Weather Forecasting: What It’s All About

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.

Why Forecast?

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.

Hard Rain

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

Image result for synoptic scale mesoscaleA 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.

Image result for sounding stations north america weather
It might look like a lot, but these are all the weather balloon stations in North America. Typically one or two per state and at minimum more than a 100 miles apart, and in some cases more than 500. Canada is worse. Not near enough for getting good data for thunderstorm formation.

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.

Communication Breakdown

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?

Image result for hurricane eyewall probability map
                          How well do you understand what this graphic is showing you?

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.

 

 

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Free Speech Crisis? Really???

Although I recently posted a blog about free speech a new line of thinking has crystallized my thoughts a little better on the subject.  There are numerous prominent intellectuals, like Sam Harris and Jonathan Haidt, who are expressing concerns about free speech.  This is a cause that many liberals are now concerned about.  To the point that they say it is fascism on the left chilling people’s free speech.  I am not fan of disinviting speakers who have views we disagree with, and I think it’s important to hear well researched and thought out points of view.  If we are unable to do that on a widespread basis, then I do agree we have a problem.  But are we are we really at that point and are we, at this current moment, experiencing a free speech crisis in countries like the U.S?  Is the PC crowd really destroying freedom of expression in our society?    Here is the view of one such person who disagreed with my assertion that I don’t think we have to worry about the first amendment being abolished.  Apparently I’ve missed the point:

perhaps through firings for ‘insensitivity’, public shaming based on accusations, grovelling apologies if offence is claimed, speakers being deplatformed and disinvited, ongoing vilification of those who break the ideological group taboo and dare to criticize a protected group, not being politically correct enough, daring to use facts and evidence contrary to an ideological assertion about victimhood and oppression, professional and personal sanctions for not being sensitive enough and so on, encountering a new ‘tree’ each and every time, so to speak, and not addressing the larger issue of the free speech principle. The sentiment raised by Swarn is wrong because this is in fact the rising danger… not because a totalitarian government is on the brink of being elected and canceling free speech by edict but because people by and large are self censoring now, not attending now, not supporting the right of those with whom we may disagree now, cancelling subscriptions now, showing up and disrupting events now, being dismissive free speech for those with whom we disagree now. It is already of such common practice that individuals are curtailing their right to free speech willingly and right now in response to the totalitarian ideology of those who champion social justice through GroupThink and PC, those who stand ready to vilify those blasphemers with the handy labels of bigotry, racism, sexism, ever-ready group smears to be liberally applied as alt Right, fake news, alternative facts, deplorables, and so on. We self censor because of this toxic atmosphere in which we live and the ubiquitous punishments implemented all around us when some people dare to defy it

Besides the fact that obviously any of the people who we are concerned about being “de-platformed” or abused on twitter, or have lost their job still have plenty of platforms to air their views, I’d like to approach the narrative from a different direction.  In a recent interview with Sam Harris, journalist Rebecca Traister addressed the following concern by Sam Harris of what he felt were innocuous comments by Matt Damon on Twitter about the #metoo movement.  She said that every day in this country people are fired from jobs with no explanation given.  It could be their race, their sexuality, their gender, it could be legitimate.  The point is, why do we only get concerned when powerful people seem to be unfairly treated given they really don’t lose much of their wealth or their status.  Matt Damon seems just fine despite getting yelled at on Twitter.  When she said this, it resonated with me because I had thought something very similar in regards to this response to my blog comment above with regards to all of us having to self-censor in this PC culture.  And I thought about  how often women have had to self-censor when they experience sexual harassment?  How often have black people had to self-censor when they experienced discrimination? For those who are the bottom end of societal hierarchies, life is a constant stream of self-censoring.

