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.
a system of government in which most of the important decisions are made by state officials rather than by elected representatives.
a state or organization governed or managed as a bureaucracy.
plural noun: bureaucracies
the officials in a bureaucracy, considered as a group or hierarchy.
excessively complicated administrative procedure, seen as characteristic of bureaucracy.
“the unnecessary bureaucracy in local government”
It is the last bullet point that I am most interested in talking about today, but I guess they are sort of part and parcel of the same. Regardless of where you work, if you work in an organization that has a hierarchy you have faced some degree of bureaucracy. We’ve likely all felt frustrated at times, and it seems every time you’ve figured it all out, or at least gotten used to a certain level of bureaucracy the game changes and you go back to being frustrated.
Bureaucracy can seem like a giant monster you have to contend with everyday and I’ve often wondered is this the intention, or is it more like Frankenstein’s monster. We didn’t intend to create this dangerous creature, but well it’s out there now and we just have to live with it. I think the answer is that likely both types of situations are true. One can see how a bureaucracy might build innocently enough. When things are small in a company the interface might just be a few employees directly to a boss. Then as the business grows and there are more and more employees, the number of people in between the top and bottom grows. It seems also possible that this middle serves important functions and if working efficiently can actually allow that organization to achieve a lot and improve everybody’s happiness in the workplace. More often than not this middle takes on a life of it’s own, has it’s own hierarchy and over time becomes a nightmare. Here are some of my favorite people in a bureaucracy…perhaps you’ve met them. Be aware there is much overlap in character here…it’s possible that all these people could exist in one person and these people are especially painful! 🙂
The Immortal – Every bureaucracy seems to have the one person who never seems to age. They stay in the exact same position. They aren’t particularly good at their job, but usually competent enough to not justify firing them. You retire and somehow they are still there, even though they were there before you started. When combined with one of the other types of bureaucrats, they become a nightmare that never ends.
The Soulless – These bureaucrats are typically the type that work for immigration, embassies or consulates, but you find them elsewhere also. They don’t care about your particular situation. They don’t care if the rules don’t make sense. They just don’t care. They can’t even offer a sincere, “I’m sorry, I understand this must be difficult, but you are going to need to come tomorrow with the long form of your birth certificate.” In fact they’ll usually let you know that you should have read the instructions more carefully regardless of how confusing and unhelpful those instructions are.
The Follower – This person’s attention is only on their boss at all times. Maybe they are sycophant, maybe they just live in fear of getting fired, either way they don’t see themselves as any type of authority even when their job grants them some authority. It’s also possible that they are one of the soulless, who just like to use their boss as an excuse for why they can’t process your paperwork or help you in any way. If a rule doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t matter. They are just doing what they are told. They don’t say things like “You make an excellent point, I’ll bring this up to my superior to see if we can’t design a more sensible process.” They don’t show any signs of independent thought. If you point out that something doesn’t make sense, they simply can’t agree with you. They just point you in the direction of people above them. These bureaucrats are often demeaning to those who work for them especially if they seem brighter than they are, and are presenting ideas of how to make things better. They hate to look less competent than people under them to their boss, so they often lie to their superiors about the competence of those below them.
The Not-My-Problem Stickler – These are some of the worse people. They can be any of the above types as well. These are people who know every rule, expect no boxes to be unchecked. Anything missing in your paperwork or any rule not followed to a T according to their interpretation will lead them to refuse to help you. Furthermore they may not even tell you that you haven’t followed the rules properly or filled out a form incorrectly. It will simply sit on their desk, waiting for you to spend the time tracking down your paperwork as it moves through various offices, only to discover it is sitting on this person’s desk and so when you send a polite inquiry as to when they will process your paperwork, they respond to you as if you just reached your dirty hand in their bag of chips (crisps for you English types). “You had a date wrong here that didn’t match the date on page 3.” is a response you might get. No explanation as to why they didn’t just call you and ask for clarification. You made a mistake, you shouldn’t have made a mistake, and it’s really not their problem that you made a mistake.
