Right now my son is really into the Octonauts. If you don’t have children you might not be familiar with the show, but I’m comfortable in saying it might be one of the best cartoons ever made for kids. In the episode a team of animals in their underwater vessel help various sea creatures in the ocean and tell you interest facts about the featured creature for each episode.
I’ve always been fond of documentaries on ocean especially the deep sea ones with bio-luminescence. But it struck me as I watching an episode with my son last night that the ocean really is like an alien world. It’s not that we don’t have an impact on it, but for the most part other than the occasional visit, it’s simply a world in which we can’t exist in. It is a world that has those at the top of the food chain, and those at the bottom. It has death, pain, peace, flourishing, competition, love, etc. It is extremely diverse, and there is much intelligence to be found. It is every bit as vivacious as surface based life. As I watch and think about that world, I couldn’t help but think how there is nothing to judge. It is, and while things live and die, there is no question about about morality, deities, or oppression. It just is, and it’s beautiful. While I do not believe any single creature intends to live sustainably, the world in the oceans is as sustainable as it can be. Something we’ve yet to figure out. We as a species have flourished perhaps more than any other species, but at what cost?
When I think about how our actions have impacted this other world, how we’ve carelessly thrown trash into it and how climate change is influencing it, it seems more egregious than many of our other environmental crimes. In fact it seems that because we thought it was this other world with a massive amount of water we have reasoned that we could do anything we wanted to it, thinking that our activities could never have a great impact on anything so vast. This has of course turned out to be untrue. It is not our confession booth, a place to take all our sins away and absolve of us our hurt on the environment, but we have treated as such.
I’d like to believe the maker of the Octonauts just has such a passion for the ocean and just wanted to spread that appreciation to others. I think it does a great job of that. I get why people dedicate their lives to the study and preservation of these amazing ecosystems. We may never get off this planet and meet alien civilizations. The Ocean might be the best “alien” world we can visit. I hope we can keep it that way. It was here before us, and I hope that it will also be here long after us.
One thing that is fairly obvious among humans is that we don’t like uncertainty. To say that we don’t know something is to highlight ignorance. It’s the highest level of uncertainty we can reveal. Even us ego driven academics are often chided for weighing in on every issue, and it’s a stereotype that is not unfounded. But as every good teacher will tell you there is a lot of value of telling your students that you don’t know. Now maybe some students idolize your intellect and saying you don’t know might shatter the pedestal they put you on, but if they truly care about the pursuit of knowledge they should be lauding you for having the humility and honesty for saying “I don’t know”. No one can know everything, even in their own field. And it’s a moment to teach your students about how one goes about finding the answer to a particular question, and that you never really stop learning or being a student.
But how is it that we know things? We can know things through experience and through investigation. Some claim instinct or intuition is also a type of knowing. But is it, or just a reaction to a particular situation? Instincts can be certainly be wrong even if they are embedded into who we are as humans. But instinct or intuition can also be honed through experience. For instance, a doctor might have a hunch or intuition about what might be wrong with a patient. This isn’t some inborn knowledge. The doctor, as a 16-year-old, certainly wouldn’t be able to make the same guess than they might have after years of experience. Most things that we chalk up to instinct or intuition are based on experiences we have had, or perhaps read about. If, as a woman, you have intuition about a guy that he’s creepy or dangerous, it could be that you’re spot on. Given the litany of examples of violence and abuse of men towards women this wouldn’t be a surprising thing to fear. But whatever that feeling is, does it represent true facts about the universe? Not necessarily, because you could be wrong, but it’s part of our survival to play it safe, instead of taking chances, going against our intuition can be costly. Regardless of what you believe about instinct or intuition all ways of knowing are subject to our cognitive biases and thus investigative methods that attempt to remove biases have a higher probability of being right.
The one thing that I think religion and science have in common is that they are both representative of our desire to know things and our uncomfortability with uncertainty. There are always things we don’t know. Sometimes big things like why is there a universe at all? Or, how did life begin? Many of the questions we’ve had over the years have been explained by the supernatural, only to have that debunked through scientific investigation. Refusing to leave things unexplained we have, in human history, always had those who claimed magic is real and that supernatural forces act with intent. But can we call supernatural explanations an explanations? It answers what, and sometimes who and when, but rarely how and why. It also seems to me that such explanations never really factor into things we are closer to understanding. For instance, we still have questions about lightning, but this is something that we also understand a lot about. We don’t say, “Alright we don’t know exactly how charge separation happens in a cloud, so therefore God.” We have enough of a physical understanding of the situation to know there are some details we haven’t worked out, but that it’s an explainable, natural phenomena. In ancient China, well before we understood anything about lightning, people believed that lightning was caused by supernatural forces and it would strike down people who were disrespectful to their parents. It’s as good an “explanation” as anything when you know nothing perhaps, but that’s a big problem. Such explanations are a dime a dozen, you could say “No! Lightning strikes people who are dishonest with their spouses”, “It’s pixies in the clouds, angry at humans for taking their home to make their village”, “It’s punishment for an entire civilization for their sinful nature”, “It’s an electric elk called Simon”. Things that promote magic as real render the investigation of scientific laws and principles useless. What value would understanding these things if such rules are ignored by the supernatural and the whim of a believer? People often want answers so badly they don’t care about the process.
