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.
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.
I was listening to a podcast this morning where Jonathan Haidt was interviewed. He’s a very interesting guy and I recommend checking out some of his work, but he was there to talk about his new book that he co-authored called The Coddling of America. It is something that is commonly talking about as a university professor, and of course it is a pretty mainstream discussion as well. Helicopter parenting and the hand-holding that still takes place even as they enter college is somewhat alarming. He argues that the changes in attitudes of university students on campus started around 2013 and so his discussion isn’t about millennials but rather about iGen or GenZ. He talks about the fact that we have this generation that is raised where an adult is constantly around. Also the constant testing and homework means kids don’t play enough and when they do play it is always under adult supervision. Kids don’t learn conflict resolution strategies when an adult is always a mediator. There was far more detail that he gave but what primarily caught my attention is his explanation of why this is. I mean if these young people are actually having moral panics and creating obstacles in their life that don’t actually exist, it is the fault of the parents and how they are raised. So he asks the question, why are we pre-disposed as parents to coddling?
He talks about the progress paradox. The basic idea is that what progress has done is made us all a lot safer, and thus we begin to worry about low probability risks. Things we wouldn’t have paid much attention to before but now do simply because we don’t have to worry about kids dying from small pox. Progress means we also aren’t having as many kids, as education and access to birth control has increased for all people. This progress means we are more worried about the few kids we do have. Progress has also led to increased leisure time which gives us more time to spend with our kids and watch over them. We also are more aware of child development issues and are more apt to get them involved in structured activities over free play. All of this, Haidt claims, explains why we have increased levels of moral panics on university campuses, why there safe spaces, trigger warnings, and microaggressions. (Interestingly Haidt says that removing yourself from triggers if you’ve experienced trauma is the exact opposite of what you should do if you want to heal from trauma. In cognitive based therapy which has been shown to be the most effective in helping people recover from traumatic events, it is recommended that one have graduated exposure to triggers rather than removing yourself from them.)
It seems a weird byproduct of a safer world, but from the discussion it seems that what we are doing is inventing or exaggerating fears because we don’t have as many as we used to. So I thought I would ask some questions for purposes of discussion. Does this hypothesis seem reasonable and fit what you’ve observed in society? What sort of shift would you like to see happen, and how do we go about making that change? Are we all just old fuddy duddys who don’t get the younger generation?
Around the nation tomorrow, there will be marches for science. Why should that be so? We might understand marches for women, or marches for a minority group, but why should scientists march? We make only 5% of the population, it’s clearly a small proportion of the workforce. I am sure I could build a compelling scholarly argument for the importance of science, but rather than go about it mechanically, I’ve decided to talk more about my relationship with science and why it’s so important to me.
Like many children I enjoyed books with different animals and learning about their characteristics. I remember watching many an episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. I had a book on whales that I love to read a lot, and one on dinosaurs. I remember learning about the different planets. I found the colors of the planets, the sun, so stunning. Different atmospheric compositions led to vastly different looks. I marveled at the thought of looking up at the red sky of Mars. I used to capture a variety of insects in jars. And while I would certainly not encourage such behavior from my child without proper care and the hopes of setting it free, I marveled at the structure and behavior of such creatures. When I look back on these memories, I have hard time imagining every child not being like this. Maybe it was a precursor to what I would eventually become, but there seems nothing so natural as wanting to observe the world around us and learn about it and wonder how it works. How can one not marvel at the array of colors that nature provides? How can we not wonder at the flight of some creature and the scurrying of others? How can we not be fascinated by the massive size of the blue whale, to the little aphid that seems but a speck in your hand? I am certainly not an expert in child behavior, but I have watched enough children to know what observers they are. And while they may not understand all they see, they are constantly looking. It seems to me the essence of science lies in the very heart of who we are as humans.