Now that social media has helped give many people a voice should we be surprised that many are using it say, “you know what, we just aren’t buying what you’re selling”?  Now it’s not to say that there aren’t overreactions, but I would argue that saying “being homosexual isn’t natural” is a far larger overreaction that persisted for quite some time in society.  In an episode of the Guilty Feminist host Deborah Frances-White said that whenever she hears that the #MeToo movement has gone too far she just thinks “yeah but the previous Women-Have-To-Put-Up-With-Any-Shit movement really had a good run.  That went long.  For millennia”.  She goes on to say, in regards to the #MeToo movement, maybe all this PC culture is doing is giving all of us an opportunity (or at least should be) to increase our public empathy.  We are at the very least thinking about the fact that what we do and say could be hurtful to other people, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

You may think that I am making a two wrongs make it right sort of argument, and I guess in a way I am, but let me clarify.  It’s interesting to me how when power structures are questioned the reaction is always far more knee-jerk.  And why does it largely seemed to be white males concerned about this? I mean has anybody who is worried about threats to free speech even presented data that this is an increasing problem, that there are more concerns today than ever before?  When you approach the narrative from the other side, at the lower end of the hierarchy, the fact that more secular people are free to express doubts about religion, more black people are allowed to express their equality to whites, more homosexuals are able to be openly gay, more women are allowed to be in jobs previously only held by men…I’d say that things are actually far more open.  Again is it possible that the pendulum might swing too far in the other direction at times? Sure. But to say that we are in some sort of free speech crisis, I think, is a ludicrous claim.  Even Jonathan Haidt who was the first to take note of this issue of de-platforming speakers on campus has done a lot of nice work in really trying to understand what’s going on here and by no means think that college students are more against free speech today than in the past.  In an article by Jeffrey Adam Sachs in the Washington Post, he argues:

“In fact, our speech is often much more restricted off campus than on. Consider the workplace, where most non-students spend the bulk of their time when not at home. Once you’re on the job, most First Amendment rights disappear. The things you say, the clothing you wear, even the bumper stickers on the car you parked in the company lot — all can be restricted by private-sector employers. Perhaps the reason campus free speech controversies can sound so strange is because few of us are aware of how much we are already shielded from hateful or offensive speech.”

Just because I don’t think we are in a free speech crisis doesn’t mean I necessarily agree with silencing people who have disagreeable views.  I think that we have to always be careful to think whether our actions will enhance or diminish the number of people who hold such views.  Not engaging with people we disagree with can run counter to our goals towards social justice.  That doesn’t mean we should be publicly debating a racist every week either.  Just like I don’t think I need to invite a ‘Flat Earther’ to my class to hash it out in a physics debate, I think a white supremacist is just as fundamentally wrong about the nature of humanity as a ‘Flat Earther’ is about the nature of the universe and I think it’s okay to be somewhat dismissive to such views.  But perhaps punching them isn’t exactly the most helpful thing to do either.   They are all still human, and just like the ‘Flat Earther’ somehow they’ve become misguided and it’s possible to both oppose their views with strength and recognize their humanity.  As writer and journalist Johann Hari said in an interview:

 “It is right to challenge racism, but it has to be challenged in an intelligent way that doesn’t produce more racism, and that’s a fine balance. And I understand why a lot of people say, why should I have to pussyfoot around this?”

And one of my favorite moments in listening to Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast was in interview with Fareed Zakaria, when Harris was going on about the dangers of Islamic ideology, Fareed coolly said, “Yeah, you’re right, but you’re not helping.”

And I think those few words are extremely important to remember.  We need to better at the helping part than being right.  I think it’s possible to do both, but it’s not always the easiest way.  This is a topic perhaps for another post, but let’s not send people into alarmist mindsets about crises of free speech, when so many other problems are still widespread and harmful in the western world.  Let’s try to understand what’s underlying people’s fears and worries and see what we can do to help.  Let’s try to keep some perspective here.  The privilege of the powerful is still far greater than those in the society who have no voice.

Discussion: The Decay of an Empire

As some of you may remember I am a big Isaac Asimov fan.  There was a passage in his book “Prelude to Foundation” that struck me as similar to what we might be facing here in the U.S.  I have found Asimov’s observations about society very astute.  Keep in mind this is in the future and in relation to a galactic empire.

