by Susan A. Jasko
Recently, the following question appeared in my Twitter feed (but not directed at me): What is the origin of the threshold for calling hail “dangerous”? Similarly, much social (and other) media attention was directed at an article that raises this question: Can the choice of name for representing a tropical storm/hurricane really influence how people perceive and assess the potential for danger brought by that storm? About one year ago, many folks in the weather enterprise were asking about why, when, and whether a winter storm should be named. It was quite a “dust-up”!
Earlier this week, wind, rain, and large hail co-occurred causing damage to cars and buildings. On social media sites, I read exchanges among weather folk (professionals and aficionados) about what to call this co-occurrence. Thunderstorm? Derecho? Land hurricane? Into which category of weather phenomenon does the observed event fall?
But categories simply do not exist – at least not outside of human language and cognition. Categories are concepts. Human-made devices engineered to help us individually and collectively make sense of the world around us. They are tools enabling humans to parse the natural and social world in ways that create the bases for leveraging resources, organizing knowledge, and establishing relationships.
Although categories do not exist independently, categorical thinking helps us to grasp how things are alike and how they differ, how things are related or not related, how things may therefore be grouped, and how things may be judged and valued. Such is the power of human language: It not only describes the world, but also recreates the world in terms of human interest and attention. Categories do matter.
Language may well be the first form of human technology, and many scholars regard it as the first form of communication media. Although we commonly think of various objects as forms of technology, including cars, cell phones, computers, and automobiles, technology also takes the form of ideas or concepts, and in very much the same way as do the physical forms, non-physical technology transforms social, economic, political, institutional, and interpersonal relations among humans. It creates powerful, pervasive, and transformative changes.
If you are still with me, you probably noticed that I seem to be implying something like “language creates reality” Not exactly. I do not mean it in the sense that the natural (physical world) is shaped by human thinking – at least not entirely. In some sense, the current “debate” about global warming partly hinges on a disagreement about whether or not human activity can in fact alter global processes. That is, the point centers on a question about to what extent human technology and engineering can change or recreate the world. But this is not where my concern resides for present purposes, and I will not take us down that rabbit hole.
Instead, I want to focus here on the human scale of consequences resulting from the use of categories as an aspect of language as human technology. Language is a multi-faceted tool, with other significant aspects that will have to wait for a future post. Instead, let me raise a question. If categories do not exist, then how does it matter which ones we create and how we use them? How can this matter to the forecasting and communication of weather information?
It matters in this way: the basis for categories generally serves specific purposes. For example, a number of political purposes are served by categorizing Americans by income levels, by grouping the young on the basis IQ or standardized test scores, and by creating food categories. Categories that group observations about the natural world serve heuristic purposes. Of course, other purposes can be simultaneously served. But it is important to note that heuristic purposes do not necessarily align themselves with human scale understanding and application, and that the use of one set of categories serving the development of scientific understanding does not mean these categories will therefore serve other social purposes.
Current categories about atmospheric and hydrological phenomena are not necessarily the ones that may prove to be more easily translated into practical application for people managing their day-to-day lives around work, school, sports, and social activities. In short, meteorological categories may have no natural corollary in the human social world.
And yet categories used by atmospheric scientists are thoroughly embedded in the expert knowledge and experiential wisdom embodied in weather professionals. Embedded and accepted technologies (technologies fully adopted) seem essential, crucial, and necessary. And as is so often the case with accepted technologies, these are invisible to those who wield them most commonly and with ease and grace. (Yes, I mean you, my meteorological friends!) How, then, can these be examined, critiqued, modified or even replaced?
So, what categories shall we use in communicating about weather? If the categories were changed, what ought to become the new basis? Can we maintain the scientific heuristic value if we change the basis of categories? Can we find a basis enabling us to more transparently and intuitively connect information about weather and climate to the everyday lives and experiences of people? Should we create a second level of category and language that resonates with the everyday world of human activity and serves those needs above the purposes of heuristic scientific need?
I have more questions than answers. But questions are often a good place to begin.
After all, if categories are human creations and a primary form of human communication technology, perhaps it is time the weather enterprise reconsider the bases for its primary use of language as a tool for making weather knowledge easily understood and usable by people for the full range of human planning and practice. For example, is the current scale used to categorize hurricanes a good basis for helping people to understand clearly the nature of the risks they may be facing from one? Should the thresholds for issuing messages about various forms severe weather be fixed regardless of geographic location, season, the range and scale of human outdoor activities occurring? Does expressing amount of expected potential rainfall in inches translate into local scale consequences for most people? How can we become a weather ready nation if our people cannot more easily become weather wise?