst human behavior.
As a meteorologist, it is difficult for me to turn that part of myself off wherever I go. When people try to make small talk about the weather with me, they usually regret it, because to me weather isn’t just to pass the time, but it’s interesting. However, for most people it is small talk. Invariably whenever I go out in public I overhear conversations about the weather, whether in restaurants, museums, the locker room at the gym, etc. There is a common theme I hear which is that forecasters don’t know what’s going on. I hear and read things like prediction is not even possible. I have had people come up to me and jokingly say, “Meteorology must be a great profession because you can be wrong 50% of the time and still have a job.” Though they clearly are telling one of those jokes that they actually believe to be true, the chuckle I give in return is not nearly as sincere. To explain would require more time than I often have, so I thought maybe I should write a post explaining some of the basics, and explain some of the most common things people misunderstand about the weather.
There is a lot to the history of forecasting, but I think it’s fairly clear why people want to have some knowledge about what sort of weather was coming their way. Whether you wanted to know when to plant crops, went to harvest, or where and when to sail your ship, having knowledge of the atmosphere, knowing what weather is coming your way has huge advantages. The beginnings of forecasting as a science were driven by WWI when aviation was added to warfare and they quickly realized that having weather observations and an ability to know what weather was coming was a huge tactical advantage. The weather forecast is something almost everyone utilizes today, whether you think it means something or not, people will still look to try to make the best guess about what to wear, whether to bring an umbrella, or whether travel or not will be hazardous.
How Accurate are Forecasts and Why Do People Think They Are Not Accurate?
First things first. Currently the National Whether Service is accurate for 1 and 2 day temperature forecasts to within 2.5 – 4 F, and has an 82% accuracy rate when it comes to precipitation. I am not going to spend a lot of time proving accuracy here, you can check out these links as they have already done the work.
What I will say is that it is important to understand how our cognitive biases shape our perception. The one at work here is that what sticks in memory are the misses, and not the hits. When the forecast is right, you don’t think about the forecast. When it’s wrong you do. This creates a data point in your brain only when there is a missed forecast, but it’s poor way to draw meaningful statistical conclusions. I think it’s also important to note that I see a lot of click bait type headlines for upcoming weather and this may be what’s drawing our attention. Extreme gets clicks, but may not be what’s being endorsed by the National Weather Service. It’s also not clear whether people are staying current with the latest forecast.
Finally I think it’s important to remember that in extreme weather situations forecasters will err on the side of caution. It is a difficult line to walk. When extreme predictions don’t happen, the public loses trust in your forecast, and this can cost you lives in the future. If on the other hand you don’t communicate the possibility of an extreme situation, that can also lose you lives. So in erring on the side of caution, more often than not people will find that it might not have been quite as bad as predicted. Erring on the side of caution is the right thing to do, because there is an inherent error to the forecast. Sometimes in the margin of error, the extreme end of that error can be the difference between life and death.
Precipitation is the hardest variable to forecast for and some of the reasons for that are given in the next section, but a few points are worth talking about here. First, many people don’t understand the precipitation forecast. This has been a criticism of the National Weather Service to change their way of forecasting precipitation, but for now, there seems to be no better way of doing it. When the probability of precipitation (PoP) is reported, it is reported as a percent. But what does that percent mean? This probability is actually the product of two other numbers. One is the actually chance of precipitation but the other is the percentage of the forecast area that will be impacted by precipitation. Each National Weather Service office has a specific region in which they are suppose to forecast for and they usually break those down into smaller regions for the purpose of precipitation forecast, but the fact remains that incorporated into that PoP is areal coverage. So 50% chance of precipitation is not the coin toss that some make it out to be, but it could mean that there is a 100% chance of rain over half the forecast area. Of course it could also mean that there is a 50% chance over all the forecast area. But it’s also important to remember that even in the latter case it’s not a coin toss, but rather based on evidence that pegs precipitation as more likely. The difference between rain and no rain can often be very small and requires knowledge of atmospheric properties at high resolution. A far higher resolution than we have.