The Big Fish in a Small Pond – This is the worst of the lot, and also quite common. Combined with any other types, which is usually the case, this is the type of person who makes you consider whether you should have hope for humanity as long as such people exist. This bureaucrat is poster child of middle management. They wield incredible amounts of power over their very small area. The reason they are so powerful is because their position is important. This is the type of person who might be the head of purchasing through which all parts of an organization must go through at some point. While there are some upper management might like to have these kinds of people about, most of the time nobody likes them, and nobody can get rid of them because they technically do their job. But they are so unhelpful in every way that the organization’s efficiency is reduced, because they have this incredible belief that they are the safeguard to the integrity of the organization like some Samurai Warrior uphold some ancient code of honor. They are quite aware that they are untouchable and relish in the power they have. They have authority to bend the rules, but they won’t. They also will make up rules if they are in a bad mood, just to ruin your day too, and they do it with the utmost confidence that you have no recourse to them just deciding that you are not someone they feel like helping. You’ve never seen them smile, except sardonically. You wonder whether they’ve experienced anything good in their lives. You wonder if they actually can’t even find joy in eating a cookie fresh out of the oven. You wonder if maybe they just need some good sex and maybe then they’d become a reasonable human being.
Whether the intent of the bureaucracy is to actually make it harder to get things done, or whether it’s just some accidental beast that grows out of control, the people who make up the bureaucracy cause a great deal of pain. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if they are villains, or just people of less than average ability who were unemployable anywhere else.
Although I have a read a good portion of the Bible, I have spent little time reading the holy books of other religions. I have read a bit of the Bhagavad Gita as for some reason it was sitting around in my doctor’s office waiting room for awhile. It’s actually kind of an interesting book. I science fiction book I had recently read made several references to the Upanisads and the Dhammapada and so I’ve been perusing those books. It has been interesting reading how other ancient cultures viewed the world. When you read things from the point of view of somebody from those times, when so very little was known about the world, you can appreciate the contents even though from the perspective of today much of it is nonsense. There is wisdom to be found there as well, and I found many similarities between the Bible and the Upanisads in terms of the moral lessons it was trying to teach. There are many possible stories that can teach the same lesson, and it seems pretty clear that even when you suspect they are trying to be literally true, it still represents a best guess, and that what they were really trying to do is find a way of communicating impressions and feelings about the universe even if their literal attempt of an explanation was incomplete.
Recently I was in my local coffee shop working and a group of women sat at the table next to me and they were having a Bible study together. Although I’d say more than half of the time they were just giggling and talking about things unrelated to the Bible, they did focus on their planned lesson. Of course this is typical of many Christians in which they have some guide that hand selects of few important verses to focus on so that the entirety of the narrative is not read by the follower. Like the Upanisads, I expect many church leaders recognize the irrelevance of much of the Bible and would rather not have discussions about many of the passages in the Old testament especially. Anyway, what was interesting is that when they contemplated the words of a specific verse they would often relate it to experiences in their own life. As I could not help but overhear, it was fascinating to me how the verses containing some wisdom seemed to be already known by the women, because life lessons had already taught them it was true. Nevertheless they didn’t seem cognitively aware and put the cart before the horse. “Look at the wisdom of this book, it is telling me something I already know…genius!” I think if you are led to believe in the inspiration and greatness of the word of God, it’s hard to think of it as anything but that. If the wisdom in the pages matches your own experience then this will only give you more respect for the book.
Now it’s not to say that people don’t discover wisdom from holy books. I am listening to a podcast right now where they are discussing some of the main problems in the field of social psychology in terms of how the work is performed. One of the main critiques of social psychology is that a field it has actually become too obsessed with the creation of little experiments for the purpose of following the scientific method and almost forcefully trying to demonstrate it’s scientific rigor. Social psychology is the study of the individual in a societal context and so they ask, why all these experiments, when none of these controlled situations are actually found in a social context? It’s a valid point. The hosts of the podcasts were arguing that what is missing from social psychology as compared to other scientific disciplines is scores of observations. They use the example of Tycho Brahe the famous Dutch astronomer, who really didn’t come up with anything novel on his own, but what he did have was mounds and mounds of careful observations of the stars and planets. Johannes Kepler was his student and came along and came up with his 3 laws of planetary motion. It is Kepler’s genius that is recognized today, but he certainly could not have come up his laws without all those observations. Just as Darwin could not have come up with the theory of evolution without all his observations on the Galapagos.
