Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Big Picture Lessons from an Unfortunate Tweet

Just in case someone asks, No, there is not enough rotation and scale to produce the Coriolis Effect by spinning the Wheel of Fortune.

Now that we have clarified that, I wanted to use the recent Pat Sajak tweet to turn a negative to a positive.  I don’t know Mr. Sajak so will not judge him, his intent, or ideological perspective. Instead, I will draw out 3 things that can help advance the discourse on climate science.

First, it is imperative for the public to recognize that this “minor” incident highlights a “major” problem. All kinds of people with virtually no expertise are comfortable speaking on climate science. I can be in the grocery store and if someone finds out that I am a meteorologist-climatologist type, they often feel comfortable telling me “the climate changes naturally” or launching into some zombie theory (i.e. a theory that I have heard a million times and has been disproven by the science). I am usually cordial, but in the back of my mind, I am thinking “really? You think the Director of a major university's atmospheric sciences program (Go Dawgs) with a BS, MS, and PHD in meteorology from a top program (Go Noles) doesn’t know that the climate changes naturally?”

I often wonder if nuclear engineers experience people walking up to them in the mall suggesting new reactor cooling techniques. But, I digress. Meteorology is rooted in fluid dynamics, thermodynamics, and other complex mathematics-physics principles. It has been rated, many times, as one of the most difficult majors on a college campus. I often have students coming to my program wanting to study weather or climate because they “love clouds or tornadoes,” yet when I lay out the math, physics, and other requirements, they have a "deer-in-headlights" look.  For more information on the credentials required to be a meteorologist, visit http://www.ametsoc.org/policy/2010degree_atmosphericscience_amsstatement.html. I think even this curriculum could be augmented because many programs are very limited in coursework related to climate modeling, paleoclimate studies, advanced time series analysis, and advanced statistical methods.

The lesson here is that you must consume information from credible or expert sources.  Ask yourself if the author of that blog or Op-Ed has a background in the science, has published in peer-reviewed journals, or at least put forth their position in a forum that can evaluated, tested, or scrutinized.  Additionally, it is important to remember that just because people have “equal access” to experts in formats like Twitter, it doesn’t mean “equal expertise.” My 7 year old could tweet his view on the onset of El Nino, but it doesn’t mean it is credible.

Second, the public must understand that just because you know a TV personality, it doesn’t signify that they are an expert on climate or vaccines. While this may sound trivial, many celebrities reach millions of people, and I am convinced that some fall lock step with their viewpoint just because they like them or their show. Likewise, it is important to remember that “weather is your mood, climate is your personality.” Expertise in day-to-day weather forecasting is not necessarily expertise in climate analysis, modeling, and processes.

Every now and then, I get the question, “So how can we trust a climate model in the year 2040, if a weather model is not good beyond 7-10 days?”  That question immediately tells me there is a gap in background because climate models are not predicting the exact state of the atmosphere (weather) on Wednesday in 2040. It is an apples and oranges discussion. More disturbingly, I have received that question from a few people that reach the public every day.

Having said that, there are a ton of outstanding colleagues in the broadcast world that do an amazing job with weather and climate.

Finally, irrespective of viewpoint, the name-calling and bullying must stop. We are not 5th graders. Scientists are trained to disagree and have scientific discourse without taking it personally.   There are colleagues that I fundamentally disagree with on aspects of this issue yet still respect them and interact with them in a professional, social and respectful manner.

“Unpatriotic racists?” ….I clearly serve my country and have yet to figure out how to discriminate against myself or anyone else.  I am an African-American scientist. I am the immediate Past President of the largest professional society in this country associated with weather and climate (AMS). I served on a Pentagon-commissioned study on climate and national security. I was a NASA scientist for 12 years. I currently serve on advisory boards for NOAA and NASA, respectively.

Meanwhile, I am curious to see if I can use the “Wheel” to teach anything about vorticity, force, or shear in a future meteorology class :)

28 comments:

  1. "Scientists are trained to disagree and have scientific discourse without taking it personally." sometimes more of an ideal than a reality, judging from the Curry/Mann et al exchanges

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    1. Calling individuals "flat earthers" because they are skeptics and refuse to fall in line with "Consensus science" does not a great scientist make. Michael Crichton defined it precisely this way: "Consensus is the work of politics. It is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled.". Unless you can point your "skeptics" to a second independent study that has been done with the original data producing the exact original results.then what you have to offer is junk science. At this time I have not heard of such an undertaking by anyone and instead I hear only from a man, who attempted to rape a masseuse, who used clips from a Hollywood disaster movie to tell us the sky is falling; and who owns 5 mansions and and yacht (two of the properties of which are on the coast and should, according to this con artist, soon be underwater. We are living in sad times, if scientists are prohibited to question authority; as the greatest scientific discoveries in history were made by people who broke with consensus.

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  2. Jim, what a great observation. From this I must conclude that, while more of an ideal than anything, all bald people are dicks.