Snow forecasts are often worse, and this is largely due to two factors. One, is that it depends on temperature whether you get rain or snow. It takes a very slight error in the forecasted temperature for rain to suddenly become snow or vice-versa. So being 2 F off in our forecasted temperature may make no difference in what you wear for the day, but it can have huge impacts on what driving conditions are like. The second important factor here is that water expands when it freezes such that the ratio of snow to liquid precipitation is 10:1. Forecast models only determine the precipitable water for a particular area. If that prediction is off by 0.2 inches this could be the difference between 1 and 3 inches of snow, which is a rather big deal when it comes to driving. But it’s not always a matter of the forecast model being wrong in terms of precipitable water. Across any storm system there is going to be variation in the amount of precipitable water and thus getting the storm track exactly right also matters. Mix this in with a possible slight error in forecast temperature can lead to a vast difference the amount of snow accumulation for a particular location. On top of that the 10:1 ratio is more like 7:1 if the snow is really wet, so this adds error into the forecast as well.
Weather is a matter of Scale
A lot get’s said about the difference between weather and climate, but very little is said about differences among various types of weather systems. Typically, the average meteorologist separates scale into 3 categories. Turbulent eddies near the surface to convection currents in clouds make up the microscale (< a few km) A thunderstorm or a system of thunderstorms or series of cloud bands for lake effect snow would be part of the mesoscale (about 10-100 km, several hours), and then things like low pressure systems would be on the synoptic scale (about 1000 km, several days). Our ability to forecast events along these scales depends largely on our ability to make observations smaller than the scale we are trying to predict in both space and time. For instance if I am at a station 100 km away from the nearest station, even if I make continuous observation a thunderstorm that happens somewhere in between will not be observed by me. When you look at the number of tornadoes in the U.S. over a 100 year period, you will see a dramatic rise in the number from a few hundred to over a 1000. This is no climate change phenomena, but a matter of our ability to observe tornadoes, and the advent of a national radar network that dramatically increased our ability to determine where tornado producing storms were. Similarly if I make observations only two times a day, I’m unlikely to be able to resolve well the changes that occur between those observation times.
Computer models that forecast weather have similar problems. Computer models operate by breaking up the atmosphere into a 3-D grid that then processes the physical equations that describe the atmosphere at equal time intervals. The size of these grids and the spacing of the measurement network that gives the initial data for these models to work lends itself best to the forecasting on the synoptic scale. What this means is that we are likely to best forecast the development and movement of low pressure systems and high pressure systems, and forecast widespread rain. The timing and movement of individual thunderstorms represent processes that occur at the sub-grid level. In essence, noise. Obviously a potential hail or tornado producing thunderstorm is not really noise, but this is why your forecaster is pretty good at telling you when that cold front is coming through the next day, but not so good at pinpointing where thunderstorms will be the strongest. That type of accuracy is usually only made several hours in advance. Although we’re pretty good at assessing a day or two in advance which day will have a high potential for thunderstorms.
Practical vs. Theoretical
When it comes to the theory about how weather works we are, in general, ahead of the game, but practical considerations take precedent. For instance we could do an excellent job of forecasting if we had weather data every 10 km over the surface of the earth and sent up weather balloons once every hours. The cost however of such an enterprise would be enormous. Especially considering it’s very difficult to get this information over the ocean. Remote sensing devices like satellite and radar are making strides in provide better spatial coverage, but even those have limitations. We are never going to have perfect data over as wide a range and as often as we need it, and this is always going to lead to some error. Computer power is also a practical limitation although it has accelerated greatly since the first model. Previously, with all the theory we knew, trying to create a model that matched our data network would have taken the computer so long to produce an output that the time we were trying to forecast for would have been past. This is no longer a terribly relevant problem, but it is if we really want to be able to break into models that compute both synoptic and mesoscale features. It’s a bit hard to explain but you can think of a computer model as potentially like a nesting doll. We could run a model at the smaller scale within in each grid of the synoptic scale model. So a model within a model. That becomes computationally laborious and can take intense amount of computer processing power.
Then we have the reality of cost-benefit analysis. Decisions about weather research and preparedness have a lot to do with what the costs are. This is hardly surprising. If snow is rare in your city you might find that it’s easier for the city to just close down for a day than spend a lot of money on snow plows. As mentioned above, to take ideal amount of measurements would be of great cost and despite the scientist’s love of data, the question must be asked do the gains in forecast accuracy outweigh the costs. Improved technology can help reduce cost and make instruments more maintenance free, but instruments still need to be recalibrated, replaced and maintained. These instruments are outdoors and can get pelted by hail, get dirty, or get spiderwebs or hornets nests, etc. You will find the densest network of measurements in areas where lots of people live. Sparsely populated areas, areas with complex terrain, will have less measurements and this means they will experience greater errors in forecasting. In addition to the complex wind flow that occurs in mountainous areas leading to a large variability in conditions, there are far few weather observing stations. If you live in such a region you are likely less than impressed by your local forecaster.