This is where science differs from religion. Science seeks to explain and is much more about the process of investigation than the answer. Obviously that is the endpoint of a particular question, but how you arrive at that destination is at least as important, if not more important than the destination itself. Science seeks to explain through premises that are verifiable and analyzing available data before arriving at a conclusion. This conclusion then must be reliable as a starting point for new questions to be answered successfully, and this conclusion must be reachable by others independently. And because we don’t always have or know what relevant data is to answer a particular question, we can’t guarantee that any conclusion is 100% right. We can only determine the most correct answer given a certain set of information.
People say that history is also a way to know what’s true, but such people who say that don’t truly understand what good historical scholarship involves, or the reliability of such conclusions. Historians know that any one source of historical knowledge can be biased, so the more data (sources) about a historical event the more sure the conclusion. But even then there still may be cultural bias, or differences in the way historical events were recorded at different times in our history. The lexicon of a particular language was less complex than now and thus we can sometimes only guess at the true meaning of a particular text. We can also support historical claims with archaeological evidence. Apologists that I’ve debated with love to cite the truth of a historical event in the Bible, but saying a historical event happened doesn’t mean the rest of a particular text is reliable. We can’t say that because City A existed as described in the Bible, thus the resurrection happened. This would be like saying well Mel Gibson’s movie Apocalypto must be all factual history because there was a tribe called the Incas. The Bible is a mixture of ordinary and extraordinary claims, and given that it was written by people who were aware of history and the norms of their time it would foolish to expect all of it to be fiction. Unless we have some unaltered video footage we still can’t know anything for sure. Video footage of Kennedy’s assassination tells us that he was assassinated and where the assassination took place. It doesn’t tell us who did it, or why? That had to be investigated and evidence collected. And despite the many conspiracy theories out there, the one thing that nobody says is that God sent down a bullet to kill Kennedy. The laws of physics were obeyed. Somebody fired a gun and that bullet traveled as it should towards its target.
The most important value perhaps of admitting “I don’t know” is that this means that it elicits curiosity and investigation. Having an answer, even if it cannot be tested, can often close off an avenue of investigation that might have otherwise been taken. If you ask me a question about the atmosphere and I give you an answer, you may simply believe me, based on my authority as an atmospheric science professor. If I’m right the fact that you don’t investigate for yourself costs you nothing. Yet if I think I know, or am afraid to look dumb and pretend to know my answer can prevent you from finding the actual answer, and now you may act on false information in the future. The reality is that there is too little time in our lives to investigate everything. Some things we do have to just believe. Having an answer is comforting. Believing in the supernatural can be comforting. That which is comforting doesn’t necessarily equate to truth, it is aesthetics. Aesthetics are important, but we shouldn’t expect everyone to share our aesthetic preferences.
Finally it is often the case that apologists will also use uncertainty as a means of positing that all answers are thus equally valid in the absence of evidence. Sometimes this is true, but certainly there are some explanations that have a higher probability of being true than others. If a tornado doesn’t hit your house one answer to why, could be that God spared your house. But this is highly improbable given how much the dynamics and the thermodynamics of the atmosphere influence storm motion. Provided we could get sufficient measurements of the atmosphere, we would have a better explanation as to why the storm took one path and not the other.
In cases where all answers might be equally valid, for which we have no evidence to support a particular assertion, there is an extremely large number of possibilities. For those who purports the logically flawed prime mover argument, even if it was a sound argument it says nothing about what might be the prime mover. Is it:
More than one
Computer programmer of a simulation
Flying Spaghetti Monster
God who is just really smart, but not omniscient
God who is powerful but not all powerful
God who is not timeless. Created the universe but then expired about 2 billion years ago.
A group of people from a parallel or previous universe who could do magic by writing things down. The act of writing on a page made it come true.
This list is possibly endless as we try to prescribe a nature to the supernatural. In fact the less evidence there is for an assertion the more possible answers we can provide. Not surprisingly we’ve had over 10,000 Gods in human history. My believing in one of these answers and writing it down in a book does not make an answer more true. Yet we are asked to simply accept specific extraordinary claims and reject others regularly by theist apologists.
The better, and more honest answer is, “I don’t know.” The more comfortable we can become with uncertainty, both individually and as a people, the more likely we are to grow. Not only is humility a virtue, but a methodological assessment of that which we have evidence for and what we don’t, can help us search for possible explanations that we might not have searched for because we believed we knew the answer.