Astronomy is one of the oldest disciplines because there is little to do at night but look at the stars. It occurred to me that once you had civilizations and had a certain portion of the population doing the farming, a few who could afford to live a life of leisure had little to do during the day but observe humans. It seems no surprise to me that wisdom would be found in ancient texts based on many years of observations of people. Many of us figure things out on our own simply by paying attention to life and taking time to reflect and introspect. There was no formal scientific method back then, and we certainly aren’t using it in our everyday lives when we come to a conclusion like “Hey, maybe I’m spending too much time worrying about things that are out of my control. I would be happier if I focused on the moment.” This is the kind of good stuff we come up with through our experiences, and it seems to me that many of the scholars who wrote religious books were simply story tellers, weaving important moral and ethical lessons into the stories based on their observations of how people behaved and what consequences or rewards befell them. Whether they were joyful, fulfilled, empty, or anxious. Most of them I think were simply people who were observing constantly and coming to some conclusions about how to live a better life.
Pay attention, look inward, and talk to others for their stories. There is wisdom to be found in holy books, but the good news is that you also have a decent chance of figuring it out on your own.
Yesterday, one of my fellow bloggers made a post about how he doesn’t get all the drama surrounding national anthems, whether you stand, sing along, put your hand over your heart etc. I share his sentiment. I’m not much for forced rituals that are supposed to have meaning, but seem so common place, overdone, and generally practiced by so many people who don’t even seem to share those values that it just feels superficial.
I’d like to go a step further and say, I just really don’t understand the sentiment that people of your country are somehow more important than people from any other country. This has been on my mind with the migrant crisis at the border. You see so many comments from people who at best demonstrate indifference for refugees, to what essentially boils down to disgust. I can’t for the life of me how the first reaction can’t be one of compassion. These people are literally dying to get here, being made to suffer in intolerable detention centers because of the conditions that they are fleeing. Instead of accepting that an entire political party simply uses any excuse to see them as people who need help. Forget about accepting the fact that we made this problem through our fruitless war on drugs and that we should bear at least some responsibility for helping them now.
And nevermind the fact that when Syrian refugee crisis existed, the most moderate of Republicans well still like…”I won’t take them here, but we can help them over there.” Meanwhile, I’ve heard when it was suggested that we provide aid to the central American countries as a way of keeping people there, people now say why should we give money to other countries? Conservatives will talk about all the help American’s need here at home, but they won’t support welfare programs, they don’t put homelessness at the top of their political platforms, they won’t support first responders from 9/11.
I find the disregard for humans in need just insufferable. Like being American was something most of us tried to do. It wasn’t a choice, most of us were just born here. If there is anybody who actually wants to be American it’s the people coming to our borders in need of help. Accidents of geography are no basis to deny people who are suffering help. Yet this patriotism banner is being waved like it actually means something. Just maybe if such people were interested in helping Americans I might just believe it, but it’s all talk. There are the people who can help, and those that need help. That’s all. Nationalism is meaningless to me, unless through that structure you can use that power to make lives better for other people on the planet that sustains us all.
Honestly I just don’t understand. Anybody else that can help me to understand, I’m all ears.