The Answer is Blowing in the Wind
The prevailing wind direction in mid-latitudes (where most of the U.S. resides) is from west to east. Thus even being downstream of areas that have sparse observing stations also are more poorly forecasted. The best way to know what weather you are about to get is to have good measurements upstream of your location.
Finally, there are also communication issues. The National Weather Service has put a lot of effort into this area, to think how to better communicate and disseminate weather information. For instance if we have a particular graphic showing probabilities for where the eyewall for a hurricane is going to hit, is that graphic communicating what it needs to the person who needs to see it, whether that’s an emergency response worker or the average person?
In this day and age of instant media and social media, it should in some ways make communication easier, but what I’ve noticed that it’s not always clear whether people are paying attention to the most current information, if they’re getting their information from a good source, and even if it seems whether or not they are aware what location a particular forecast is for and may think a forecast was bad even if it wasn’t for where they live. As I mentioned at the beginning there is also a lot of clickbait and alarmist language being used. Things like “bomb cyclone” and other colorful adjectives. At the same time there has been criticism that the normal scientific tendency to temper their language in communicating important information may make people pay less attention to situations they should pay attention to. Undoubtedly there are going to be consequences of both extremes. Overuse of strong language, especially when conditions end up not being that extreme can numb the public to more dire warnings. Trying to find the best way to get people to understand, and pay attention is difficult, but this is a challenge the weather community takes seriously. In the end, there probably is no perfect way to communicate, and it is up to the consumer of the information to educate themselves as well as to what this weather stuff is all about.
Hopefully this little piece helped explain a few things. If you have any other questions, let me know. I’ll add to this so this remains a fixed guide to helping people understanding the challenges in forecasting and why we might have misconceptions about forecasting accuracy.
From an emotional standpoint, attacking character rather than policies can be a one-way street.
More than ever in the age of social media, when political opponents compete they focus on each other’s character flaws, missteps, and past bad behavior rather than differentiated policy proposals. Some call it the politics of denunciation, and at this point in the evolution of culture, denunciation often focuses on transgressions against identity: perceived racism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia, or insensitivity to immigrants.
Getting millions of people talking and tweeting about a serious policy proposal is nigh unto impossible, and even when they do, they are likely to hold their opinions with some degree of uncertainty. By contrast, denunciation can be a highly effective political tool because it elicits clear, strong emotional reactions like anger, disgust and righteous indignation, which make it viral. By triggering a visceral, moral reaction, it shapes loyalties and loathing in a…
I will begin at the beginning. I write this letter on a Thursday evening a day before your birthday. It is a Thursday evening that you were born, and it was around this time of 7 pm. It is both a measure of being more relaxed at a second child being born and also having to care for your older brother that I arrived to see your birth just in the nick of time. No two births are the same, and yours was proof of that. No Cesarean, no long wait after labor had been induced, not even enough time for the epidural to kick in on your mother. I arrived at the hospital and navigated it’s labyrinthine halls to get to the delivery ward, still wondering whether I should have stopped to get that coffee first, figuring it would be a long night. I waited for a nurse for a few minutes at the nursing station to find out what room your mother was in. When one finally came she informed me that she was pretty sure my wife was in labor and making a few screams and that I better get down there right away. I did a somewhat unimpressive jog to the room. When I opened the door…well it’s hard to describe. It was a sea of pure femininity. Numerous nurses stood at the periphery, a doctor stood like a catcher in baseball staring down the birth canal, one nurse on either side holding your mothers legs. She was screaming in pain, trying to push you out. I stood there somewhat stunned. Quite sure that I was minorly responsible for the present scene due to some past action of mine, but had done little since to earn a place there. Your mother, was apparently too occupied to notice me, but I assure you I took no offense. A nurse near the door deftly assumed I was the father and led me through the war zone over to your mother. Some sort of bloody liquid spurted out of your mother against the doctor’s scrubs. A nurse stood aside and helped me get a hold of her leg (your mother…not the nurse). It was at this moment your mother was aware that I was there. She gave me a glorious smile and all of a sudden she made me feel like I belonged. She is good at that. After 3 pushes you came into this world. I clapped off the dust from my hands, wiped my brow and congratulated myself on a job well done. Really though your mother was just amazing. It was beautiful to see, and despite the fact that I saw one life form exit out of another, I wouldn’t miss it for the world. At the end of it all was you, to hold and love.