Recently I listened to a podcast interview with Andrew McAfee who has written a book called More from Less. The message of this book is meant to be positive along the line of Steven Pinker’s more recent books. Illustrating that things aren’t maybe as bad as they seem, or at the very least we have reason to hope. While I am reticent to make critiques of a thesis without having actually read the book, what I want to say is more about the foundational premises he builds his book on, and I think the 90 minute interview gives me a good basis for discussion here.
For those of you who don’t want to listen, I will give a brief summary here. I will say at the outset that he is very pro capitalism, but I’ll be honest, out of anybody in favor of capitalism that I’ve listened to, he makes the most compelling arguments. I should also point out that he is not anti-regulation, nor is he libertarian and thinks that capitalism can solve every human concern. Anyway, the basic thesis of his book is that we currently live in an age where human prosperity shows signs of decoupling from the nearly one to one correlation we had since the industrial revolution of natural resource use. With quite a lot of data he shows since the 1970s we’ve been continue to grow economically, while using resources at a continually slower rate. The reason he attributes to this transition is because of our improved technology along with the fundamental ways in which capitalism works. I’ll go into details in a moment. I want to preface the discussion also by saying that he is not anti-climate change or anti-EPA. He admits the dark past of capitalism, but feels that the coupling with technological advances has helped capitalism be a more positive force. Like many of us I guess, he sees the good parts, and doesn’t want to throw the baby out in the bathwater. I always resonate with this mentality, and for those who know me, know I am not completely anti-capitalism. I do also see some good parts, but there are also parts that are deeply troubling to me and so a mixed economy seems the most reasonable to me.
The technological save for mankind her argues is the computer. This is not a new idea, and in fact I wrote about this a little before on my blog when I talked about Douglas Adams’ ages of sand. After the lens for the telescope and the microscope opened up the macro and micro universe, the silicon chip came along and revealed to us the process. We could do enormous amounts of calculations so quickly that this allowed people to solve problems in a tiny fraction of the time it would have taken them before. McAfee gives several examples of how computers helped businesses and corporations reduce waste. Their motivation to reduce waste is of course motivated by profit, but as a result less resources were used. One example was the aluminum can. If you are my age or older you know how thick cans of soda used to be compared to now. Cans today still function perfectly but use less material. Being able to model pressurized liquids in cans and tweak thicknesses and model the impact of that thickness allowed for vast savings in resources used by beer and soda companies. Since companies need profit for growth they have no incentive to be wasteful when it comes to materials. Now I’m sure class action law suits also convinced companies to stop raping the Earth, but I take his point and I don’t deny that it’s true.
His pro-capitalism stance is largely based on the fact that so many private companies and innovative production methods and the advent of fossil fuels raised a large amount of people out of poverty. Life expectancy when up dramatically as infant mortality dropped significantly due to indoor plumbing and parts could be made more quickly and in massively higher amounts to give a large population of people access. Being able to unleash the energy stored in fossil fuels powered companies of all kinds to bring lifesaving and life altering technologies to more and more people. Populations exploded as a result of the increase in prosperity.
For McAfee the future, if we are going to have a better one, he argues that we must have more of the same. We must have continue to have capitalism working to develop technologies that will use less and less resources for creating growth, and this can be guided by smart government policy. He is in favor for instance of a revenue neutral carbon tax that gives money to people at the bottom end, and encourages corporations and businesses to work to cut fossil fuel usage. What he doesn’t advocate is that we are all going to return to some idyllic pre-industrial state and he argues, I think quite convincingly that we weren’t this idyllic sustainable group of people prior to the industrial revolution, and that now with the world population as it is, we need energy and only the development of better energy sources is going to help us deal with something like pollution and climate change.
So fundamentally I think my disagreements come from the fact that first even if we are using less resources, those resources are still finite, and if we aren’t concerned about the continuing growth of people we will simply run out of important resources we need. Is there always a technological solution out there waiting for us? Maybe, but we don’t know that for sure.
The second thing I question is whether or not it is good that the population exploded as it did in the last 100 or so years. Is this prosperity? Is this a good way to measure prosperity? The fact that we might have the ability to effectively support human beings, doesn’t mean that we necessarily should. It seems to me that the technological advances of the industrial revolution were so powerful that human population grew unrestrained, requiring the continuing need to use and extract more resources. Is it true that we might not have invented the computer if we grew human populations at a rate that lead to a more sustainable society? Are these technological advances only an answer to some threshold in the amount of suffering on the planet? Was the computer something that could not just as easily been invented with half the world population at the time or was there a drive to invent something that could solve innumerable problems that were occurring because the world population was as high as it was? It’s not obvious to me that this is the case. It’s not obvious to me that prosperity for a creature with such a high level of consciousness should simply be defined by our growth in population. If we continue to grow in population this just seems to put us in an endless cycle of trying to have to develop new technologies to alleviate the suffering of the increased population. And even if we are getting more out of less, eventually something will run out, and technology simply won’t save us.