Seldon:  Surely people don’t sit around and say “We’re decaying.  Let’s let the Expressways fall apart.”

Hummin:  No they don’t.  It’s not a purposeful thing.  Bad spots are patched, decrepit coaches refurbished, magnets replaced.  However, it’s done in a more slapdash fashion, more carelessly, and at greater intervals.  There just aren’t enough credits available.

Seldon:  Where have the credits gone?

Hummin:  Into other things.  We’ve had centuries of unrest.  The navy is larger and many times more expensive than it once was.  The armed forces are much better-paid, in order to keep them quiet.  Unrest, revolts and minor blazes of civil war all take their toll.

Seldon: But it’s been quiet under Cleon.  And we’ve had 50 years of peace.

Hummin:  Yes, but soldiers who are well-paid would resent having that pay reduced just because there is peace.  Admirals resist mothballing ships and having themselves reduced in rank simply because there is less for them to do.  So the credits still go – unproductively – to the armed forces and vital areas of the social good are allowed to deteriorate.  That’s what I call decay.  Don’t you?

It struck me that this is, at least in part, what we are seeing here in the U.S.  Of course it’s not the whole story, but it made me think about how institutions, not just the military can grow fat.  Once we build up an institution in a time of need, we rarely shrink it back down.  In fact what usually happens is that the government just works to justify the bloat.  I think this phenomenon might even be true for private industry as well.  The blog I re-posted on my blog last week is kind of along these lines.  Capitalism has its benefits, but as corporations (sort of representation of a bloated private entity) grow they begin to have to justify their continued existence and work to convince people that they need whatever they are selling.

We hear phrases like “too big to fail” and maybe it’s all true.  Maybe there is nothing to be done about it, and maybe that’s why empires are bound to fail.  But I tend to lean towards the idea that a lot of it is based on the conceit an empire has in itself, but maybe that too is inevitable.  I mean how can one easily learn humility when they’ve been on top for so long?  Doing so would require an admission of mistakes, and empires are terrible at admitting those.

Thoughts?

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As an aside –  to give you an idea of why I like Asimov so much, I wanted to share the Afterword he wrote for his novel “Currents of Space”:

The Currents of Space was written in 1951 and was first published in 1952.  At that time, comparatively little was known of the astrophysics of nova formation and my speculation concerning “carbon currents” was legitimate.  Astronomers know much more now and it seems quite certain the nature of the currents of space have nothing to do with nova formation (though, as it happens, the analysis of interstellar clouds of dust and gas has become far more interesting now than ever I imagined in 1951).  This is too bad, for my speculations concerning the currents of space were so clever (in my opinion) that I feel they should have been true. Still the Universe goes its own way and won’t bend merely to pay homage to my cleverness, so I can only ask you to suspend your disbelief in respect to nova-formation and enjoy the book (assuming you do) on its own terms).

The beginning of the sentence starting with “Still…” is my own emphasis in bold.  Wouldn’t it be nice if more people thought like this?

Discussion: Do you know yourself?

Image result for knowing yourself

Whether you are a Sam Harris fan or not, I truly recommend listening to the interview Sam Harris did live with Yuval Noah Harari (the interview itself is about an hour with an hour of Q&A afterwards.  The first hour is most valuable).  Harari is a brilliant man, and somebody who I think we should be listening to.  I transcribed this passage from the interview.