For 4 years we had only your brother to love, and the love seemed so overwhelming that I actually wondered if I could feel that kind of love for two children. It sounds like a silly thing to wonder, but I was worried that it wouldn’t feel the same, that I wouldn’t feel as connected, or that my love wouldn’t grow each day in the same way it did with Dhyan. You’ll be pleased to know that my worries were unfounded. It is different, because, well, you’re different, but it’s still intense and it’s still wonderful. I’ll admit that I don’t get the same thrill in watching your firsts as I did with your brother. There was certainly a sense of wonder watching a baby grow from birth, and that fascination isn’t quite the same with you. There was something more academic about it all with your brother, which for me is a thrilling experience, but it somehow all feels more personal with you. You are a wonder in of itself, because I can tell you look like me in features, but you are this light brown hair and blue eyed version of me which just amazes me. It’s like watching myself with a blue twinkle in my eye. It’s surreal. And I also realized a few months ago that really the biggest part of the sense of wonder I felt with your brother is that I was able to watch him unfold with no basis for comparison. With you there is. It’s so easy to compare you to your brother at a particular age, but I realize that’s unfair in many ways. I vowed on that day to just let you unfold as you are. No comparisons necessary. I think I’ve been doing a pretty good job and I hope I can keep it up. You deserve the freedom to be who you are without the context of your brother. I don’t need you to be more or less like your brother. I just need you to be you.
I want you to know that I feel a draw to you that I can’t put my finger on. I do feel there is more of me in you somehow. We’ll see how time bears this out. You have this infectious smile and laugh, and a laid back, easy way about you. You crawl to me when I come home, even when you mother is home and that’s a pleasant surprise, because your brother was always for mommy only as a baby. 🙂 I feel so close to you already, and your personality is only beginning to show. I am so anxious to meet you, I just can’t wait to see what surprises you have in store.
My favorite memory of you in this first year, is how attached you are to certain music videos. You seem fascinated by them, sometimes smiling, but always engaged. I have such fond memories of you sitting on my lap, sometimes erect and alert and sometimes laid back and cuddly. You have your favorites and playing a different video from the 13 or so songs you like, usually gets you fidgety and unhappy, but play one you like and you’re quiet as a mouse, content. I love just having you in my arms while we watch music videos.
You also are fascinated with looking up. When you were a few months old you were very fascinated looking up at the leaves in the tree. Now it’s lights, fans, ceilings. You have this gaze upward that fills your face with fascination, excitement, and wonder. You love when I spin around holding you in my arms, you look up watching the world spin with you. I love watching that smile on your face. I don’t need you to be a meteorologist like me, but I do hope you always like to look up in wonder.
I also am more starkly aware of how long each phase lasts having had your brother and in that way I have come to appreciate each moment more with you. And since I don’t plan to have any other children, I know these moments won’t come again. Whether it’s cradling you in my arms, singing you to sleep, or comforting you through the pain of teething, it all feels like something more to savor. You have just started to walk these last few weeks. The joy on your face and the sounds you make while doing it just delights me to no end. Soon that too will pass and you’ll just be walking as if that’s what you always did. I know from experience that when I sit down and write this letter next year you will be so much more than you are now. I can’t wait for you to unfold this next year. I can’t wait for the bloom of spring and the warmth of summer. I know you are going to love it! Thank you for being more than I could have hoped for and filling a heart to heights of love I never knew it could reach. Happy Birthday!
I was listening to a podcast interview with Nick Bostrom who was talking about his paper The Vulnerable World Hypothesis which looks at how we might avoid certain existential risks that might collapse civilization as we discover new technologies. It’s an interesting read, but not directly related to what I want to discuss in this post. He talks about one of the solutions to dealing with such risks is increases surveillance of people. I am sure that we are all uncomfortable with that, but I think he makes a pretty good argument about why it might be necessary given the possibility of inventing some technology that is easy to use by individuals and could easily lead to widespread destruction.
