Thursday, August 27, 2015

Economic systems and how they've changed us

Today, I just found out our dishwasher motor/pump (all one assembly that can't be repaired - only replaced) has failed.  Since the price to replace it is a significant fraction of the cost of a new dishwasher, we would probably be better off buying a whole new one.  A similar thing happened to our clothes washer a while back.  Manufacturers now sell insurance on appliances: they call it an "extended warranty" where we customers are betting they didn't sell us a piece of junk that will fail prematurely.  Their knowledge of their products' failure rates are built into the cost of the extended warranty, so they still make a profit on the average when their products (or services) fail. What's their incentive to make a quality product? Pride in their product? Hah!! It's all about the almighty profit motive.  The bottom line is more important than quality, nowadays.

Things didn't used to be that way.  Many manufacturers took some pride in the quality of their product (or service) and backed it up with support for the customer when problems arose.  Things weren't manufactured to stifle maintenance back then.  Rather, the products could be repaired for relatively low costs most of the time, until the product just plain wore out from long use.  The clothes washer we replaced recently was bought when we lived in Kansas City, underwent a few reasonably-priced repairs, and eventually gave up the ghost after 37 years of use!  Repair is becoming an obsolete concept. We buy some product, it craps out, we throw it away, and buy a new one. That's where corporate America has gone, and we're forced to ride along.  Similar issues arise for service businesses.  Who likes their choices in the Internet/phone/television provider business?  Most people I know hate their service providers but have no real choice because none of them produce quality service!

The way the big corporations can sell us affordable products is to design them to fail in such a way that we can't afford to fix them.  They've outsourced the actual manufacturing facilities in many cases, so they pay low wages to foreign workers who are so poor they have to accept low wages.  Even "Communist" China has followed this path, not permitting workers to form trade unions and keeping wages artificially low.  Workers have little incentive to do a good job, since they're often paid piece work wages, not by the hour.  The shoddy products are shipped to the US, the corporations push extended warrantees on the customers, who feel the need to be protected from catastrophic premature product failure.  It's become something of a scam.  And the river of money flows up the corporate ladders.

As "free market" capitalism developed, it became clear that an unbridled profit motive puts a lot of pressure on companies having pride in their products and concern for their employees.  Mega-corporations like Wal-Mart squeeze out the smaller businesses that try to make a decent product and stand behind it.  Once they've crushed the small fry, then they're free to plunder their customers, and they wrap themselves in the flag in the process.  Capitalism at work, right?  Ignore their takeover of government by buying off the politicians, convincing us that the way to paradise is through the "free market" even as the corporations tap the government teat for tax breaks and subsidies to pad their profits.  And they're huge, rich proponents of de-regulation.  Guess where that has lead us!  Remember that housing bubble that burst in 2007 and its subsequent fallout?  It was the removal of most restraints on the "too big to fail" lending institutions that created it.

Teddy Roosevelt took on the corporations in what was called "trust busting" that established some regulatory control over big corporate "trusts" (monopolies), which had grown fat and rapacious.  As it stands, we're in desperate need of some trust-busting in today's world.  The big companies have created a "plunder economy" whereby the public is robbed for the benefit of corporate management.  Not much trickles down to the workers in this kleptocracy, and virtually nothing for the customers.

Conservatives like to describe capitalism as a sacred part of the American way, a path that has inexorably leads to prosperity for all.  Properly regulated capitalism has in fact been successful in building a reasonably high standard of living - but the US is no longer at the pinnacle of living standards.  The profits we've created for the military-industrial complex through nearly constant warfare have left us bereft of surplus cash, even as corporate management salaries soar to incredible levels.  It's capitalism that has exploited the public, even as conservatives scare the public with the bogeyman of socialism.  Socialism has become a frightening word to many conservatives, laden with negative associations.  Anything that might cause the corporate profits to decline is buried in an avalanche of cries of "socialism" and "interference in the free marketplace".  This conveniently ignores that the marketplace is no longer "free" - but the big companies get most of the welfare, not the disadvantaged.