“…however complicated the humanity entity is, we are now reaching a point when somebody out there can really hack it. It can never be done perfectly.  We are so complicated, I am under no illusion that any corporation or government or organization can completely understand me.  This is impossible.  But the yardstick or the critical threshold is not perfect understanding, the threshold is just better than me.  Then the key inflection point in the history of humanity is the moment when an external system can reliably, on a large scale, understand people better than they understand themselves.  This is not an impossible mission, because so many people don’t really understand themselves very well. With the whole idea of shifting authority from humans to algorithms, so I trust the algorithm to recommend TV shows for me, and I trust the algorithm to tell me how to drive from mountain view to this place this evening, and then I trust the algorithm to tell me what to study and where to work, whom to date and whom to marry, and who to vote for. People say, no, no, no, no, no…that won’t happen, because they will say there will be all these mistakes and glitches and bugs, and the algorithm won’t know everything, and it can’t do it.  And if the yardstick is to trust the algorithm (or) to give authority to the algorithm it must make perfect decisions than yes it will never happen.  But that’s not the yardstick…the algorithm just needs to make better decisions than me.”

There are many ways I think one can know one’s self better, and I don’t think we spend enough time doing that.  Moreover he argues that this is even more critical today because the technologies out there are far more capable of hacking us than ever before.  Victoria over at Victoria Neuronotes often talk about the importance of understanding cognitive science and neuroscience, and how the brain works…this needs to be a regular part of our education systems, because awareness is key.  But knowing one’s self should also come from meditation, introspection, and taking time to just unplug and think about who you are and what you want to be.  Find yourself.

Thoughts?

Blogs for my Climate Change Course

Dear Readers,

I am hoping, if you have the time, that you can help me out.  I am teaching a course on global climate change this year, and I decided that to develop students communication skills and to be better activists in the public sector I would have them start blogs and have it themed on an area of climate.  There are 7 students in the class and I don’t expect everyone to read each one of them, but if there is a topic that interests you, I’d love if you read it, give feedback, ask questions, provide helpful additional information on the topic, give suggestions on how they might improve their blog, and/or even argue (respectfully) if you like.  And if you like the blog enough share it with your followers and other social media like Facebook or Twiitter.  Thank you!

A blog on geoengineering.  The first post isn’t ready yet, but I am sure it will be up in the next few days:  https://zcwa.wordpress.com

A blog on how water resources will be impacted by climate change: https://mattqweather.wordpress.com/

A blog that seems to be about prediction. Not sure. https://http132001239.wordpress.com/

A blog on alternative energy. https://altenergypossibilities.wordpress.com/

A blog on climate change and tourism. https://climatechangeontourism.wordpress.com/

A blog that looks at negative health effects caused by climate change. https://climateandyourhealth.wordpress.com/

The writing is likely to be rough around the edges.  Hopefully that will improve as the semester goes on.  Thank you for your help in advance!

I Have My Reasons

I had this idea in my early 20s that there was an equation that could define what it mean to live a fulfilling life.  I had reasoned this based on what I had observed that seemed common to the well being of all people.  People would generally laugh at me when I’d say something like this just as you may be doing now.  To be sure when I said equation I was describing nothing so trite as x+y=3, or anything like that.  This equation was look and full of many variables.  Some of those variables might be simple, like having oxygen and water.  Other variables could not be settled so easily and they would not have the exact same value for each person.  In fact the same could be true of oxygen and water, but there were certainly variables in that equation which might be more broad and whose details might on the surface look quite different for different people.  An example might be something like art.  Art is important.  For some it’s the doing of art, for others it’s the appreciation and enjoyment of it, for some it’s both.  For some people it’s painting, for some it’s writing, for some it could be making floral arrangements.  I think it’s true to say that I didn’t even have the equation worked out myself and I still don’t but it seems obvious to me that there is common ground when it comes to these variables that can be used for this equation to come up with a solution for a productive and meaningful life.