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    1. I have to say, whenever I read something funny on the internet, regardless of how funny it truly is, the most I ever do is exhale air through my nose in a slightly audible fashion. Reading this commend caused me to belt out a 'HA HA' so loud that my cat jumped to the ceiling, struck the spinning fan, flew 90 degrees into the wall and knocked the mirror onto the ground, causing it to shatter into thousands of pieces.

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  3. (I have NOT been trained to disagree and have discourse, btw)

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  4. Good post. Thank you. Permit me to suggest that an informed individual who says, "climate changes naturally, you know," is actually saying, "Can you please explain to me, in simple terms, how we know this climate change is man-made?" Of course, the answer might be, "No, I can't, not in simple terms." But I'm pretty sure that's what they're usually asking.

    Keep up the good work!

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  5. Clearly, the Wheel of Fortune generates much MORE spin than the Coriolis Effect.

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  6. I think the fact the field is complex and beyond the immediate grasp of those without specific training adds to the risk that onlookers will be swayed by things they like or sound good, because the things that contain detailed analysis won't be in a language they understand. The public discourse on many topics is like that, from civil rights to economic policy. The environment, being also nontrivially complex, is ever at risk of falling to a discourse that's more intelligible at the 5th grade level than the level required for grounded analysis.

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  7. This exact issue, source credibility, was discussed in a Google Hangout attended by Dr. Shepherd, Stephanie Abrams and members from the Capitol Weather Gang blog among others. A lot of the points I have seen made in comments reference climate change, which admittedly is where I believe the focus should be pointed(for the record I have a Masters in Applied Meteorology), but the key beyond that is balanced coverage of it. Published scientists do a pretty good job in covering all positions and allowing for dispute against their findings. Situations such as this, right or left side if you will, is what creates these tensions. Most of the public would rather be informed through a celebrity or other personality then become self-informed by putting in a little leg work to actually understanding what is going on. Unfortunately, that does not pull in ratings. So the 'alarmist' activity from both sides is what creates cases such as this.

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  8. You know it was a joke, right? Pat Sajak's twitter feed is a bizarre, extremely liberal, and often very funny stream of deadpan jokes. In this case, he was fed up with "the name-calling directed at climate skeptics" (direct quote from Sajak) and decided to parody. Of course a lot of ACTUAL climate-change deniers took it seriously and retweeted — that's the fun, like back when Tea Partiers took Stephen Colbert's over-the-top persona seriously and quoted him in their newsletters.

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    1. I now know something I didn't. Poor Mr. Sajak. I'd hate to be the one having to explain his actual stance to the CDs (Climate Deniers. [Complete Dunces, Cretinous Dogs... Take your pick depending on your level of contempt...])

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    2. @Andre- I don't know where you're getting your info but Pat Sajak is a very well-known far-right conservative. There are even interviews on YouTube where he explains his conservative views and what it's like being a conservative in the entertainment industry. So no, that wasn't a joke but rather an expression of his true beliefs just as he has made similar climate-change denying remarks in the past.

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  9. Keep fighting the good fight. :) Thank you for your work!

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  10. "I am usually cordial, but in the back of my mind, I am thinking “really?"

    I wish I was as polite as you. I am an archaeologist, and I once told a friend about a 4,500-year-old projectile point I had excavated a few days previously. He snorted, looked at me incredulously, and asked: "How do you know that?"

    My answer was brief and to the point. "Because it's my f**king JOB to know that."

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    1. I'm not sure what your intent was with the above comment, but I have a feeling you didn't mean to make yourself look like a self-important dick.

      So, your friend asks you a question out of incredulous curiosity, and instead of discussing your find and enlightening the person you choose to act like an asshole.

      And you wonder why we doubt the veracity of "educated" scientists' claims.

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    2. I can go along with archaeologists with their dating techniques to a certain point. However, once someone starts telling me how old something is in millions of years, I just nod my head.

      It's like hitting a target with a BB gun from 1000 miles away. You can predict a trajectory when you have 2 points in a line for only so far. Mathematically speaking 2 points define a line that can go on for infinity, but in real life the 2 points are never mathematically exact, so it's an estimate. The further away you are trying to project a line, the further off from the target you will actually be.

      So, you can only test your aging estimates using carbon dating, or isotope half lives, as far back as recorded history. Once you go outside of recorded history, the line is simply a projection. Any number of things may have happened past the 10,000 year mark that makes dating techniques and half lives questionable.

      Case in point, since the first atomic bomb tests, the dating methods for radiocarbon dating have become inaccurate.

      Who knows what events may have occurred over 10,000 years ago that completely invalidate the current isotopic half-life dating we currently use? See? We can't project that far into the past because we have NO IDEA what may have happened in the past.

      Some huge solar flare or volcanic event or polar shift or any number of things may have occurred long before we were recording such things, and we're going around with false knowledge about what happened 4 billion years ago!