I'm no fan of unfettered socialism, either.  Socialism has inherent disadvantages that inevitably show up over the long haul.  The Chinese understood those disadvantages well enough to "relax" their form of socialism in a way that looks remarkably similar to the American kleptocracy.  The only entity that has the clout to rein in the greed of the corporations is the government.  Responsible regulation of any economic system can produce a workable environment for the majority of people - the only difference is that the regulations would need to be adjusted to fit the existing economic system.  Socialism requires different interference that capitalism. 

Several years ago, I read a great book called In Search of Excellence -its main thesis was that the most successful, long-lasting businesses were those that did two things:  (1) treated all their employees well and included them in the profit-sharing when the company made a profit, and (2) treated their customers well by making a quality product (or service) and dealing fairly with the customers when something went wrong.  This is very far from what I believe we're seeing in most big corporations today.  Evidently, excellence is no longer felt to be an important corporate benchmark.

I'm no economist, but down here at the customer level, it sure seems as if we're being victimized by an old enemy:  corporate greed at the expense of the public.  When corporate profit and huge management salaries are the primary goals of business management, then anything goes, it seems.  A plunder economy is not what made America great, but it can cause the whole thing to come crashing down.  The recent stock market crash could be a harbinger of worse to come.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

El Niño - "Godzilla" or just another actor?

It seems this year is another in a lengthening string of occasions when El Nino (more properly, the El Nino-Southern Oscillation that includes La Nina) becomes a big media story, anticipating how it will affect the weather during this coming winter.  The developing El Nino this year may be at record or near-record intensity, which could magnify its impacts on the weather, so even a respected oceanographer felt compelled to describe it with the adjective "Godzilla" during a media interview.  Of course, the media grabbed onto this label with its typical overblown enthusiasm.  Shades of "Snowmageddon" and "Frankenstorm"!!

The "Godzilla El Nino" has become the focus for some controversy in the scientific community, however.  Many meteorologists dislike the use of such hyperbole, preferring that the public face of our science be more restrained, as scientists try to be when communicating with their colleagues.  Others feel that the use of such language helps get the message of science across to the lay public.  A well-written science story doesn't need bombastic language to get its message across - in fact, it can be argued that such excesses muddy the clarity of the message.

I've made no secret that I'm not among the supporters of wildly dramatic language.  First of all, an unintended consequence could be the creation of unnecessary fear in some folks regarding what could become an impending disaster.  Another unintended consequence is public pushback against the "hype" such terminology creates - some segments of the public are sick of all the "gloom and doom" the media convey about upcoming weather events.  There's no hard evidence that the use of such hyperbolic terminology does anything to attract more attention to the message that scientists are trying to convey, nor is there evidence to suggest that the purely factual information content of that scientific message is conveyed more effectively to the consumers as a result of the inflated descriptions.  If the claim is made that melodramatic terminology is actually an aid to effective communication, the burden of proof is on those who make such claims.  Let there be a carefully-done survey that demonstrates this is indeed the effect of sensational verbiage.  Absent that, count me among the skeptics!

Furthermore, and more importantly, it's pretty bad science to equate the strength of a given El Nino to specific weather events or seasonal weather trends at a specific location.  ENSO is just one among a host of global and regional climate "oscillations" that are all operating concurrently.  How this year's El Nino affects the global weather pattern is determined by the complex interaction among all the known oscillations that influence the weather pattern, to say nothing of factors affecting global weather about which we scientists know little or nothing. It's been shown, for instance, that snowfall in Washington DC can be at or near record levels during a strong El Nino, but can also be near zero during a strong El Nino.  By itself, El Nino is not a good predictor of local, seasonal weather patterns.  To create all this brouhaha about this year's El Nino is just bad meteorology and conveying a message that is not justified by the science. 