From at least my early elementary age, I remember being fascinated by thunderstorms. Seeing the lightning streak across the sky was nature’s fireworks and I loved every minute of it. Often peeking out the window at night, and occasionally sneak out at night so it under the ledge of our house to watch the thunderstorms. My very first introduction to meteorology was in grade 6 when we learned about different cloud types and how different cloud types could often be predictors to the type of weather that was coming your way. For some reason I found that fascinating, but I know there was also an aesthetic quality to clouds that I found beautiful. Their variety of shapes and colors depending on the position of the sun. To this day I still look up at them and they seem almost beautifully magical floating there. My first real act as an atmospheric scientist at around adolescent to early teens. I say this because my observations were recorded mentally over probably a couple of years. Thunderstorms in the prairie of Alberta are seen a long way off and I noticed that when a line of bubbling cumulonimbus clouds was on the horizon the wind was always blowing towards the clouds, yet the clouds kept getting closer. After enough observation I saw this as simply a fact, and knew when to tell my family to prepare for thunderstorms. Often adults would question me, saying “you’re wrong kid, the wind is blowing the other way”. Of course I wouldn’t learn why this was the case until university, but it gave me some pride to recognize patterns in such a way.
My mother was always good at supporting me asking questions, and even better at showing me how to find those answers. In those days it was the library. How easily today I could have looked up the answer as to why wind blows towards the thunderstorms before they come to you. Kids today really have it so much easier, but they also have to deal with a lot more misinformation than I had to deal with in a library. She taught me a lot about research and to look for answers in multiple places to make sure there was some consensus. Though she didn’t have an advanced degree, she was always one to have questions herself and research the answers before forming an opinion. Although she never said so explicitly, I think it was important more to see that our own senses are not enough to really understand how things work, and having information from other sources can help us answer our questions and make better sense about what we see.
When I look back, the ingredients it took for me to become a scientist seem rather organic. Parents who encouraged questions and were curious themselves, made science feel like it was no extra effort. School was effort at times, and I didn’t understand everything easily, but it never stopped me from finding it all quite interesting. My favorite subject in high school was actually biology. I loved learning especially about organ systems. The way the body works and maintains itself still amazes me to this day. So while there may be some combination of genetics that works in my favor, I find it hard to understand how we aren’t all scientists. Not by profession, but just by nature. I think, that regardless of my job, science would be a part of my life. It has already helped me immensely in understanding so much and answering so many questions, and knowing that there is always more to learn is rejuvenating because it means that maybe I will learn something and it will change my whole outlook. It means that what I do today, because of what I have learned, might be something that I never saw myself doing before. I used to think that it was sad that I could not learn everything there was to know. Beyond the impossibility of that task, I think life would go stale quickly if there wasn’t newness. Science may not bring certainty, but it does bring to the fore previously unknown possibilities and who can say that does not make life more fulfilling?
Some people think that science removes mystery from the world and thus makes it less exciting. It was in the 8th grade that I decided to become a meteorologist. I can tell you that a thunderstorm today excites me to less than it did when I was a child. In fact now, when I look at a thunderstorms I see equations and physical laws floating around like code from the Matrix. I see into the cloud and in my head see interactions between droplets and crystals that I never saw when I was a child. I understand the magnitude of the forces that meet to produce this wonder of nature, and I feel the weight and power of it, in a way I never could have as a child. It is like the difference between falling in love with someone, and the deep intimacy and friendship that you develop after you’ve known that someone for many years. It is love with depth, it brings a lasting feeling of happiness and well being.
Somewhere a child has nowhere to turn for answers to the questions they have. Somewhere a child is told not to ask questions, or is simply told what their parents say is the truth of things, and that questions are dangerous. Somewhere parents have decided that their girl shouldn’t be educated, or that science is not for girls. Somewhere a teacher doesn’t understand science themselves and thus kills the joy of curiosity and learning in their students. Somewhere a group of politicians have decided that memorization-based exams are the important metrics to determine funding. Somewhere a television show is making scientists seem irrelevant and worthy of ridicule for finding excitement in discovery. Somewhere a journalist is completely misrepresenting a scientist’s findings. Somewhere a government is denying the findings of scientists to help rich people make more money.
These things make me sad. I see no reasons why we can’t be a society that is constantly asking questions. We have a tool for answering those questions that we know is reliable. It is so pervasive now that we don’t even recognize all the ways it shapes our lives. If we supported that scientist in all of us, the one who first makes their appearance at the earliest of ages, the power and value of this tool would be immense. It helps us ethically and morally. It helps us fight oppression and inequality. Science is the only thing that has no politics, no religion, no race or culture. It truly is for everyone, and in everyone.