I was listening to a podcast recently where writer Andrew Sullivan was arguing with Sam Harris that reason could not form a basis for happiness.  This idea was reinforced in another podcast where Russell Brand was trying to make the point on his podcast that this secular world that is edging out religion is also edging out spirituality and thus making our world bereft of meaning in some way.  I would first say that I am not altogether sure that this is even true in that there is a lot of evidence to demonstrate that our world has a lot less suffering (as a percentage of the population) than we had even a 100 years ago.  But let’s say that Russell Brand’s assertion is true in his more deist outlook, and I know many other theists who share similar concerns.  As I look at the person I am now, I am someone who leans strongly in the direction and importance of reason.  More specifically scientific reasoning.  And I reflected on this claim by Sullivan.  Are things like love and spirituality eroded by reason?  If I hold reason, logic, empiricism, and all that stuff as guiding principles in my quest for truth, am I going to miss out on important meaning that could be present in my life?  The anecdote I started with here came to my mind, an idea that came to me from beauty I saw in mathematics, but also the reasoning I had done in observance of the human condition.  So I decided to write a post why I think reason is wonderful, in my humble opinion.

Image result for reason quotes

I will start by saying reasoning can be flawed, but not all reasoning.  Saying reason has no value because reasoning can be flawed is flawed reasoning.

Reason tells us that spirituality is important to humans.  Reason has shown us that you don’t need to believe in the divine to have spiritual experiences.  It’s reasonable to seek spiritual experiences.  When I reflect on why a certain experience was spiritual for me this helps me understand what factors might lead to more of these experiences.

Reason tells us that love is important to humans.  Feelings of intense love can be spiritual, and like spiritual experiences enjoying the emotion and not thinking to much about it the moments is a good idea.  Reason tells us that love is a lot like a drug, and makes act irrationally.  I don’t mind this fact actually.  Being aware of that though can help us think twice making a decision based solely on love, which also isn’t a bad thing.  Just as one might claim that life is more than just reason, life is also more than just love.  And even if love often defies reasons, we know there are reasons why humans love.  When I reflect on the reasons why I love, I understand myself better and this can lead to me having more experiences where I get to have those wonderful feelings of love run through me.

Reason informs me that humans must have meaning or purpose – things that drive us to more, to live another day just for the possibility of fulfilling that purpose or experiencing that meaning.  These things vary wildly among people as there are many ways to find meaning.  Too many perhaps because some seem to not know what direction to go in.  When I use my reasoning skills to evaluate meaning and purpose I feel like I understand how to make life more fulfilling.

Reason tells us that sometimes you have to do things for no reason at all.  Perhaps a better way of putting this is that it’s reasonable to do something that you’ve never done before, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable.  It means taking a risk.  Fail or succeed you grow, and spending a lot of time reasoning about the possible outcomes can ruin the value you might get from taking the risk.  Without risk we don’t grow.  Reason tells us that when we stagnate we become apathetic and life loses meaning and purpose.  Time seems to fly by as it becomes routine and this precious existence is over before we know it.  So I’ve reasoned that I need to keep challenging myself, and sometimes it’s made life harder, but never dull.

Reason informs me that we all reason and by being clearer about our own reasons we can better communicate them.  Conversation can help expose us to different lines of reasoning, and help evaluate what lines or reasoning are better, worse, or just different.  Reason tells us that there is no right answer to the best flavor of ice cream, but there is a right answer to how to jump the battery in your car.  And this may be the reason why you have to sit and have an ice cream while you wait for AAA to come and tow your car to the mechanic.

Reason informs me that there are better and worse ways of thinking about problems and that there are rules to reasoning.  Reason has shown how prone to cognitive biases and delusion we are.  Reason tells me that it is hard to overcome these problems and it takes being conscious of it, and takes perseverance to continue to learn and to be reflective.   When we aren’t aware of how our reasoning can be flawed that’s when conversation can breakdown.  And once we can no longer have conversations through shared norms of sound reasoning, when conversation fails to resolve our differences, reason tells us that violence becomes a much more likely option in resolving differences.

Reason tells me that even though emotion can often guide my reasoning, I serve my compassion better when I detach emotion from reasoning because life also isn’t all about how I feel about it.  Reason tells me sometimes I have to step outside of myself so I can be more sure that reasoning isn’t flawed by my emotions.