A more rational approach would be to indicate that an intense El Nino, which is what this year's event is likely to be, could create serious impacts, for which some segments of our society would need to prepare in advance.  It would be important to indicate that this is not a statement of absolute certainty, or even close to that level of confidence.  Rather, it suggests one potentially important development among many possibilities, but the likelihood is high enough that it deserves to be mentioned as a possibility - it is not a forecast for a "Godzilla" creating widespread havoc and destruction, but something that might require some advance planning for that possibility.  Do we really need to "hype" an event to get people to understand our message so that they take appropriate actions?  If so, then we can blame the media, but we also might have to share the responsibility for failing to state our message in clear and understandable terms.  The consumers of media (Aren't we all?) have been desensitized, perhaps, by all the sensationalism.  But that's another topic ...

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A delayed tribute to Prof. Fred Sanders - friend and colleague

This tribute is not very timely.  Fred Sanders died on 06 October 2006.  This was a time before I was on Facebook and for some reason, I never wrote this.  I came to know Fred as an MIT meteorology professor, but meeting the man was even more impressive than his professional résumé would indicate.  Today, inexplicably, it seems I must pay my respects to this great man by means of this medium.  Anyone interested in the weather as a professional meteorologist should recognize their debt to Fred, who bequeathed us a huge legacy of his synoptic scale research and even more importantly, his students (most of whom have gone on to make their own important research contributions).  That he was a great meteorologist cannot be doubted.  But I want to share some anecdotes about Fred the man I knew as a friend.  You can read his MIT obituary here for some of the details of his professional accomplishments.

To the best of my recollection, my first meetings with Fred took place when I was working at the National Severe Storms Forecast Center in Kansas City, MO (the home of what is now the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, OK).  This was my first post-doctoral job, and the prospect of a visit by the great Fred Sanders would set the office abuzz with excitement.  From the start, it was obvious Fred was not someone who would suffer BS readily or willingly, so I was very excited to get to know him.  I'd don't recall the circumstances now, but sometime after we first met, he accepted my invitation to have dinner with me and my family in our home.  He was a wonderful guest, who deliberately avoiding talking meteorology with me, but rather engaged Vickie (my wife) in extended conversations.  I can still see him in my mind's eye in the dining room of our KC home.

To my surprise, Fred declined an opportunity to work alongside the Severe Local Storms (SELS) unit forecasters during a forecast shift, producing his own, independent forecast to be subjected to verification the next day.  It seemed to me that this would have been a chance to gain insight into the SELS operation, but he chose not to.  I never understood his reasons for that decision.  It was the one time I felt he dropped the ball.  The only reason I relate that anecdote is because it helps to make Fred a human being, not just a 1-dimensional, mythical icon in our profession. 

Some years later, when I had moved to Boulder, CO to work with Bob Maddox at the Weather Research Program there, Fred visited us in our Longmont, CO home.  Vickie and I had become friends with a couple who had lived next door to me when I first moved there (before the family moved to join me).  They were wonderful people, and it turned out that the wife (Billie) showed up at our home after dinner while Fred was still there.  Fred readily incorporated her in our conversations, naturally.  Afterwards, I asked her if she had any clue as to how famous and honored a man Fred was, and she was amazed to find that out.  Fred had charmed her (as he often did with people) without ever mentioning anything that would give her even a hint of his fame.  He was not at all about self-promotion!

Some years later, after I had followed Bob Maddox to the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, OK, my colleague Harold Brooks and I traveled to the Washington DC area to attend a conference.  Harold and I chose to take a break from the conference in order to visit the Civil War battlefield at Manassas, VA (known in the Union as the first Battle of Bull Run).  When Fred heard us talking about it, he asked to go along, and we readily granted his request - we looked forward to spending that time with him.  At the gate, the Park Service ranger was collecting our entrance fee, when she looked in the back seat of our car and saw Fred, recognizing him as a Senior Citizen - entitled to free entrance.  She said, "If he, as a senior citizen, claims you as part of his family, you all can get in free."  Fred quickly said we were, indeed, family members, so we (temporarily) became eligible for free entrance.  [I'm pretty sure the ranger understood the reality of the situation.]  I still enjoy telling that story by starting off with the claim that many people don't know I'm part of Fred Sanders' family!