The title of this post is related to another incident of victim blaming that was in the news not too long ago. The incident involved model Bella Thorne having her computer hacked and the hacker making off with a number of private nude photos. Bella Thorne, to sort of give a big “fuck you” to the hacker, released the photos herself on Twitter. On The View, Whoopi Goldberg criticized Thorne saying essentially that one has to know in this day and age that storing such photos on a device connected to the internet (and you are a famous beautiful celebrity) is setting yourself up for this type of theft. Goldberg then received a ton of backlash including some strong words from Thorne herself for being criticized when it was of course the hacker who was the person who did something wrong and that Goldberg “should know better”. I suspect Goldberg does know better. There is nothing about her that makes me think she isn’t a good feminist. She has always had a no nonsense, blunt style and her comment here I don’t think is meant to give the hacker a pass. I’ll go so far as to say that I think she makes a good point. A point we should be able to talk about if framed correctly. Before I get accused of victim blaming, let me go into more detail about what I mean.
Hacking is a reality of this day and age, and Thorne isn’t the first victim of this type of attack. This has to be part of our consciousness. There are laws against hacking, which is invading someone’s privacy and stealing personal property, and their should be. It is theft and violation, plain and simple. We can say that the hacker is immoral in his actions. I think we can say that we all wish we lived in a world in which there were no hackers, and in which a woman’s body wasn’t a commodity that someone could profit on, such that this hacker could ostensibly get leverage over Thorne or other victims of this crime. As a society we must continue to strive to fix this bigger problem. Since we don’t live in that kind of society yet, we must also act wisely. To do so requires us to be able to have conversations about wise and unwise actions to keep people and property from harm. I am sort of reminded of that old joke where a guy meets a doctor at a social gathering and tries to get some free medical advice and says “Hey doc, my arm hurts whenever I do this. (Imagine whatever arm motion you like). What should I do?” And the doctor responds “Don’t move your arm like that.” Clearly there is a bigger issue to solve with that person’s arm, but in the short term, not doing a motion that causes you pain might be wise. We should be able to simultaneously talk about short term solutions to protect ourselves, while also addressing bigger issues that increase equality and safety for all people rendering this short term acts of caution more irrelevant over time.
If there is a neighborhood where you have an increased chance of being mugged or harmed, all sorts of people will tell you to avoid walking through that neighborhood. It is not meant to say that they condone violence or theft upon you or anybody else, it is simply meant as advice to keep you out of harms way. We don’t get all bent out of shape by such advice, but the conversation goes south when women are blamed for their decisions in these types of incidents, or worse crimes like sexual violence. And I think for good reason. There have been some criticisms of social media for the fighting that erupted between two women who are likely on the same side of the fight against the patriarchy, but I’m actually not too upset about social media here, because maybe this is a conversation that needs to be had more often.
We have an older and wiser Goldberg, criticizing the wisdom of a younger Thorne. Perhaps Goldberg feels like she was helping young girls everywhere be wary of putting compromising pictures of themselves in less than secure places based on what can happen to them. Goldberg’s mistake however was that she also lacked some wisdom here. As much as I’d like to live in a society where we could have honest conversations about what is a wise or unwise decision when crimes happen, when it comes to crimes against women there is just a long history of the “unwise” decision of a woman being used as an excuse for a man’s immorality and criminal behavior. If a person is beaten and robbed in that unsafe neighborhood, the police will still arrest and charge the perpetrators, but too many men have gotten off Scot free because of what was deemed a woman’s unwise decision. Furthermore the basis of what was considered unwise for a woman, does not apply to a man. In fact very often their unwise decisions are used to further excuse them from wrongdoing. A woman drinks too much at a party? Well then of course she kind of deserves to be raped. A guy drinks too much at a party? Well clearly he didn’t really mean to rape her, he just had too many beers and didn’t know what he was doing. Let’s just sentence him to talk about the dangers of drinking. It’s a huge problem and women have a right to absolutely tired of it. Goldberg could have said what she said in a much better way that made it clear who the bad actor was in this situation.
Let me also add that the best people in our society are ones who could take advantage but don’t and instead help people be more safe. Thorne was already punished and probably knows by now what she should have done and doesn’t need Goldberg’s advice after the fact. So the timing of the comment is also unhelpful. Like Fareed Zakaria’s advice to Sam Harris after another rant about Islam being the mother lode of bad ideas “Yeah, you’re right, but you’re not helping.” Being right, and being helpful are often two different things.
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.