I see the March for Science as not just a political statement. It is about showing the value for curiosity, for education, for discovery, and for wonder that we seem to be losing. Our government has become one which seems to think it has nothing to learn. One where opinion is as valid as fact. One where there is no consequence for lying. I don’t blame Trump for this alone, he may be the penultimate in this dangerous attitude, but it has been bleeding into our society for some time. The March for Science is a march for progress. A march that shows we care about our fellow human, and that we value science as a means to reduce suffering in the world.
I say all this, not because I am a scientist and I worry about my job. I say this because it is my lived experience. I say this because we all intrinsically know that change is the only truth in this universe, and that time makes a fool of the arrogant who think they have nothing more to learn. I say this because history is full of the darkness that follows when we rest our futures on superstition and falsehoods. Finally, I say this because I do think there is significant evidence that human-induced climate change is the scientific issue of our time, and threatens our very existence. It challenges us like no other issue, because it cannot be solved by one nation. It cannot be “felt” on a day to day basis. It is the essence of science because it takes us beyond the narrow field of view that we each individually possess and asks to widen the lens and reach out into space and time, and think big. If we cannot do that, the story of humanity becomes a tragedy. I, for one, refuse to let it be, because I know we can do better.
Well the strike of faculty in the Pennsylvania State System of higher education ended after 3 days of class. Given that I had a couple of blog posts leading up to the post I thought it might be useful to sum up. Before I get into the details of the agreement I thought I would start with some more personal observations. I have never been on strike before and I found the experience interesting.
I think it was initially just odd because I think we all expected a last minute agreement. It was also an odd feeling that I then became a truant, somebody who wasn’t fulfilling his contractual duty and for all intents and purposes didn’t have a job. On the picket line we stand outside the university grounds and it was weird to get locked out of any access to campus systems as if we were just another person who didn’t work or attend the university. I understand how it goes, but it feels a bit cold for a place that you’ve invested the last 14 years of your life in.
On the picket line the feeling was definitely more positive. There were so many students who supported us. They honked their horns, came and stood with us on the picket line, and delivered snacks and water. I really can’t express how much strength it gave all of us to see the student support. We also had some support from grade school teachers who had recently gone through strikes of their own who lent support. I really thought you would just be standing their on the picket line and then would have to walk to the closest fast food place in order to get lunch. I’m pretty sure I gained weight on the picket line with all the food that was brought to us..
There was also an intense camaraderie among faculty. I saw many faculty I hadn’t seen in a long time as our separate “lives” in separate buildings often keeps us from interacting frequently. I met faculty I had never met before and we had great conversations in getting to know each other better. Despite the individual or department oriented battles we normally face every day, on the picket line there was a common sense of purpose that was a wonderful feeling. And even though the strike is over, there is a part of me that misses that feeling. I am sure I would feel differently if it was a cause I didn’t believe in, but when you mix in that feeling that you are fighting for something you think is important, with a group of people all feeling the same way, it’s powerful. More powerful than I imagined it would be. As a consequence there was also a darker side to this. I am not sure what it all means yet but I found myself having an equally intense set of negative feelings to those who crossed the picket line. There were a few. While I know, intellectually that different people might have legitimate reasons, it was a sacrifice and a risk for all of us. I even know someone who had very intense health problems and still went on strike. I’m struggling with the empathy and already lost somebody who I considered a friend who crossed. And I have another one that also crossed and am not sure how to deal with it right now. Well so there’s that. “Group think” is a powerful force. Although I’m happy to say that it still wasn’t cause enough for me to want to chant. I’m not chanter. 🙂
So how did it all end? Well I am happy to say we won. Well sort of. For those who believe that it was about the money for faculty I think we more than effectively proved them wrong. After going an entire year without a new contract and losing the normal small increase in salary we usually get to keep pace with inflation, our final deal revealed very little salary increase and most of it was negated by health care cost increases. We did reduce some of the deductibles slightly as the increased health care costs really impacted those faculty who themselves or their family have health problems. I am happy to say that we did effectively eliminate all items from the table that reduced academic quality that I talked about in my previous post. We also made sure adjuncts were treated fairly. The biggest downside to it all is that the contract was short term. It was only a 3 year contract, retroactive to when the last one expired. So this contract will expire in May of 2018 and we’ll have to go through negotiations again. Ultimately it’s disheartening how much the state wanted to degrade quality education for the purpose of money. It seems apparent that they know the truth: that faculty really care about their students and educational quality and they can keep trying to degrade that and force us to take it on the chin in terms of salary. Our increase in salary was half of what other state unions were able to get. For most other unions it is just about salary and benefits, but our contract contains a lot of things that impact educational quality which can be used as leverage to keep salary increases low. In a normal world, one might expect new contracts to contain things that enhance educational quality not weaken it.