Besides my admiration for Fred as a meteorologist, I valued his friendship even more.  Time with him was always well-spent!  His passing was a great shock to me, as it was to our whole scientific community.  Despite the passage of time, I still miss him terribly.  Having co-authored a scientific paper with Fred is still something in which I take a great deal of personal satisfaction. 

My belated condolences to his family, close friends, and those students he mentored.  Fred was a unique individual who understood the importance of a connection between research and operations as well as any of us, and better than most of us.  I shared an interest in that connection and Fred no doubt was pleased to find any allies in fostering that interaction between operational and research meteorologists. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

New Horizons - an End and a Beginning

The flyby of Pluto is now an accomplished fact.  It marks the end of a process of putting a real face on the planets of our solar system.  This process began in the first planetary expeditions back in the 1960s and has resulted in dazzling new images of what have historically been only lights in the sky.  Speculation has given way to observation.  And every new observation has led to dramatic new insights into the processes by which the solar system has developed.  Every planet in the solar system has revealed things no one expected.  How do you put a price on that new understanding?  Can this not be inspirational?  Does the technology of space exploration not represent the best of what we humans can do to gain new insights into our place in the universe?

It seems to me that the naysayers regarding space exploration have devalued the impact of inspiration on the human species.  We can be inspired by what amounts to mythology - the mythology of religion for instance - that often results in visiting violence upon other humans who happen to believe in different myths.  We can be inspired by the notion of our nation as an exceptional example of the freedom of the human spirit - and our preeminence on the world scene - resulting in a national arrogance that leads to violence against other nations.  But the inspiration that comes from exploration of the cosmos leads us to the realization of our insignificance on the scale of the universe.  Rather than arrogance, this is an inspiration that leads to humility in the face of the cosmic questions.  We see writ large in the universe that we humans are little more than dust motes in the vastness of the universe.

Is this a negative thing?  I think not.  It reminds us of our place as bit players in a cosmic stage but it also says man is not apart from the universe, but rather is a part of it.  Yes, our part is small and mostly insignificant.  But we are part of something enormous!  Personally, I don't find this to be belittling of our place in the universe.  In the cosmic picture, we are necessarily trivial and our fate is of no significance to the cosmos.  Nevertheless, we are here because of cosmic processes that foster life.  In a very real way, we have learned that we are children of the universe and its processes.  We are here because of cosmic processes - the universe come to life and contemplating itself by means of our consciousness.  It's likely that life exists on many planets throughout the universe and that life is also a part of the universe.  We may eventually learn of that life through the efforts of those inspired to support exploration of the universe.  It will be a great day in our history when we learn of life not of this Earth!

Is not the exploration of our universe among the most inspirational of our human efforts?  How can anyone believe that our human problems are a reason to not pursue this topic?  An inadequate grasp of our place in the universe would lead to trivialization of the wonders being revealed to us by virtue of the space explorers!  It's been my privilege to see the wonders of our solar system revealed by the efforts of those inspired to participate in this great adventure.  I'm happy to have lived during a time when these majestic images have made the solar system much, much more than mere points of light!  My thanks to all of those who have made this happen!

More on "extreme" storm chasing, part 2

Recent events reveal that a prediction I made long ago apparently has been verified.  I'm not happy about that, however.  Sadly, a storm chaser has been charged with running a stop sign and killing two people in the resulting collision.  Time will be needed to learn the details, and to determine whether or not he is guilty as charged.  If this storm chaser was actually chasing at the time, and the fatalities are proven in court to be his responsibility, this will be a very sad time in the history of storm chasing.  It's another predictable but terrible "milestone" in storm chase history, just as 31 May 2013 will live in infamy because of the unfortunate deaths of three storm chasers who were hit by the El Reno, OK tornado.  Although Tim Samaras and the Twistex team were quite responsible storm chasers, their objectives required them to take extreme risks.  Note:  at this point, I have no idea if this chaser is routinely irresponsible in his chasing, but it only takes one incident of irresponsibility to ruin everything.  Hence, although some of this blog may not apply to him, it's the incident that has caused me to reflect on extreme chasers, who engage freely in life-threatening acts.