Finally, I am left with the old moral philosophy question: Does the end justify the means? Let’s say capitalism was best equipped to increase human prosperity and not destroy the Earth at the same time. If we are using less and less resources because some CEO is trying to make more money does it matter that we are doing the right thing for the wrong reasons? Capitalism is not a moral philosophy it is just an economic system. And while I enjoy listening to this well-educated author, his optimism, and his well laid out arguments, he is in the minority it seems when it comes to those who celebrate capitalism. For many the mindset of growth trumps other human concerns, even if that mindset sometimes producing good ends, it often leads to many downstream problems. There has to be room for human rights, happiness, respect, empathy, etc. If it is possible to practice a brand of ethical capitalism it must look different than what we have had in the past and even what we have now. I see very few capitalists adopting McAfee’s views, and I find myself very concerned about a society that puts profit in front of all other values. If capitalism does have any intrinsic value in it, then it needs a better marketer than Wall Street, and banks, and mega-rich billionaire CEOs.
McAfee does admit that income inequality is an important issue, although in the interview offered very little solutions to that. I suspect he feels like there policy solutions that don’t involve a high redistribution of wealth, but he didn’t go into a lot of details. There are a myriad of other issues he didn’t address in the interview such as education, and health care which I think don’t lend themselves well to the capitalist economic model yet are important in a society.
He did also address the problem of growing economies in other parts of the world. He doesn’t worry as much that they will do things as “dirty” and irresponsible as we did, simply because new technologies are available to them at a cheaper price than what the U.S. had when our economy started growing rapidly. It’s a fair point. But even if we can use less of resource A to produce a 1 KW of energy, or 1 mile of fiber optic cable, with a lot more people wanting those resources it still seems like an issue. And if we are expecting technology to get us out of our biggest problems while also devaluing education, as seems to be the case in this country, I don’t see things as getting better quickly enough before we hit the wall.
Overall it was a thought provoking interview. I don’t know if I feel more optimistic, but I at least can acknowledge that the conversation about what we can do is broader than the conversation we are having now. On the topic of climate change I feel this is largely because our conservative, pro-capitalist party can’t even admit that we have a problem and this leads to a very narrow range of solutions.
Yesterday I took my son to a science fair here in our small city of Washington, PA called STEMfest. It was the first time that such an event has occurred in the city, and after talking with one of the organizers I was pretty excited that this was something I could take my 5 year old. It was your typical science fair for the most part with local tech companies, universities and private high schools doing science demos and activities for kids. For some reason the Salvation Army was there, but they seemed to be just there out of the goodness of their hearts. They had little plastic cups where they helped the kids make slime. Kids love making slime and then put it in a little ziploc bag. I noticed that they also had slightly bigger Salvation Army plastic bags which I thought was just an extra safeguard in case the slime leaked out and didn’t get the other take home stuff from the event wet with slime. However, something else was lurking in the bag.
Fast forward to this morning and my son is taking out stickers in this:
Notice the cover indicates is meant to lure kids into believing this contains scientific information. A bible resides on the science lab desk and somehow a cross appears in the atom symbol.
The pages inside don’t get any better by making their religious nonsense appear to be part of things for which we have scientific evidence.
At least they are promoting women in science right? You can see the attempt to legitimize bible verses and religious rhetoric as scientific. They have the gall to call this a Time Traveler Guide, but Day 1-5 is Creation, Old Testament, Visitation, Preparation, and Celebration. Inside is also a plastic transparency like thing where you are supposed to use a flashlight to find various scientific items, bible verses and symbols in a science lab. A page of stickers, and then finally this exercise which asks the kid to “Complete the timeline with correct daily drawing sticker”
My son was playing with stickers in the book before I saw what this was. Fortunately he can’t read yet and constructed this according to his own logic, which I think you’ll like. He says to me that “fire creates trees and then new leaves, leaves cause clouds and then rain, rain causes evil kings, and evil kinds lead to death.” We watch a lot of nature shows so he know forest fires lead to new growth and he knows trees give off a lot of moisture and creates clouds and rain in rain forests. The evil king thing though remains a mystery. 🙂 Anyway, I told his explanation makes more sense than what this is actually trying to tell you. This booklet is made by “Answers in Genesis”. Which, as many know, is a particular dishonest Christian fundamentalist organization trying to push the Bible as being literally true (except for the parts that make no sense).
I am definitely going to complain to the organizers. Despite this being a conservative county, I don’t expect they knew this was going on. Given the one organizer I had talked to prior to the event, I don’t think the organizers intended for any booth to hand out religious literature. The fact that such anti-science creationist nonsense was being snuck to kids, I’m sure (I hope) will come as a surprise.
My dad always had a soft spot for the Salvation Army as when my parents were starting out life together and didn’t have much money. Salvation Army was helpful to them and was willing to marry them, as many other Christian pastors wouldn’t as they rejected a mixed marriage. As a result I will still thrown in some money when they are asking for donations around Christmas time. No longer. The disturbing part here is how deviously the Salvation Army hid what they were handed out while sucking kids in with a fun activity, and how the booklet itself misrepresents religious claims as scientific with images meant to trick and indoctrinate children. It’s simply appalling. So be aware parents when taking your kids to a science event, you may find a wolf in a scientist’s clothing.