With the way education is being attacked in this country I am thankful that I am in a union and that other educators have unions as well. I naively thought it was kind of a silly thing when I started out. It didn’t occur to me that such a large portion of society wouldn’t see it as important to always invest in and make better, as opposed to running it like a for profit business. Currently the state schools in PA get appropriations that cover only about 25-30% of their costs. To me this isn’t public higher education, this is a private school system with some state subsidies. No wonder tuition costs continue to rise. I suspect this strike is just one of many future battles we’ll be facing, and I’m ready to keep fighting.
Here is my theme for the strike as I was the PR person and was hounded by reporters at times and “could not be everywhere at once”.
There have been numerous articles now posted in local papers about the upcoming possibility of a state system of higher education strike in Pennsylvania. And with that comes comments. It has been unsettling to see the amount of ire towards educators. I know there are a lot of conservative people in PA. In a way PA is probably a good microcosm for the general breakdown of the country in Republican vs. Democrat. There is a thread in attitude by the critics of the strike and I just wanted to briefly talk about it. I don’t know what to do about it, but it does make me sad.
There is of course general ignorance towards the problem. Nobody really understands what educators go through on a daily basis, but apparently we can all easily be replaced with more qualified people at a lower cost. For most people it’s all about the bottom line. Dollars and cents. Critics don’t think of whether or not changes to our contract might not cause the quality of education to suffer, we are simply greedy people who want more money and don’t care about our students.
There is an overwhelming sense in these hard times that if other people are suffering we should suffer too. One person commented “Let them not work for a year and see them struggle to pay their bills just like us.” When did we become a country who simply wanted to tear each other down. Shouldn’t we be trying to raise people up? I want other people to have good health care…if mine became bad I wouldn’t be asking for others to have their health care reversed. As we tear each other down, it seems like the only people going up are the very wealth in our society. I saw a meme recently that was based on a Harvard Business study on perception vs reality. Most people think CEOs make 30 times what the average American worker makes, when in fact it’s 350 times more. Here is a video that illustration financial perception vs. reality. It seems to me that the wealthy have done an excellent job at pitting us against each other. In the south poor white people blame poor black people or poor Latinos for their problems. Average workers are pitted against educators. Teacher salaries are actually quite low compared to other countries and yet we are painted as people who are draining the system. Poor people are pitting against law enforcement. Yet law enforcement doesn’t pay very well, and pensions are being cut. Law enforcement is an important job that requires intelligent and highly skilled people. Somewhere in lost in the sea of finger pointing are wealthy people laughing at us all and distracting us from who is really
taking away all of our money.
Anti-union sentiments are strong. I never really thought much about unions and their value. I know unions can become corrupt. Anything can become corrupt. Churches, government, business. But overall I’ve noticed that when there are no unions, workers are taken advantage of more strongly. This country has a history of workers not being treated fairly and humanely. Unions have helped us rise out of that situation. They have brought us child labor laws and helped workers make living wages. And while there are plenty of examples where workers are treated well without a union, by and large this isn’t always the case. Some companies have no need to form unions, others I think it is very important. Our union is unique because our contract also contains important elements to educational quality. Investing in education pays off, but when we treat it like a business and we don’t invest in that business, the quality suffers.