Extreme (or "outlaw") storm chasing has become relatively widespread, likely in part because of what people routinely see in entertainment media.  It's not reflective of the majority of chasers, but extreme chasers apparently like to think of themselves as "above" most other chasers.  The whole notion of being an "extreme" chaser is considered in those circles as a badge of honor, worn with pride by those willing to do virtually anything to catch a sensational event, right up to the edges of death.  Those of us advocating a responsible approach to chasing have been ignored openly.  Further, we've even been bashed in social media by some of the extreme chasers, who enjoy flaunting their disrespect for advocates of responsible chasing.  I certainly have been singled out by some as a target for their antipathy.  It's precisely that sort of macho bravado that concerns me:  I predicted that fatalities inevitably would result from extreme chasing and, in this case, being right is cold comfort.

This case is even worse than having chasers die in a tornado chase.  Having one's actions result in the death of two innocent people simply going about their business is worse, as I see it, than a chaser dying as a result of doing dangerous things around a storm.  I've said all along the greatest threat to chasers is being on the streets and highways, and that threat includes any non-chasers who happen to be in the path of a chaser doing extreme things.

Years ago, my wife and I were chasing - I think it was in Nebraska but I can't recall - and we came upon the scene of a collision in a small town (with brick streets).  A chaser had T-boned some locals, although apparently without serious injuries.  The chaser's vehicle wasn't one we recognized; it had some decals that indicated it was a chaser, however, and had CO license plates.  Although we didn't see the collision, it seemed evident that the local driver had underestimated the speed of the approaching chaser (who likely was exceeding the in-town speed limit) and tried to cross the intersection before the chaser came through.  I never heard anything afterward about this wreck, so evidently the media never picked up on it.  With today's social media, we'd probably have heard more about what happened and who was responsible.  This was a very sobering consideration - many extreme chasers are quite ready to admit they often exceed speed limits in their efforts to get a storm*.  I've seen their own videos showing them speeding, driving on the wrong side of the road, running stop signs, etc.!

I'm unaware of any fatal collision initiated by a chaser before the current example.  However, if any such wreck has happened in the past, we just may not know about it.  Although not as well-known, it seems some inexperienced chasers were killed by the Tuscaloosa, AL tornado two years before the sad death of Tim Samaras and his team.  The AL fatalities didn't receive a great deal of media attention, so there could be earlier incidents of chaser-responsible traffic fatalities about which we haven't heard.  If extreme chasers continue to be irresponsible, my forecast is that there surely will be more examples!

The "outlaw" chaser, perhaps seeking to borrow from the romanticized image of the fictional anti-heroes so popular in the entertainment industry, is not a flattering image for storm chasers.  I certainly have become quite tired of having to answer for the irresponsible deeds of "extreme" chasers.  These are not just playful antics or about the courage of the chaser - they represent a real hazard to the extreme chasers and those who happen to be near them in the heat of a chase.

*I won't claim I never exceed the speed limits, but I certainly would not want to speed through a small town - not just to avoid getting a speeding ticket, but because it isn't a very responsible thing to do.  If I occasionally speed in open country, it's not something I would choose to boast about with the media.  It's behavior I prefer not to advertise as something of which to be proud!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Is religious indoctrination of children abusive?

This blog is the result of seeing the headline question posted on an atheist FaceBook forum.  The statement is made by some atheists to the effect that when parents indoctrinate their children with religion, it's a type of child abuse.  I wanted to offer my thoughts on the topic here.

For the most part, in the USA, we're talking about christianity, although some of this might apply to other Abrahamic religions.  I'm not so knowledgeable about them.  I also acknowledge that your experiences and understanding may vary from mine.  That is, there are around 40, 000 different versions of christianity, and they distinguish themselves in various ways based on their particular doctrines.  My comments are keyed to the version of christianity that I was taught in an evangelical lutheran church because that's what I know best.  Of course, my understanding of that is biased since I never really bought into the program, and left it as soon as I felt I could.  Hence, I admit my comprehension could be flawed in detail, but probably not in basic doctrine.