The climate has been changing since the Earth began.
We have warm periods and cool periods. That climate.
Likely you have heard one of these arguments or some variation before. Look at any conversation about climate change and you will see at least some man-made climate change denier using it. It’s hard to even know exactly what they mean by the argument. I’m not even sure what argumentation fallacy to call it. Perhaps it’s just a non sequitur, but let’s try to break it down.
First, let’s start simply. If such people using the argument are trying to claim that what we are seeing is natural climate change, then they are misstating the argument. They should simply say. Yes the climate is changing, but there is insufficient evidence that man is the cause. I mean that’s not true, of course, but it would be an argument. Just one in which the person making the argument hasn’t adequately analyzed the evidence. The other implication here is that scientists in this field either don’t know that the climate changes naturally or that they don’t know what causes climate to change naturally, but just decided to come to a massive consensus across multiple scientific disciplines that it’s happening. This is also is ridiculous.
However, the way this argument is phrased it seems that the argument that is really being made here by those who use it, is that they think one of two things (or perhaps both):
Since climate changes naturally it can’t change because of human influence.
Since climate changes naturally there is nothing that can be done about it.
Let’s deal with the second argument first. And let’s even go so far as to say that the person is right. What we are seeing is just natural. Given the rate the temperature is warming this is cause for alarm, even if it is natural. It threatens many human populations, will increase drought frequency, extreme precipitation events, national security issues, species extinction, rapid sea level rise, etc. If this is happening naturally, then why shouldn’t we be trying to do something about it? If a naturally started forest fire threatens people’s homes, should we not put it out. Should we not build homes more securely to mitigate damage from hurricanes? We do so many things to try to mitigate and prevent damage and deaths from natural disasters, it seems ridiculous to me to make any such claim that natural climate change that threatens large populations of people and ecosystems worldwide isn’t something that we should be trying to do something about.
The first argument takes even less effort to counter. My favorite example is to use evolution, which of course happens naturally, but practically all farming, horse and dog breeding happens through man-made selection in order to increase food nutrition and create your favorite breeds of dogs and horses. Taken to the extreme we could simply say that death is a natural process, thus there is no such thing as murder. Or since death is a natural process there is no sense in trying to cure people of cancer.
Overall it is difficult to understand why this is such a common argument, and why this seems to be the final argument for so many to dismiss man-made climate change as a non-issue. Feel free to share this post with folks you know who have made this argument.
My 5 year old son is going through a bit of a phase right now where he is scared of being almost anywhere in the house by himself. Even in the day time. He wants someone to walk with him to the bathroom, his bedroom, the basement, etc. He says he’s scared that their might be monsters, while at the same time freely admits that he knows monsters aren’t real. But how does he know such things, other than the fact that his parents have told him so? My wife was able to prod the reason for his current phase out of him. He says that he thought he saw something like a monster in the dark once and since that time is when he’s started being scared going from room to room. So here there is a clash between something he “knows” because it is has been told to him by authority in his life and something that he has experienced. Now obviously he is misinterpreting his experience and there aren’t monsters. There is no way he can be reasoned with through conversation. It will simply dawn to him at some point after enough time has passed and no monsters have appeared that he might have been just imagining it. And in between he may see other disturbing shapes in the darkness that might worry him further. This will take time.
As a parent it is easy to be a bit frustrated with this, especially since it is enough work watching the 15 month old, and to now have to escort a 5 year old everywhere in the house, even when it is bright and sunny is a bit annoying. But then I remembered back to how I was no different as a child. One of my first memories, although more like an emotional imprint, is that I remember being scared of the moon. Apparently this happened around the age of two. I remember that the moon would sometimes be visible outside my window, and I remember being scared of it. I don’t remember when I got over that fear, but my dad says they had to move the bed so that I couldn’t see out the window from bed. Then everything was fine. Of course now I think the moon is full of romance and beauty and I can think of no logical reason why I would fear the moon. It
was clearly an irrational fear. When I was older, maybe around 7 I also remember being scared of a stuffed Daffy Duck. It sat next to my bed and like Daffy should it had big eyes with a fair amount of white. That white almost glowed in the dark, and so when I would see the Daffy Duck sitting upright near my bed it started to freak me out. In fact I have recollections of it just appearing to me that way rather suddenly, and not having frightened me prior to that. Maybe I had some experience that made me worried about eyes in the dark. I don’t know. Needless to say I had to hide the Daffy Duck and then everything was fine.