Education itself may need reform, but the answer isn’t to reduce quality. Let’s look at what research demonstrates as effective pedagogy and make that happen in our schools. Let’s make education truly affordable again. Let’s not bring each other down, and focus on the true cause of our suffering. People on welfare aren’t my enemy. People who have lost their jobs, their benefits, who have had to take pay cuts aren’t my enemy. I would support you every step of the way for you to improve your quality of life, and be treated fairly by your employer. I’m not your enemy either. I’m in the middle income tier in PA, as are many other professors. Your teachers on average are in an even worse place financially. The middle class continues to get thinner and it’s not good for our country. There should be common ground between democrats and republicans to work together to build the middle class. Weakening education and tearing middle class people down, doesn’t seem to be the answer.
I love university. From the very first moment I started as a student, I thought it was great. The buildings, old and new, housing different academic fields, knowing there were extremely knowledgeable people who were dedicating their entire lives to those fields and passing on that knowledge to students. I was nervous my first day. University, I think no matter how small a university you go to, it feels big. Big ideas, a campus much bigger than your high school and anxiety filled visions of getting lost, looking stupid, and feeling small run through our minds. By the end of the first year I realized I was in love. I felt that after 1 year of university I had learned as much as I did my entire time in high school. I was exposed to diverse groups of people, diverse sets of ideas, and could literally feel my mind and my values growing. Now I know my experience is not everybody’s. It’s not everybody’s calling to devote themselves to this institution we call university, but by my junior year I knew it was my calling.
Society is made up of many different parts, and I believe that universities play an important role. Whether a student pursues an Associate or Bachelor degree, or chooses to specialize more deeply in their area of interest through a graduate program, the character and knowledge they bring into their new roles in the “real world”, as a result of their education, is important. We live now in a nation where universities are under attack. Education is becoming increasingly undervalued. Yet history clearly demonstrates that when societies make education a priority, it promotes greater innovation and economic growth, empowers people with knowledge as an antidote against oppression, and gives us the ability to flex our minds and adapt in an ever changing and increasingly technological world. The most current attack on universities in this nation is in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE). If a new contract isn’t agreed upon between the faculty union and the state system by Oct. 19th, the faculty at 14 universities across the state will go on strike. This has the ability to cause great disruption to the education of our students and because the state system is trying to spread the message that our striking is out of selfishness and desire for money, and a betrayal to the students we say we care about, I wanted to take a little time to explain why we’re striking and why it matters.
Several proposals by PASSHE remain sticking points in our ability to come to a fair agreement, and most of them have to do with educational quality. The state has conceded on some of the items that would have a negative impact on teaching from their initial proposal. Some of the major ones still outstanding are as follows:
An increase in workload for full-time adjunct faculty. Adjunct faculty are an important part of a university because as faculty retire or move on, as programs grow, we need quality adjuncts to fill teaching roles. When we get good ones and the position becomes permanent and tenure track, it is an easy transition for that faculty in their new role as a permanent professor. By increasing their workload to 5 classes (a lot by any university standards) and reducing their pay by 20% the probability of attracting quality adjunct faculty is reduced. In addition their increased workload will have negative impacts on the quality of teaching and thus the student is not served well. The state also wants to significantly reduce the pay for part time adjunct faculty as well.
Increased reliance on adjunct faculty. Ultimately adjunct faculty would like a job with more security as we all would. Adjunct faculty are only there to teach and generally play no other role in the university. They don’t advise students, they don’t serve on committees or are required to do university service. And why should they? They don’t have the same protections as tenure-track faculty and can be let go at any time. The state wants to increase the cap on the percentage of adjunct faculty at each state university. Coupled with the last point, this means less quality teaching. It means that since adjunct faculty are often looking for more permanent work, this will result in universities constantly utilizing less experienced lecturers who have never taught courses before. Any student who has taken a class from a first time teacher for a course, you know it’s not as good as it could be.