So, disclaimers done, let's proceed:  in the version of christianity I was taught, there's an all-powerful, all-knowing god who rules the universe he created from nothing.  This god is acknowledged to be a jealous god (a curiously human sentiment for an all-powerful being), so he has no tolerance for belief in other gods.  He demands humans worship him, and only him (sounds like deep insecurity to me).  Somewhere in the universe, this god created two places where people would go after they lived out their days on the Earth:  joyful heaven for the believers and horrifying hell for the heathen unbelievers.  Evidently, this god also created an evil opponent (for no obvious reason), the devil (satan, or whatever) to seduce people away from the path leading to heaven, in order for them to land in hell where he tortures them forever.  This is pretty much the prototypical "carrot and stick" for humans.  If you swallow the story, you get the carrot;  if you don't, you get the stick - hard and forever!  Because a woman was convinced to eat some fruit by the devil (in the form of a talking snake), all of humanity is scarred by her free choice to disobey god (See the messages, here?) for all time.  Now that's god's justice and love, right?

I think it's pretty safe to say that the vast majority of christians in the US were born into and raised within christian families.  It's virtually certain that this, and this alone, is the primary explanation for the predominance of christianity in the US.  Religions are perpetuated in this way - Richard Dawkins has referred to religions as "God Memes", where a meme is defined as "an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture".  The meme is, therefore, self-replicating.  Not everyone exposed to a meme is brought under its influence, of course, so not unlike the way DNA operates, the replication is not always completely perfect.  I'm an example of someone who didn't accept the this "god meme" - what I was taught never made any sense to me.  But for many (most) believers, being raised in a family with a particular religious bent is sufficient to indoctrinate them with the meme and by this means, the meme is perpetuated.

From my viewpoint, I have no problem with someone accepting the tenets of christianity, although it's always puzzling to me when otherwise intelligent, rational people choose to accept what I see as a preposterous story with virtually no supporting evidence.  There are many positive aspects of christianity (although they vary from one to another of the 40, 000 flavors), so inculcating the traits of kindness to others and love for all god's creations, for example, can't be a bad thing.  Many christians find the notion of love for all god's creations (e.g., homosexuals or socialists) pretty challenging!  The message may (or may not) be inherently abusive, but what I find to be obvious child abuse is the creation of fear and self-loathing.

In the version of christianity I was taught, all humans are scarred indelibly with the sin committed by the first two humans who were tricked into going against god's rules.  Presumably, a (temporary) human sacrifice (by the "son" of god, via a "virgin birth") is the only way to redemption chosen by god for the original sin, provided one accepts the temporarily murdered son of god as their lord and savior.  Frankly, I find this notion totally absurd, but everyone is free to believe whatever they choose.  Just don't ask me to buy it!

In any case, many children born in christian families are told that fire and brimstone forever awaits them because even if they act only with kindness and love for their entire lives (which I think even children realize is pretty much an impossible standard of behavior), their damnation is assured by a sin committed by someone else long ago.  They're made to feel shame and guilt for their "transgressions", notably including sins they themselves didn't actually commit.  The only solution is to embrace the jesus meme even more, which breeds even more guilt for the inevitable human "failings" (like sexual lust, for instance).  Fear, guilt and shame are powerful tools by which the meme controls its believers.  And, by a bizarre twist, regardless of the massively heinous crimes someone may have committed, if at the end of their miserable lives they accept almighty jesus as their lord and savior, they go to heaven!!  The only way to avoid hell and damnation is to believe.  [Reminds me of the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz.]

The content of religion isn't necessarily abusive on its own.  But the use of fear, guilt, and shame to force children down your parental "path of righteousness" is child abuse.  If you're a christian, you almost certainly want your children to accept your version of the one "true" religious faith.  Using abusive tactics to accomplish that goal clearly is an immoral thing to do, at least in my book.

