Ask an Expert

Currently I am in Austin, TX attending the national American Meteorological Society meeting.  The conference continues to grow in size as the field becomes more interdisciplinary and attracts professionals from both the private and government sectors.  You meet researchers, educators, broadcasters.  Of course one of the big topics here remains climate change.  You won’t see many speakers spending time proving that it’s happening.  There are a few, but a bulk of the people will be talking about how to we get more people on board to take action?  How do we get government to listen?  How do we communicate more effectively to the public?  What are the kinds of policies we need to mollify people who are worried about jobs and livelihood as we switch to more and more renewable energy?  But climate change itself isn’t what I wanted to talk about although it is part of the inspiration for this post.  That and a podcast I listened to with Tom Nichols who wrote a book called The Death of Expertise.

As someone who writes a blog, uses social media, and is a professor, I am fairly outspoken about climate change and have had my expertise challenged many times.  I consider myself an expert of sorts, but as I sit here surrounded by greats in our field and even lesser known ones, I also know that I am a light expert when it comes to climate change.  And I know a lot.  But there are people who know more.  There are people who have a great depth of expertise.  I spent 11 years in university becoming what I am.  There are people who have spent the same amount of time and then on top of that spend year after year researching problems and testing hypotheses and collecting and analyzing data.  Why do they do such things?  We live in a time where much information is available instantly.  Have people like myself and others here simply wasted all our time and just should have waited for the internet to be in its current state so that we could gain the same level of expertise through a few days (hours?) of googling?

I have tried different methods of engaging people on the subject of climate change publicly (some I’ll admit I knew weren’t helpful to anybody but myself), but nothing really seems to make much of a difference.  In the end, someone who might be a line chef at a restaurant will adamantly disagree with you.  And of course I have had far more educated people disagree with me as well, but they have not been educated in meteorology or a related field. And it shows.  I’ll be honest if you want to be critical of climate change with me, I can tell the moment you start speaking, how much you actually know about the science.  Now that’s not to say that you couldn’t have a lively debate should you talk about policy, law, or the pros and cons of renewable energy.  These are all things I am not an expert at, and don’t pretend to be.  So why do so many people pretend they can be an expert on the topic of climate change?

You might say that skepticism is healthy, and this is true.  But that skepticism needs to also come from other experts.  Within the scientific community disagreement and skepticism are everywhere, and scientists within a discipline are constantly challenging each other to do better.  Yes there are times when science fails, but more often than not the expertise of people makes a positive difference.  It seems that it’s our penchant for noticing the failures that perhaps skews our perceptions.  But the amount of expertise it takes just for a plane to successfully take off and land is immense, and there are over 100,000 commercial flights per day.  Many people of course falsely see planes as unsafe modes of travel, but most of us know there is no safer way to travel.  Assuming people in aviation don’t know what they are doing because of the rare plane crash would be an obviously false perception.  For people who deny the validity of climate science I often ask them why the scientific findings are inherently different than the science that was used to make the computer they are using to argue with me?  One of the more intelligent people (non-expert however) I’ve argued with about climate change plainly stated that he trusted a prediction 2 years out of an asteroid collision with Earth, but still maintained that any climate model that tried to predict climate was no better than flipping a coin.

It’s clear that climate science is much more about politics than the science, but since the truth of the results lies outside of the purview of political leanings, the science gets attacked, weakly but loudly.  What other choice is there for such people?  With instant access to information, the perception that one can be knowledgeable enough over a number of hours to speak authoritatively on issues gives them the confidence to do so.  This simply isn’t true.  This post might seem boastful to some or elitist.  In some ways I suppose the latter is true.  I do feel that I represent a very small portion of the population that understands the atmosphere well.  But as I’ve said I’m also smart enough to know how much more there is to know.  And while I am generally smart enough to slog my way through scholarly articles in most field, never would I assume that this makes me an expert.  Put me in the presence of an expert and you’ll find me asking more questions than being argumentative.  And there is expertise to be found in many walks of life.  I don’t go in telling mechanics what their job is about, or spend a lot of time second guessing how accountants do their job, or tell a carpenter he’s hammering a nail all wrong.  I feel I am humble enough about the things for which I know little, but appropriately confident about the things in which I have expertise.  Too often that expertise is challenged by people with none and too often I feel like I should almost apologize for knowing a lot about something.  Personally, I am glad there are experts out there.  I am glad there are people who devote their lives to the understanding something well, to perform tasks everyday knowledgeably and skillfully.  And I am also glad that there are enough experts to challenge other people with similar expertise, who are there to spot mistakes and make improvements over each other’s works.