Reason tells me that ignorance might be more blissful, but that there is nothing about life that says it is supposed to be one happy moment after another.  Sometimes reasoning will make us sad, anxious or scared.  But we can use that to drive us to make the world a better place and not let ourselves be paralyzed by it.  If more people used this type of reasoning, reasoning would lead to less experiences of sadness, anxiety and fear.

It’s reasonable to assume that you might not agree with my reasoning, but it was important for me to demonstrate that reason doesn’t have to be the antithesis to meaning and that it can actually enhance it.  It also may be that my reasoning is flawed.  There is a reason why I write a blog to have conversations.  There is also a reason that I keep trying to learn more, because good reasoning sometimes just requires more information.  There is a reason why I love reason, and hopefully you love it a little more after reading this.

How Can Science Inform About Whether it’s Okay to Murder?

If you’re an atheist, you are no stranger to the notion that you probably don’t have morals.  Or at least good ones.  The idea shared my many theists, and why electing a Muslim as president (at least historically) has seemed more palatable than electing an atheist, is that without a belief in divine guidance there is no proper moral path for you to take.  In a related argument many theists believe that science has nothing to say about morals or ethics.  And my life of thinking science can lead me to a moral life is a waste of time.  If I’m moral it had to have come from somewhere other than science.  I’ve argued often that morality can be explained by science and it can be derived by science.  The idea is rejected so immediately by theists that I am sure they are as shocked by the suggestion as I am shocked that they don’t understand.

The real answer is in evolution, but I thought it would be fun to look at it from a research perspective and imagine we were in a situation where we really didn’t have any moral guidance and we didn’t know why something like murder was morally wrong.  Imagine a godless world.  One where we know about evolution, and we know all the things that we currently know about humans and behavior, but all of a sudden everybody is unaware about what morally right actions are.  Scientists still exists and some study human behavior and society and they are watching us.  Let’s start with the most universally agreed upon moral: murder.  Thou shalt not commit it.  Ending another person’s life. In this world without any moral touchstone you might just kill anybody.  Randomly.  Without provocation.  Because there is no God thus no divine punishment after you die, there is seemingly no earthly reason to prevent you from murdering anybody.

Our scientists are out looking at what life is like in the suburbs, and they see Jim out in his yard trimming the evergreen bushes in his front yard.  Cathy, the neighbor, walks out of her house and sees Jim there.  They’ve chatted a few times.  Jim has seemed a reasonable person, but Cathy all of a sudden says to herself, “You know what let’s just kill Jim.  There is nothing wrong with it, and there is no punishment in this life or the next one for it.”  She walks back into her house and gets her pistol she keeps in her purse and walks out shooting Jim, quite unaware, and kills him.

The scientists watch in amazement.  Suddenly Jim’s front door opens.  His two young boys are there and immediately start screaming in grief and terror at the sight of their father on the ground bleeding.  Cathy in a moment realizes what she has done.  Deprived his two boys of their father.  She is deeply affected by their grief, and begins sobbing herself.  Suddenly Jim’s wife Susan comes the door.  She sees Jim dead, and sees Cathy, her gun now dropped to the ground as Cathy’s empathy has kicked in and she’s buckled over in horror at what she’s done.  Susan’s anger though is understandable.  Her husband whom she loves his dead, her kids are traumatized, in pain and will grow up without a father.  She walks into her house and gets a big knife and walks over to Cathy and stabs her in anger.  The scientists scribble away at their notes at all this.  A week later, Cathy’s father completely distraught by Susan killing her daughter, decides to go after Susan.  One of the boys who saw what Cathy did has grown up now, and felt like Cathy deserved what she got, and that Cathy’s father had no right to kill their mother, Susan.  He now decides to go after Cathy’s father. The scientists see a cycle of vengeance possibly without end.   They note that the kids, who had been good at school, now have an education that suffers greatly.  Both of them end up having addiction problems.

As they tour other cities they see similar events unfold.  They notice a growing distrust in their fellow humans.  They notice people being more cautious, less interactive, unable to even form coalitions given that someone they thought they knew might murder them because murder is simply not something that occurs as an immoral act.