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    3. Archaeologists study humans. The human race (homo sapiens sapiens) dates back about 200,000 years (only about 20,000 years here in North America, as far as we know). One of the more common dating techniques used by archaeologists is radiocarbon dating or - more specifically - C14 dating. C14 is a form of carbon that exists in all living things, and it stays 'alive' as long as the organism in question is alive. Once the organism dies, C14 begins to decay at a remarkable predictable rate (there are other factors involved, but scientists have learned to allow for them - to a degree. This is why carbon dating continues to have a plus-or-minus conditioner). By checking the state of decay of any given C14 sample, a researcher can fairly reliably place the time of death of the organism in question. We date things like stone tools by their association (in the ground) with C14 samples. Enough of these add up, and we get a fairly accurate date for the type of tool in question. Whether or not nuclear testing has affected C14 testing is immaterial. Archaeologists do not use C14 testing for anything so recent. In fact, an artifact isn't even considered an artifact unless it is at least 150 years old. Anything younger than that exists in living memory and is therefore not the purview of archaeologists.

      And archaeology rarely trusts a single dating technique if (for some reason) an 'exact' date is desired. But this rarely happens. Dating in archaeology is used most often to establish temporal relationships. Determining whether Site A is older that Site B is more the goal. Actually placing things on a timeline comes after MUCH more data is accumulated.

      I am quite happy to answer questions about my profession, as long as I am asked in a dignified and respectful fashion. I am a person, after all.

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  11. "Every now and then, I get the question, “So how can we trust a climate model in the year 2040, if a weather model is not good beyond 7-10 days?” "

    If I can suggest a metaphor: "We know the Red Sox are going to be a good team next year, but that doesn't mean we know what the score will be against the Yankees on August 3". (choose your teams wisely to avoid sidetracking :)


    Also about whether Pat Sajak was joking- he has been a columnist for Human Events and National Review, neither of which hand out a lot of publishing space to joking lefties.

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  12. Ah, but here is where it's different, Mr. Climatologist.

    Engineers, scientists and chemists are generally working with a defined set of data over a provable and reprovable experiment.

    They can actually prove their theories. They aren't, usually, trying to explain the interaction of molecules in a number so big it can't even be represented on paper!

    I appreciate the ability for my weatherman to give me a reasonable expectation of whether it will rain tomorrow, and the high and low temperature within a few degrees. But even that task, over an area as small as a city, they are right only about 80 percent of the time, and the chances they give are given in percentages.

    If you expect me to swallow hook, line, and sinker the supposition that someone can tell me what the weather will be like worldwide over the next 50 years, and what contributes to that weather and by how much, well, excuse me if I'm skeptical.

    Don't get me wrong, I'm not dismissive of climate change, but it's a theory. Many theories turn out to be plain out wrong, or at least way off, and some theories turn out to be provable, eventually.

    So, yes, I hear you, and I listen, but I'm skeptical.

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  13. Get over yourself. People are being nice when they talk to you about weather. Yes, when people find out I have a degree in Computer Science, they ask me how to speed up their PC, or what the best computer to buy now is. What's the difference. Just friendly people trying to make friendly conversation. So to answer your question: Yes, regardless what you do as your profession, nice people will try to be friendly and talk to you about it. You probably missed that memo about social interaction - which is quite clear from your tone in your little rant.

    To top it off, all your name dropping, degree flaunting, gibberish just confirms that your are really an academic lost in the academic world. I've been there, and don't care to go back. Don't pat yourself on the back too much. It's not gonna get you any credibility. Want me to derive navier stokes equation from conservation equations? Or how about some scale analysis to derive travelling wave solutions of the NS equation so that I can explain El Nino to you? Of course I can, but nobody really cares.

    Don't get me started on global weather models. They are all over the map, just as much as my weatherman's forecast for next week. "Oh, but they all predict the average world temperature to within 5 degrees in 50 years... blah blah blah". You and I know that the difference of 5 degrees on a global scale can be like predicting rain on a sunny day.

    The fact that you don't know how to use the wheel of Fortune to very impressively demonstrate the coriolis effect to your students just goes to show that nobody should ever register for one of your meteorology classes.

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    1. So tell me - when you tell someone how to speed up their PC, do they challenge your answer? Do they ask you to prove it? Do they point you to GOP-funded articles that idiotically (and incorrectly) 'refute' your advice?

      And I will get you started on global weather models. Just as soon as you prove to me that are qualified to discuss them in any way. I'm pretty sure they're not covered in any computer science curriculum.

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    2. Haha. Yeah, if they know me at all they usually ask if I can come over and help. Do I usually help? Nah, they've always got better ideas. Do I want to help? Not at all.

      I don't think they teach NS equations, partial differential equations, scale analysis, etc in computer science. If you have to know, it's BSc. comp sci, BSc. applied mathematics, MS Physical Oceanography. If anything I'm probably more qualified to discuss the computerized predictive models than you are, as I implement such models regularly.

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  14. Wow. You people need to all get out more. You're a bunch of crybaby geeks....

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