If you're an atheist, the proper thing to do is to encourage your children to make up their own minds about religion.  This necessarily involves letting them learn about religion, and to give them the self-confidence to resist the peer pressure they'll surely get from their indoctrinated peers in order to make an informed choice as they mature into adults.  Most atheists don't seek to force atheism on believers - they want believers to (a) support separation of church and state, and (b) accept atheists without hate and contempt, thereby living up to the positive ideals of christianity.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Beliefs are an excuse to disobey the law?

My social media these days are brimming with numerous examples where public officials are openly defying the law.  Since when have religious beliefs become trump cards over the laws of this secular nation?  Have we become a theocracy overnight while I was naively thinking this nation was founded on the principle of separation of church and state?

Public officials are supposed to be held to the highest possible standards of respect for the laws of the land.  Police officers, holders of elective office, judges, appointed public officials, and so on are entrusted by all the American people with the responsibility for upholding the law.  In return for accepting that responsibility, they're granted important discretionary powers.  But such powers are not infinite!  They have limits, and open disregard for the law is beyond those limits.  If public officials disagree with the law, they either should resign their position of authority or obey the law while participating in a campaign to change the laws with which they disagree.  This necessitates an open discussion and the participation of all the people, not just those who oppose those laws. 

Martin Luther King (following the principles used by Ghandi) showed the world how to change unjust laws by nonviolent means.  When he and his followers disobeyed the law, they expected to be arrested, and they were.  They actually wanted to be arrested, as a direct indication of their grievances with bad laws that sanctioned racial discrimination.  Nonviolent opposition gave a voice to the downtrodden victims of racism.  Given their objectives, this exposed the injustices being perpetuated in bad laws and eventually led to the rejection of those laws.  No matter that racists still stain the American landscape - they're no longer able to use the law to implement their hatred.

If people are allowed to use their religious beliefs to disobey the law without punishment, is this not an open invitation for defiance of the law for virtually any reason?  Why obey the laws when you personally disagree with them for your own personal reasons?  This seems to represent an acceptance for lawless behavior of all sorts.  How can the "law and order" conservatives of this nation support open flouting of the national, state, and local laws?  How many times have I heard from conservatives that we must respect our laws without regard to whether or not we agree with them?  Are conservatives somehow able to pick and choose which laws to obey?  Not unless this nation has become a theocracy and the Constitution replaced with something else as the law of our nation.  Their hypocrisy reveals their lies (as my friend R.J. Evans says).

It seems clear to me that public officials who disobey the law should be arrested and tried, with the prospect of serving time in prison for their actions.  Public officials are not somehow above the law, and in fact should be expected to set the highest possible standard for lawful behavior.  Our justice system is structured so that our representatives create the laws, our law enforcement officers arrest lawbreakers, and our judicial system establishes their guilt or innocence, imposing sentences on those convicted.  At no point in that process is there any room for those charged with law and order to pick and choose which laws they enforce.

Yes, I know that our system is laced with flaws along that path.  It's far from perfect.  Corporate executives have broken laws left and right and virtually nothing happens to them other than a wrist slap of a fine.  And I recognize that there are bad laws and bad judicial rulings.  And public officials time and time again reveal their hypocrisy and contempt for our laws, rather than living up to the highest moral and legal standards.  But just as ordinary people are expected to obey the law regardless of their personal opinions, and ignorance of the law is no excuse, neither are religious beliefs (or any other belief) justification for anyone to disobey the law and escape arrest, trial, and punishment.  Yet, even the embarrassing governor of the state of Oklahoma is publicly defying rulings by both the Supreme Court of the United States and the Supreme Court of the State of Oklahoma - and she walks freely and openly in defiance even as I type this. 