It seems that we have drifted in this country away from the appreciation of expertise.  And I don’t think one side of the political spectrum is immune to it.  As I watch the numerous cheers for Oprah Winfrey to be our next president, I get deeply concern that the value we place on expertise has waned to dangerous levels.  It is a great age, because there are so many places where we need people with expertise.  Everybody has the ability to be an expert in something.  But this takes time, study, and experience, and this fact should never be forgotten.  Take some time to think about how your day is made better by the experts in your world.

He Blinded Me With Science

As a meteorologist and scientist I am very familiar with many pseudoscience arguments and websites like creation science, new age science, anti-climate change arguments, and all the conspiracy theories that go along with it.  My colleague recently turned me on to a little gem of a website.  Somebody has ‘solved’ tornadoes.  I hope you click on the site.  Not only will the guy who owns this WordPress website be excited that he has so many hits, but you will immediately be able to tell that this person isn’t playing with a full deck.  At first I laughed a lot as I read it, but the more I read it, the more I actually started to be impressed.  Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I’m impressed with the actual ideas here, they are completely wrong, but I was impressed with how much time and thought this person has gone into thinking about the problem.  I don’t want to post any individual blog posts linked here, because I really don’t care to have this person start harassing me, but if you go through a number of them you’ll see that he has talked to some real experts in the field (although it’s unclear about whether he has e-mailed them or actually talked to them personally), he has posts where he has retracted some of his statements and then explained why he retracted them.  He has designed experiments to test his hypothesis as well.  In fact I’m a bit jealous that this guy actually has more blog followers than me.  Did I say jealous?  I meant frightened.  Anyway, what I thought what was really interesting is that here is a very unique belief system which has blossomed into something rather complex.  One that to my knowledge nobody else really believes (at least not yet, or at least I hope not yet) and yet bears much similarity to existing belief systems.  So I thought it might be interesting to deconstruct it a little and see what we get.

At the heart of every belief system is at least one premise that is accepted as true, without being supported by any empirical observations.  Once this is accepted as

From http://www.nc-climate.ncsu.edu

true, much can be built from it.  For instance many religious belief systems accept as fact that there is a God and goes on from there.  Many times of course there are several faulty premises.  It could be that they stem from an original, but it’s hard to say.  Let’s take a look at the one’s that seem to this gentleman’s starting point

Premise 1:  The jet stream is a conscious entity that is thirsty for water and thus tornadoes are a result of the jet stream needing to suck up water.  I guess that makes a tornado a giant straw.

Premise 2:  Moisture is the most important factor in determining density differences in buoyant air. (Actually it’s temperature).

Premise 3:  Meteorology is a cult, and meteorologist simply believe in old and outdated arguments that have never been proved experimentally.

From this all sorts of things are possible.   If you were to accept the first two things as truth you would come up with a very different scenario for how and why thunderstorms and tornadoes form.  The 3rd premise is what then allows him to never have to rethink the first two.  People who could argue intelligently with him and are more knowledgeable are meteorologists and since they are part of a belief based cult they can’t possibly be correct or unbiased.

Another important part of a belief system is the inequality in standards the proponents of the belief system must live up to in comparison to non-believers.  For

From http://static01.nyt.com

instance, those against gay marriage will expect everyone to respect their right to be legally bound in holy matrimony, but do not have to respect the rights of homosexuals.  As is often the case pseudoscience literature like this, the expectation of other is to provide rigorous proof, yet no such proof is given by this gentleman as he espouses his hypothesis about how and why tornadoes form.   At its root I feel this comes from a lack of humility.  To be so sure you are right about something that you are beyond the need for evidence, and that you are beyond the ability of anybody (regarding their experience and expertise) to change your mind is to be so prideful that even Donald Trump would be impressed.  It is also a sad state to be in.  As I’ve argued before since reinforcing beliefs releases dopamine in the brain, over time as the neural pathways become so entrenched into a belief, this person literally will become ill to consider anything else.  The stronger the argument you make, the less likely you will get anywhere.

So what’s the harm in all of this?  Perhaps very little since there is a certain amount of crazy that even the most clueless about the subject won’t buy into.  Nevertheless there is at least enough science jargon on his website that people who are not educated about the issue may think there is controversy and conspiracy.  Just like many who are not educated about climate change think the same way.  There was at least one commenter who reblogged one of his articles saying it was an interesting “new theory”.  I wanted to also introduce this website and blog post as a lead in to a discussion of the age of information (or misinformation) that we live in.  This person has self-published a book for sale on amazon and has done a lot of writing on this subject.  If he had a little bit of money and/or web savvy he could make his site one of the top hits on google when people search for information about tornadoes.  Critical thinking skills are even more important today than they were before the internet to be able to navigate the flood of information that we are faced with on any one subject area.  Anyway, keep well everyone and stay away from thirsty jet streams!