It was this uncomfortability that I was thinking about and I started to think about the reaction to the scandal that was exposed a number of years ago when it was found out that the NSA was collecting all this information on U.S. Citizens. I personally didn’t get concerned myself. I thought about the volume of data they are collecting and it seemed pretty clear to me that the man hours it would take to actually listen or read everyone’s private communications, while solving unemployment, would be an enormous task. It seems people actually feared that an NSA agent might show up at the door and tell their wife that the husband was having an affair or something. I don’t know. We definitely don’t like the idea of the government having our private information, and maybe that’s for good reason.
But enter social media. We have these platforms that we enter all sorts of personal information into. We talk about what we like and don’t like. We post pictures of where we are and where we’ve been. These companies collect all this information. We know that they have algorithms that influence what we read, who comes up on our feeds, and try to feed into our political views as opposed to presenting us with opposing arguments. We know that these platforms have been used by hackers and others entities to directly manipulate people. 100s of millions of people all over the world hand over all this information willingly.
My question is, is our government anti-trust disproportional to our trust of corporations? Is it even fair to compare the two, or is their an asymmetry here that I am missing? I mean arguably NSA surveillance could be uncovering terrorist plots that prevent loss of lives, does social media have benefits that outweigh its costs? Are we being hypocritical about the importance of privacy? Is it a difference of consent of information vs. non-consent of information? I mean I might argue that I am consenting by getting a Facebook account and posting things about myself, but they are certainly using my information in many ways I don’t expect or aren’t aware of.
I was reading Mak’s recent post this morning questioning how Adam and Eve could fear a punishment of death without having known death and it reminded of this interesting passage from Roger Zelazny’s Hugo Award winning book Lord of Light (I strongly recommend it). Also just as a bit of trivia, this book was the source for the fake movie they said they were making to rescue the hostages from Iran in 1979. Anyway these are some words to contemplate.
“Names are not important,” he said. “To speak is to name names, but to speak is not important. A thing happens once that has never happened before. Seeing it, a man looks upon reality. He cannot tell others what he has seen. Others wish to know, however, so they question him saying, ‘What is it like, this thing you have seen?’ So he tries to tell them. Perhaps he has seen the very first fire in the world. He tells them, ‘It is red, like a poppy, but through it dance other colors. It has no form, like water, flowing everywhere. It is warm, like the sun of summer, only warmer. It exists for a time upon a piece of wood, and then the wood is gone, as though it were eaten, leaving behind that which is black and can be sifted like sand. When the wood is gone, it too is gone.’ Therefore, the hearers must think reality is like a poppy, like water, like the sun, like that which eats and excretes. They think it is like to anything that they are told it is like by the man who has known it. But they have not looked upon fire. They cannot really know it. They can only know of it. But fire comes again into the world, many times. More men look upon fire. After a time, fire is as common as grass and clouds and the air they breathe. They see that, while it is like a poppy, it is not a poppy, while it is like water, it is not water, while it is like the sun, it is not the sun, and while it is like that which eats and passes wastes, it is not that which eats and passes wastes, but something different from each of these apart or all of these together. So they look upon this new thing and they make a new word to call it. They call it ‘fire.’
“If they come upon one who still has not seen it and they speak to him of fire, he does not know what they mean. So they, in turn, fall back upon telling him what fire is like. As they do so, they know from their own experience that what they are telling him is not the truth, but only a part of it. They know that this man will never know reality from their words, though all the words in the world are theirs to use. He must look upon the fire, smell of it, warm his hands by it, stare into its heart, or remain forever ignorant. Therefore, ‘fire’ does not matter, ‘earth’ and ‘air’ and ‘water’ do not matter. ‘I’ do not matter. No word matters. But man forgets reality and remembers words. The more words he remembers, the cleverer do his fellows esteem him. He looks upon the great transformations of the world, but he does not see them as they were seen when man looked upon reality for the first time. Their names come to his lips and he smiles as he tastes them, thinking he knows them in the naming. The thing that has never happened before is still happening. It is still a miracle. The great burning blossom squats, flowing, upon the limb of the world, excreting the ash of the world, and being none of these things I have named and at the same time all of them, and this is reality, the Nameless.”