All this made me think about fear. My friend Esme had a post where she asked her readers to come up with an analogy for fear and mine was “Fear is like water. We need a little to live, but too much and we drown.” I think this is a pretty good analogy. But even if some fear is good, there are rational and irrational fears. The fact that we would fear things irrationally makes no difference to evolution. We need to be creatures that feel fear, because there are actually things to fear in this world. And what we fear can’t be so hardwired into us, because then how would we be able to adapt to new threats and dangers? So we are just going to feel fear for all sorts of things, whether it is a poisonous snake, or the imagined menace of the eyes of a stuffed duck in the dark.
It seems to me that one of the purposes of our ability to reason (maybe the most important part) is that we can try to sort out the rational from the irrational fears. And then at a higher level of reasoning we can then try to prioritize those fears to help us make better choices about where we expend our energy to try to mitigate those things which pose the greatest threat. Anybody who is paying attention in this world knows that we are terrible at both of these things. One reason we might be terrible at this is that in general, nature really only cares that we live long enough to reproduce. As social species even if we died shortly after reproduction there would still be people in our community that could potentially raise those young. So we need to feel fear, and we need to feel it strongly to get us to the point of sexual maturity, but beyond that fear loses its utility. It seems to me that for most of us we live in a world where making it to the age of sexual maturity isn’t so difficult anymore, but our brains are still going to be wired to feel fear. And this fear can, and is exploited intentionally, or unintentionally every day.
But even if we do make a correct decision about something we should rationally fear, if there is nothing we can do about it, how do we as humans deal with such fear? The example that often comes to mind for me is how humans at the dawn of civilization, after we discovered farming and lived in close proximity to each other and animal feces, is death to diseases we did not have immunities to. Somewhere around 80% of the aboriginals in North America died of such diseases when the Europeans came. Things like small pox and influenza. Of course you can still be killed by such things today, but most of us don’t because we’ve had so many generations of living with these things our bodies have built up an immunity. Imagine living in those early days of farming and seeing people die in the prime of their lives from the flu. Not just one person who was already a bit unhealthy but many people. This would be a reasonable thing to fear. But what could one do about it? The microscope was not invented until 1590. It’s not that humans didn’t try to combat this reasonable fear, but in the absence of being able to know what germs, viruses, and infections were at that microscopic level, truly doing something about that fear would have been hard to do. The boon that farming brought would have easily given us a blind spot as to what might be the source of problems. When I really read the entirety of the Leviticus in the Bible it was clear to me that this was how we went about combating reasonable fears. Practical advice (for the time) mixed with storytelling. Science is really also about building a narrative for why things happen the way they do, and how to go about solving those problems. I do think narratives, and stories, are important for contextualizing fears. So we can say “Alright well here is a thing that I fear, and here is why it happens, and now I can start taking steps to avoid these things.” The problem being that when you have the wrong explanation, you can expend a great deal of energy and not really solve the problem, even if you do conquer your fear. To the local follower of some divine word, it must have been a great surprise to the one who believed and did as they were told that disease still ended their lives. Leaving those alive to suspect that the only reason the person died couldn’t be because they had an incorrect narrative for the fear, but that the person who died wasn’t following the narrative correctly or worse yet rejected the narrative secretly.
One of the things that I like about the scientific method is that built-in is a self-correction mechanism so that we can constantly question the narrative. Certainly there have been scientists who have stuck to a particular paradigm, or who let ego override their humility, but I think people who don’t really understand science, underestimate how much self-correction is built in to the methodology. Maybe that’s also why the biggest religious zealots have a hard time seeing science as fundamentally different from religion. We see the narrative science builds change; openly and unabashedly. Yet books remain unchanged. Of course, this isn’t strictly true, because narratives evolve, translators change things, and some beliefs fall away from various denominations, but the story that religion often tells is that it is unchanging and forever. Such is the nature of institutions.
Maybe fear can become addictive in the brain as well. Maybe this is why it feels like so many people are drowning in it today. I think that’s what makes me the saddest about religious fundamentalists or conspiracy theorists, because for all their narratives they just seem really afraid and all I can think is “Things aren’t really as fearful as you think.” This is also what angers me about fear mongering. It really might be the worst human behavior.
As a meteorologist, it is difficult for me to turn that part of myself off wherever I go. When people try to make small talk about the weather with me, they usually regret it, because to me weather isn’t just to pass the time, but it’s interesting. However, for most people it is small talk. Invariably whenever I go out in public I overhear conversations about the weather, whether in restaurants, museums, the locker room at the gym, etc. There is a common theme I hear which is that forecasters don’t know what’s going on. I hear and read things like prediction is not even possible. I have had people come up to me and jokingly say, “Meteorology must be a great profession because you can be wrong 50% of the time and still have a job.” Though they clearly are telling one of those jokes that they actually believe to be true, the chuckle I give in return is not nearly as sincere. To explain would require more time than I often have, so I thought maybe I should write a post explaining some of the basics, and explain some of the most common things people misunderstand about the weather.