Destiny’s Child

 

One facet of human nature that fascinates me is the idea of destiny.  Now when I say destiny here I don’t mean like some blockbuster movie in which I am destined to save the princess, fulfill the prophecy and become the most benevolent leader of mankind.  I am talking about something more fundamental than that.  What some people might refer to as “a calling”.  And maybe not even in the sense of a career only, but rather one’s passions, one’s nature.  It is not too surprising that I am reflecting on that, because as I watch my son, I wonder what he’s going to be like.  What will his interests be?  How will he want to live his life and how different will that be from me or his mother?

The nurturing influence of parents cannot be overlooked, but we’ve all known people who were vastly different from their parents in some very fundamental ways.  Two parents might be very messy and their child is neat.  Two parents might be teachers, and their child wants to run his own business.  Of course trying to determine why somebody ends up the way they do is a fool’s errand in a lot of ways, because nurture is not just a function of parents, but of teachers, friends, relatives, society, etc.  It could be that one day a kid sees a fancy car that he just loves and says to himself, alright how do I get a job that allows me to drive around with that.  Perhaps not the most noble of callings, but he we like shiny things that enhance our status and so these kinds of things certainly happen.

For most of my life I thought I had a calling to be a meteorologist.  I’ve loved storms since I was a small child.  I would get up in the middle of the night to watch the lightning.  In grade 6 we learned about different clouds and how they could tell us about the weather that was coming our way.  I was fascinated by this and remember feeling hooked by it.  I wanted to learn more about clouds and forecasting.  In grade 8 our science class was a full year and broken up into 3 parts:

From http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov

astronomy, meteorology, and geology.  I loved all 3 of those and at the time they had us thinking about careers, but I was already hooked on meteorology and I decided then that I was going to be a meteorologist.  During my undergraduate I decided that being a forecaster wasn’t for me and wanted to teach it so I went to grad school and I loved it and don’t regret a second of it.  At the end of my undergraduate I took a linguistics course and I loved it.  At that time I questioned my career decision a little, but it was my last year of undergrad and it seemed too late to do anything else, and what did it matter, I still loved the weather.  I do think that I would be just as happy if I had chosen linguistics as a career had I been introduced to it earlier in life.  Now my interests lie in cognitive science and neuroscience.  I could definitely see myself being a researcher, or even a clinical psychologist because I am deeply interested in understanding others and our nature, and feel I have some aptitude in understanding the motivations of others.

Despite these ponderings on alternative careers, I still don’t have any regrets.  I enjoy my job, and perhaps being a professor is the reason I have had time to pursue these other passions.  But it has led me to some questions about this idea that I was somehow “destined” to be in the atmospheric sciences.   Would I still have become what I became had I not lived in a climate that did not have thunderstorms?  What if our curriculum in grade 6 did not include learning about clouds?  What if the grade 8 science curriculum didn’t have meteorology which helped me appreciate the subject at a greater depth and attract me to it even more?  What if I had a mother who was afraid of storms and that made me afraid of storms?  Yet my choice to go into meteorology seems beyond these things.  We had lots of subjects in school and with some good teachers.  Why didn’t any of those subjects arouse a passion in me?  My parents were not scientists, teachers, historians, writers, etc. and it seems that they didn’t influence me in any particular academic field so I could have chosen anything.  In terms of time, we spent more time learning about many other subjects than meteorology.  There are rocks everywhere and I had been to the Rockies, so why didn’t I go into geology?  I loved watching nature shows so why didn’t I become a biologist?  Why did I feel I had a “calling” when I meet so many students who aren’t even sure what they want to do?  Is this a rare feeling? Or do other people feel it and just ignore it?

From http://www.zoriah.net

I don’t know that I have an answer to any of these questions, but what I do know is that I was very fortunate.  I’ve seen many students with a passion for meteorology but very weak quantitative skills, having weaknesses in math and physics that forced them to take a different career path even if their interest remains.  I do not have that problem. I am fortunate by circumstances having parents who worked hard for me to give me a chance to pursue my passions.  I wonder how many people feel this “calling” towards science, the arts, humanities, history, education, etc., but simply must take a job as soon as possible to support a family.  Maybe they can’t afford to go to school and don’t want to take out student loans.  Some people might argue that their “calling” is perhaps not that strong to drive them, but there are practical realities that must be adhered to and when basic needs must be met they simply must be taken care of first.  Somewhere there are people who could have been brilliant athletes with enough training and leisure time, but instead had to work in a factory to support their family.  How many geniuses have simply died of starvation?  How many talented artists have died of curable diseases simply because they couldn’t afford a doctor or the vaccine that would have save their life, or a doctor or vaccine simply wasn’t available?

In the end I don’t think I subscribe to this idea of destiny, because whatever natural passions we have, they must be cultivated, and even those passions may fade slightly as new ones take their place.   In the end I can only be thankful for the natural gifts I seem to possess and the family, friends, and society that has allowed me to develop them.