They fly to a city in another country, let’s say Paris.  In Paris they’ve newly figured out the harm of stealing people’s stuff, but they still don’t recognize the morality or immorality of murder.  Now they find murder is happening more often.  Some of those who want to steal or feel like they have to steal from others realize they are going to be punished if they are caught and decide that if they murder any witnesses they can get away with their crime.  This creates even more tension in the society and people are even more fearful.

The scientists wonder whether or not these “civilized humans” are just weird so they go observe a hunter-gatherer tribe in New Guinea.  There while one member is gathering berries with their child, they are killed by another tribesmen, Poku, who saw no harm in just murdering somebody.  The tribe feel that cannot punish Poku as they no law that murder was wrong.  Poku is one of the strongest and fiercest of the group and while he had previously been one of the stronger members of the tribe, he is no longer trusted and people in the tribe sleep further away from him.  Some of the tribe say they should keep watch and lose some sleep keeping guard.  The tribe had loved him and are in grief that he has betrayed them.  They are also in grief at the loss of the victims.  The one who was picking berries was also one of the best storytellers in the tribe and weaved baskets well.  The loss will be felt.  They note that despite Poku’s strength he is still finding it difficult to get enough food on his own.  To hunt animals is a group activity and he struggles to find enough other food all the time.  The scientists note that none of the women in the tribe wish to mate with him.  Being one of their best hunters and being of impressive stature his genes, and abilities would have been helpful to the tribe.

As a couple more years go by observation they see the breakdown of communities and people notice the change too.  Many feel the pain of seeing loved ones being killed, they remember times when they used to get along with their neighbors and that they use to work together and collaborate to do more than they could on their own.  The scientists conclude:

  • there must be laws against murder to discourage those who commit smaller crimes from committing greater ones
  • people can work together more and solve problems that impact their lives
  • PTSD and other mental illnesses are lessened when there is less murder in the society which impacts each person’s individual ability to prosper
  • murder eliminates people with important skills that might be needed.  The chance of knowledge being lost before being passed on increases when murders occur unabated
  • a free pass to murder increases the chance that genetic material might be lost before reproduction can occur.  In extreme cases, this loss of genetic diversity can be detrimental

The consciousness of the people to accept such findings would be increased as they too see what has become of their society without an initial idea that murder is good or bad.  Society embraces the laws, and their own desire to not live in a society with endless cycles of violence to increase their own chances of survival, leads to a change in culture.

Thus concludes my little thought experiment.  I would welcome those who wish to pick it apart.  Of course it all might seem quite horrific to you, and that’s good.  There is a reason why we don’t conduct experiments in this way.  The point is that A) It wouldn’t take very much observation by an objective outsider to see how harmful murder would be to a society and B) For those of us living in the experiment our emotions, our intuitions would also be able to pick up the harm quite easily.

The good news of course is that we don’t need such an experiment.  We’ve been living in the experiment for millions and millions of years.  The slow march of evolution inching us in the direction of social cooperation, the development of more and more complex emotions, and the development of empathy and love to help us bond with fellow members of our species to increase the chance of survival of ourselves and our offspring has required only a dim awareness of the direction we were headed.  Science explains this all quite well, and we could do a similar thought experiment for many other ethical and moral practices.  And if you can’t find a scientific explanation for, let’s say, why eating pork is an immoral as compared to other meats.  Then you probably have found something that probably shouldn’t be considered immoral.

Finally it’s important to note that the reason we have the morality that we do is because of the particular evolved species that we are.  Mammal – primate – human.  We might expect a very different set of moral principles were we intelligent being who evolved from spiders or frogs.  And while I’d like to believe that any species who had reached our level of intelligence and realized the effectiveness of cooperation and reducing suffering in other life would converge into a similar morality in the end, the path to get there is certainly not going to be the same for every species that could evolve our level of intelligence.