There is a lot to the history of forecasting, but I think it’s fairly clear why people want to have some knowledge about what sort of weather was coming their way. Whether you wanted to know when to plant crops, went to harvest, or where and when to sail your ship, having knowledge of the atmosphere, knowing what weather is coming your way has huge advantages. The beginnings of forecasting as a science were driven by WWI when aviation was added to warfare and they quickly realized that having weather observations and an ability to know what weather was coming was a huge tactical advantage. The weather forecast is something almost everyone utilizes today, whether you think it means something or not, people will still look to try to make the best guess about what to wear, whether to bring an umbrella, or whether travel or not will be hazardous.
How Accurate are Forecasts and Why Do People Think They Are Not Accurate?
First things first. Currently the National Whether Service is accurate for 1 and 2 day temperature forecasts to within 2.5 – 4 F, and has an 82% accuracy rate when it comes to precipitation. I am not going to spend a lot of time proving accuracy here, you can check out these links as they have already done the work.
What I will say is that it is important to understand how our cognitive biases shape our perception. The one at work here is that what sticks in memory are the misses, and not the hits. When the forecast is right, you don’t think about the forecast. When it’s wrong you do. This creates a data point in your brain only when there is a missed forecast, but it’s poor way to draw meaningful statistical conclusions. I think it’s also important to note that I see a lot of click bait type headlines for upcoming weather and this may be what’s drawing our attention. Extreme gets clicks, but may not be what’s being endorsed by the National Weather Service. It’s also not clear whether people are staying current with the latest forecast.
Finally I think it’s important to remember that in extreme weather situations forecasters will err on the side of caution. It is a difficult line to walk. When extreme predictions don’t happen, the public loses trust in your forecast, and this can cost you lives in the future. If on the other hand you don’t communicate the possibility of an extreme situation, that can also lose you lives. So in erring on the side of caution, more often than not people will find that it might not have been quite as bad as predicted. Erring on the side of caution is the right thing to do, because there is an inherent error to the forecast. Sometimes in the margin of error, the extreme end of that error can be the difference between life and death.
Precipitation is the hardest variable to forecast for and some of the reasons for that are given in the next section, but a few points are worth talking about here. First, many people don’t understand the precipitation forecast. This has been a criticism of the National Weather Service to change their way of forecasting precipitation, but for now, there seems to be no better way of doing it. When the probability of precipitation (PoP) is reported, it is reported as a percent. But what does that percent mean? This probability is actually the product of two other numbers. One is the actually chance of precipitation but the other is the percentage of the forecast area that will be impacted by precipitation. Each National Weather Service office has a specific region in which they are suppose to forecast for and they usually break those down into smaller regions for the purpose of precipitation forecast, but the fact remains that incorporated into that PoP is areal coverage. So 50% chance of precipitation is not the coin toss that some make it out to be, but it could mean that there is a 100% chance of rain over half the forecast area. Of course it could also mean that there is a 50% chance over all the forecast area. But it’s also important to remember that even in the latter case it’s not a coin toss, but rather based on evidence that pegs precipitation as more likely. The difference between rain and no rain can often be very small and requires knowledge of atmospheric properties at high resolution. A far higher resolution than we have.
Snow forecasts are often worse, and this is largely due to two factors. One, is that it depends on temperature whether you get rain or snow. It takes a very slight error in the forecasted temperature for rain to suddenly become snow or vice-versa. So being 2 F off in our forecasted temperature may make no difference in what you wear for the day, but it can have huge impacts on what driving conditions are like. The second important factor here is that water expands when it freezes such that the ratio of snow to liquid precipitation is 10:1. Forecast models only determine the precipitable water for a particular area. If that prediction is off by 0.2 inches this could be the difference between 1 and 3 inches of snow, which is a rather big deal when it comes to driving. But it’s not always a matter of the forecast model being wrong in terms of precipitable water. Across any storm system there is going to be variation in the amount of precipitable water and thus getting the storm track exactly right also matters. Mix this in with a possible slight error in forecast temperature can lead to a vast difference the amount of snow accumulation for a particular location. On top of that the 10:1 ratio is more like 7:1 if the snow is really wet, so this adds error into the forecast as well.
Weather is a matter of Scale
A lot get’s said about the difference between weather and climate, but very little is said about differences among various types of weather systems. Typically, the average meteorologist separates scale into 3 categories. Turbulent eddies near the surface to convection currents in clouds make up the microscale (< a few km) A thunderstorm or a system of thunderstorms or series of cloud bands for lake effect snow would be part of the mesoscale (about 10-100 km, several hours), and then things like low pressure systems would be on the synoptic scale (about 1000 km, several days). Our ability to forecast events along these scales depends largely on our ability to make observations smaller than the scale we are trying to predict in both space and time. For instance if I am at a station 100 km away from the nearest station, even if I make continuous observation a thunderstorm that happens somewhere in between will not be observed by me. When you look at the number of tornadoes in the U.S. over a 100 year period, you will see a dramatic rise in the number from a few hundred to over a 1000. This is no climate change phenomena, but a matter of our ability to observe tornadoes, and the advent of a national radar network that dramatically increased our ability to determine where tornado producing storms were. Similarly if I make observations only two times a day, I’m unlikely to be able to resolve well the changes that occur between those observation times.
