Friday, June 6, 2014

Categories Do Not Exist

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?

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Climate Change For The Masses (Part I)

Recently a clip for Jon Oliver’s HBO show has been going around in which he addresses the ridiculousness regarding the climate change "debate."  The issue is no longer a debate within the scientific community, except for the more precise details like “will the global average temperature rise 3˚C or 4˚C?” or “which climate feedbacks will dominate, thus amplifying or dampening the rate of anthropogenic climate change?”  As Jon Oliver correctly points out, the area of dissent is less than 3% of scientists investigating the climate system, and often those scientists do little to no recent peer-reviewed research--even fewer have degrees in atmospheric sciences.

Given this fact, some important questions come to mind: Why are there are so many people who have trouble accepting the science behind a changing climate and how do we engage those people so that they can understand one of the most important scientific issues of our day?  I know many have tackled these questions before, but I just wanted to break down what I think are the important factors in why the acceptance of climate science is having such a huge problem gaining traction in this country.  Is this just something that Americans have a hard time reconciling or is it a problem in other countries too?

I would first like to address this problem by examining, as Wodehouse’s Jeeves would say, “the 
Jeeves from
psychology of the individual."  In my experience, when engaging with students and the general public in this discourse, those who deny climate change generally fall into one or more of three (not mutually exclusive categories):

1.     Those who simply don’t understand how science works.  They lack an understanding of the basic physics and chemistry that has been part of a firm body of knowledge in those fields for well over a hundred years.  More importantly they don’t understand the scientific method, nor the process of peer-review.  They don’t seem to understand how scientists confront problems and identify solutions, and how they also, through investigation, reject possible answers to a given question.  In my opinion, this would seem to point to a systemic failure in education. 

As a professor in the sciences who teaches general education courses, the science phobia among students is palpable.  Most students come into university with the idea that they are bad at science, they just want to get through it.  It is remarkable how many students I have had over the year say to me that "they are bad at science", even when they have yet to take an assessment in my course.   While many students may also be unprepared for college, their attitudes towards science also lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy where they expect not to understand the material and thus don't.  Ironically these students are often in majors  for which the body of knowledge advances due to systematic investigation in accordance with the scientific method.  So in addition to a great disparity in ability amongst students in their understanding of subjects like physics/chemistry and, to a lesser degree biology (e.g. anti-vaxxers), people also seem to think science is only is found in those disciplines and applications thereof in earth sciences, engineering and medicine. The social sciences, however, seem to be perceived as bereft of scientific thinking.  It is clear to any scientist, however, that the best social scientists are ones who could do well in any field of study, should they have the inclination. I am fond of reminding people that the same science that was used to make the computer through which they are arguing with me, is used for investigating climate change, evolution and immunology.  Finally, this deficit of scientific understanding makes them unable to differentiate between good information and misinformation, or valid research vs. invalid research.

It appears that the curricula which we teach our children needs serious modification; we must provide equal opportunities for all children to learn these scientific concepts.

2.     Those who simply cannot comprehend the complexity of climate science.  The climate system involves elaborate interactions and often even people who do seem to have some knowledge of science have a hard time processing intricate climate change interactions.  If the first criteria in this list were met, this next step would be easier to overcome, but when it is not, teaching people how to understand specific information that is an application of things they should have already learned becomes even harder; it compounds the problem of having people unable to determine the legitimacy of arguments in the scientific discourse.

3.     Those who believe in conspiracy theories. These are people, in my opinion, with whom cannot be reasoned. They utilize belief-based thinking and cannot be swayed from their 
position through logical arguments.  They often talk about corruption within the IPCC, collusions by climate scientists, and talk about the big money involved with corporations interested in green technology.  What I always find interesting is that they never seem to come up with any conspiracies that involve the much more wealthy petrochemical companies.  Before climate change became a big media story, 'big oil' conspiracy theories abounded (e.g., how they are trying to make people dependent on fossil fuels in order to make massive profits, colluding with each other to never really compete to give people a better price).  In the end I feel there will always be people who want to feel like they are on the fringe and hang their hat on improbable and unproven scenarios on the off-chance they are right so they can feel special and part of the select few (there are of course many other reasons why people believe in conspiracy theories).

In a democracy in which the voice of the people has some political significance, persons in the above categories hold back our nation’s ability to pass sensible climate policy and mitigate the global impacts of climate change.  The question then becomes:  “How we can engage them in a meaningful way?”    In my next piece on this subject I would like to investigate broader factors such as media and culture.  Bear in mind I am not an expert in all of these realms and would welcome feedback and lively discussion on these issues.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Admiral Stockdale Statement

Who are we? Why are we here?

  The blogosphere is polluted with weather wannabes; those who think the shrill sound and fury of their pontifications merit attention from their readers—the more absurd the proclamations, the greater their supposed relevancy. We are not that blog. First, our “posse” is an academically certified group of individuals from an array of institutions across North America and Europe. We aren’t looking to earn a profit from our posts; we’re here to help frame the discourse on weather and climate in an appropriate, measured vein. So, please pardon us if we come across a bit nerdy at times. We’ll do our best to elaborate on complex processes at play in the atmosphere, while feeding the intellectual hunger of our more experienced readers.

   We can’t guarantee we’ll address every popular topic in the earth and atmospheric sciences, but we’ll do our best to construct blogs that are intellectually stimulating and interesting with a dash of panache. Some of our bloggers are blessed with sardonic wit and prone to toss in a dash of irreverent humor. Don’t hold that against us. We invite you to consider that we are all human, we all inhabit this Earth, and our hopes, our joys, our sorrows are all made possible and supported by a thin veil of atmospheric gases. Air is a cosmic miracle of sorts. We want to ensure that the planet belongs to future generations. By endeavoring to heighten scientific awareness and communicate the explanations for how our atmospheric systems work, hopefully more people can better appreciate the chaotic nature of this dynamic system and all the intricate surprises it can impart to us. When more persons are aware of their role in this dynamic system there is a greater appreciation for the role of stewardship on this pale blue rock, covered mostly by liquid water. Weather, water, wind – climate, cognition, communication: Let the conversation commence!