The religious reich and the rich elite have shown their contempt for our laws in the most open and brazen ways possible.   If our laws are to have any meaning or significance in the future, they must be enforced vigorously, without regard for personal justifications.  If religious beliefs can supercede public law, then where does it end?  What other excuses might be offered to disobey the law?  That sort of thinking ends in utter chaos.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Watch and Warning: errant communication?

During an interview for Wx Geeks, the subject of the confusion caused by the terminology of messages - namely watch and warning - came up as a topic.  Given the short time available during the show, I want to offer some more comments about that topic.  The claim is made by some that the similarity between the two words (what I refer to as the "wa-wa" problem) is the source of the confusion.  I don't pretend to understand how and why this confusion arises; after all, I'm a meteorologist, not a communications expert.  However, I find this premise to be pretty much ridiculous.  To my knowledge, no one has done any work to validate that the public's inability to distinguish between a watch and a warning lies exclusively or even primarily in the "wa-wa" arena.

Imagine we decided to coin new terms for the content of watches and warnings, calling them instead kenutenaries and chinkaderas, respectively.  Does anyone honestly believe that calling them tornado kenutenaries or severe thunderstorm chinkaderas would clear up the underlying problem?  I seriously doubt it.  So what do I attribute this problem of distinguishing watches from warnings?  Anything I'm about to say is pure speculation, of course;  I've done no studies and have no scientific basis for my ideas, but I do have decades of experience with the meteorology and our attempts to communicate its hazards.  What seems plausible to me is that many people in that great, faceless mass called "the public" are basically not interested in the weather very much, unless it's going to affect them directly and personally.  I understand that.  I appreciate that not everyone shares the passion of weather geeks when it comes to the atmosphere.  Not everyone is passionate about hockey, or pole dancing, or scrapbooking, or mathematics, either.  I get that.  Most of the topics limited numbers of people are passionate about don't involve events that can prove fatal to the general public. 

Here's the kicker regarding this widespread lack of interest in the weather (and geophysical hazards, in general):  it can rise up on occasion and kill you!  One would expect, naively, that knowing that risk would get most everyone's attention.  It seems clear this isn't the case.  If you're uninterested in the atmosphere, that doesn't protect you from its threats.  There's one very effective way to protect yourself from atmospheric hazards:  being prepared for them.  If the distinction between watch and warning is an important thing for you to recognize in order to take appropriate action (and it is!), whose responsibility is it to know that distinction beyond any doubt?  Yours!  Everyone's!!  We meteorologists can turn ourselves inside out and backwards trying to figure out how to wordsmith this difference so that no one could possibly misunderstand it, and still, there inevitably will be those who will, by personal choice, not make any effort, and so will remain confused and unable to articulate the difference.  After all, it could never be of concern to them, right?  Until it is.  Then those very same ignoramuses are quoted in the media after a weather disaster "We had no warning!" even when they did have a warning!

If I've learned anything in 40+ years as a meteorologist, it's that you can lead horses to water, but they won't necessarily drink it.  There will always be those whose lack of a sense of responsibility for their own safety will mean they have no clue about things, and certainly won't be sensible enough to plan for what is, after all, a rare event.  Yes, it's "normal" not to be hit by a tornado, so the so-called normalcy bias means people are reluctant to accept that something rare might actually affect them directly and personally.  That normalcy bias is reflected in their behavior when a tornado is in their vicinity:  They want to confirm that it's actually about to happen to them.  But when this complacent, it-will-never-happen-to-me attitude is confronted by an approaching tornado, the odds are good that such people will be ill-prepared and therefore only luck enables them to survive.  They'll be ready to blame anyone but themselves for their misfortune.

Yes, a significant fraction of folks, even in Oklahoma, don't know the difference between a watch and a warning, despite decades of attempts to educate them for their own safety.  Some horses always will refuse to drink, no matter what name by which we refer to the water. 

Yes, we should do the social science studies to learn in more detail why people choose to be ignorant and perhaps there is some verbiage we can use to make ourselves more clear to the public.  At some point, however, we must also recognize that there will never be a time when 100 percent of the public understands perfectly those weather hazard messages we're attempting to convey.