Computer models that forecast weather have similar problems. Computer models operate by breaking up the atmosphere into a 3-D grid that then processes the physical equations that describe the atmosphere at equal time intervals. The size of these grids and the spacing of the measurement network that gives the initial data for these models to work lends itself best to the forecasting on the synoptic scale. What this means is that we are likely to best forecast the development and movement of low pressure systems and high pressure systems, and forecast widespread rain. The timing and movement of individual thunderstorms represent processes that occur at the sub-grid level. In essence, noise. Obviously a potential hail or tornado producing thunderstorm is not really noise, but this is why your forecaster is pretty good at telling you when that cold front is coming through the next day, but not so good at pinpointing where thunderstorms will be the strongest. That type of accuracy is usually only made several hours in advance. Although we’re pretty good at assessing a day or two in advance which day will have a high potential for thunderstorms.
Practical vs. Theoretical
When it comes to the theory about how weather works we are, in general, ahead of the game, but practical considerations take precedent. For instance we could do an excellent job of forecasting if we had weather data every 10 km over the surface of the earth and sent up weather balloons once every hours. The cost however of such an enterprise would be enormous. Especially considering it’s very difficult to get this information over the ocean. Remote sensing devices like satellite and radar are making strides in provide better spatial coverage, but even those have limitations. We are never going to have perfect data over as wide a range and as often as we need it, and this is always going to lead to some error. Computer power is also a practical limitation although it has accelerated greatly since the first model. Previously, with all the theory we knew, trying to create a model that matched our data network would have taken the computer so long to produce an output that the time we were trying to forecast for would have been past. This is no longer a terribly relevant problem, but it is if we really want to be able to break into models that compute both synoptic and mesoscale features. It’s a bit hard to explain but you can think of a computer model as potentially like a nesting doll. We could run a model at the smaller scale within in each grid of the synoptic scale model. So a model within a model. That becomes computationally laborious and can take intense amount of computer processing power.
Then we have the reality of cost-benefit analysis. Decisions about weather research and preparedness have a lot to do with what the costs are. This is hardly surprising. If snow is rare in your city you might find that it’s easier for the city to just close down for a day than spend a lot of money on snow plows. As mentioned above, to take ideal amount of measurements would be of great cost and despite the scientist’s love of data, the question must be asked do the gains in forecast accuracy outweigh the costs. Improved technology can help reduce cost and make instruments more maintenance free, but instruments still need to be recalibrated, replaced and maintained. These instruments are outdoors and can get pelted by hail, get dirty, or get spiderwebs or hornets nests, etc. You will find the densest network of measurements in areas where lots of people live. Sparsely populated areas, areas with complex terrain, will have less measurements and this means they will experience greater errors in forecasting. In addition to the complex wind flow that occurs in mountainous areas leading to a large variability in conditions, there are far few weather observing stations. If you live in such a region you are likely less than impressed by your local forecaster.
The Answer is Blowing in the Wind
The prevailing wind direction in mid-latitudes (where most of the U.S. resides) is from west to east. Thus even being downstream of areas that have sparse observing stations also are more poorly forecasted. The best way to know what weather you are about to get is to have good measurements upstream of your location.
Finally, there are also communication issues. The National Weather Service has put a lot of effort into this area, to think how to better communicate and disseminate weather information. For instance if we have a particular graphic showing probabilities for where the eyewall for a hurricane is going to hit, is that graphic communicating what it needs to the person who needs to see it, whether that’s an emergency response worker or the average person?
In this day and age of instant media and social media, it should in some ways make communication easier, but what I’ve noticed that it’s not always clear whether people are paying attention to the most current information, if they’re getting their information from a good source, and even if it seems whether or not they are aware what location a particular forecast is for and may think a forecast was bad even if it wasn’t for where they live. As I mentioned at the beginning there is also a lot of clickbait and alarmist language being used. Things like “bomb cyclone” and other colorful adjectives. At the same time there has been criticism that the normal scientific tendency to temper their language in communicating important information may make people pay less attention to situations they should pay attention to. Undoubtedly there are going to be consequences of both extremes. Overuse of strong language, especially when conditions end up not being that extreme can numb the public to more dire warnings. Trying to find the best way to get people to understand, and pay attention is difficult, but this is a challenge the weather community takes seriously. In the end, there probably is no perfect way to communicate, and it is up to the consumer of the information to educate themselves as well as to what this weather stuff is all about.
Hopefully this little piece helped explain a few things. If you have any other questions, let me know. I’ll add to this so this remains a fixed guide to helping people understanding the challenges in forecasting and why we might have misconceptions about forecasting accuracy.
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 theprevious 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.
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.
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?
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.