Increased workload for those supervising internships, supervising student teachers, and teaching lab courses. Any time there is a numbers increase on supervision, the time with each student is less. Good supervisors do a lot of work and it is a very helpful role. The increases in workload for internship supervision is by 67% and for supervising student teachers 20%. The most egregious one for me is the reduced value of lab courses. This is a difficult one to explain, but basically one hour of lab used to count as one contact hour, but now they want to reduce it to 2/3rd of a contact hour. Faculty in the state system are required to teach 24 contact hours an academic year. So those who teach lab courses will have a greater workload even though labs have grading, and take time to prepare just as much as a lecture. This will also discourage faculty from offering lab courses. Lab courses are part of important hands-on experiences. They are usually in smaller settings too, where students have more interaction with their professor. Increased hands-on experience in the classroom is proven in research studies to be an important part of quality teaching. So why doesn’t the state system want that? Because if I am teaching a 3 credit course with 3 lab sections, I have 6 contact hours for a 3 credit hour course. A regular lecture course with no lab is 3 credits and 3 contact hours. So if I teach labs I teach less credit hours. You, as a student, pay by credit hours. You are a dollar sign to them, and nothing more. They don’t care how well you are taught, or what research demonstrates about effective teaching practices. It’s about how much money they can make. This is what’s happening all across the U.S. in public higher education.
Allowing administration to move faculty to different departments to teach different courses. Did you ever have a teacher in high school teach you a subject that wasn’t their specialty? It happens in middle schools and high schools all the time. Have the PE teacher, teach a history class, have the biology teacher, teach a couple of math classes. This could happen at university now as well, where teachers who didn’t specialize in a particular area are forced to teach outside their area of expertise. How much would you expect to learn or enjoy such a class?
Matters of Money
So you might say this is a pretty one sided discussion what about money. Clearly faculty want more money right? So let’s talk about that a little.
Well who wouldn’t like more money? But keep in mind we have already been without a contract for almost a year and a half and have been on a salary freeze. We would also like to be treated with similar salary increases as the state has offered other unions in the state. We would like our salaries to keep pace with inflation. Who doesn’t want that? However, if you talk to any of your faculty, you’ll probably find that they care less about that, than impacts on their work quality, and the quality of education they can provide you. To show you how committed the faculty are to improving education, recently the state system tried to offer faculty more money to their salary to try and have us ignore all the measures they are taking to reduce educational quality.* The union refused to sign a contract based solely on a salary increase, and refused to be pitted against adjunct faculty.
Health care costs are also currently a point of contention. There are many unions who have had to take a hit in increased health care costs. How far we will get in regards to this issue remains to be seen, but we do believe that quality health care should be something provided by employers and changes proposed by the state system would incur additional costs in range of thousands of dollars to faculty. We have taken smaller hits in the past which have essentially negated salary increases. This year, most faculty expect a similar result and don’t expect more net salary given the increased health care costs we are likely to incur.
The mission of PASSHE is to provide the highest quality education at the lowest possible cost to students. The problems that we face in higher education in this country are perhaps broader than just what we are facing here, but if tuition costs are not going down and quality continues to get lowered something about the system is broken. We have less direct say in these larger problems, but we can be advocates for the quality of education you receive as a student. Thus, I felt it was important for students to know that your faculty do care about you. We don’t see you as a customer or a dollar sign. We see ourselves as people who play a role in your future, and thus the future of the region, the state, and the nation, and we feel the quality of education you get is important. We are tired of decisions being made about teaching dictated from a group of people who haven’t spent any time in the classroom. If you are concerned about the strike, you and your family need to send an e-mail to the university president at the university you attend. You need to contact Chancellor Frank Brogan (Chancellor@passhe.edu). You need to write your local state congress representatives. We faculty, still hold hope that a strike will not be necessary, and if it happens a strike is no holiday to us. I’ll be just off the California University of Pennsylvania campus, on the picket line, every day, hoping sooner than later, I will get to walk back on the campus and give students the quality education they deserve. You may not agree with our taking a stand on these issues, and that’s okay, but I hope you can respect my right to see this as important, and I hope that you all will take a stand for whatever you truly care about in your futures as well.
Department of Earth Science,
California University of Pennsylvania
*Note: The article that discusses the offer made to faculty to increase their salary, states that our average salary for faculty is over $100,000. This is untrue. Salaries at public universities are publicly available. Here you can find all salaries of all employees in the university system. You can export this data to excel. I calculated the average salaries from cell B270 to B6315 (which is almost all faculty) and came up with an average of just under $80,000. A big difference from what PASSHE is saying. The data is from 2013, but represents the contract we are currently under.