July 30, 2015

Yes, It’s Advocacy. So?

Filed under: Politics,Science — PolitiCalypso @ 2:34 pm

I follow a number of television meteorologists on social media.  I’m not a broadcaster myself and have never had the slightest interest in undertaking that career path, but I’ve found that they are good sources for up-to-the-minute information about ongoing weather events and disasters.  On Twitter, for instance, they will tend to retweet any report from a person who is in a town that has been hit by a tornado.  Other than chaser accounts (which I also follow), it’s really the best source of information about what is going on in such events immediately after the disaster has occurred and before the major news reporters pick it up.

As one would expect, I also receive retweets and shares from them in my feeds that are not about disaster updates.  Like anyone else, they’ll share pieces they find interesting or agree with.  And, given that I primarily subscribe to TV meteorologists in the Southeast, and that (for some reason that hasn’t been fully explained—perhaps a good background in weather but limited education in climatology?) broadcast meteorologists are climate change skeptics in the majority, one would also expect some of these “general” shares to be about climate change.  Many of the shares, in fact, are not even originally from other broadcast meteorologists, who perhaps realize that it’s less credible for the “TV weatherman” to go on about the subject than for a researcher to do so, but instead are from research meteorologists and the occasional skeptic climatologist.  These people do indeed exist.  No scientific hypothesis has 100% agreement, not even gravity (but don’t take my word for it; look up the controversy in physics about the existence of the hypothetical graviton particle).  There are approximately 3% of climatologists and climate-specializing atmospheric scientists who deny anthropogenic climate change.  They seem to have quite a loud mic for their numbers, with the same three or four people always being cited as “climatologists who deny climate change,” but when a scientific topic becomes political, the media will want to find “balance for both sides.”

There is a hashtag that has become increasingly common for these people and their supporters regarding the 97% of climatologists who do accept the hypothesis of anthropogenic climate change:  #Advocacy.  It is the snarky, disdainful sort of hashtag rather than a purely descriptive one, posted at the end of a link in which a research scientist who studies the topic is also quoted as making policy suggestions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions—or if a research study about it is being supported by a think tank.

When I first started seeing this on social media, it irritated me deeply.  Attempts to discredit scientists who study this subject are extremely personal to me, one of the most guaranteed ways of irking me.  I tried to think of a defense and comeback, an explanation of how the “objectionable” statements are not advocacy.  And then I realized:  You know what, they’re right.  It is advocacy.  But that doesn’t discredit anything.

The #Advocacy hashtag—used in this context—is indeed an attempt to discredit the work of climate scientists.  It does need to be countered, but not by a denial that advocacy is taking place, because obviously it is.  It’s not even the most effective counter to mention that, by this same standard, climate-change-denier atmospheric scientists who speak to the media (or work with right-leaning think tanks) are also “advocates” and that it is therefore hypocritical for them to object to the other side doing it.  It’s certainly worth pointing out the hypocrisy from a narrative-control perspective, but I cannot support implicitly agreeing with this notion that it is somehow a bad thing for scientists to engage in “advocacy” because it “contaminates their research.”  The fact is, it doesn’t.

What is needed is an education campaign about the scientific method.  The sneering hashtag is another instance of a profoundly anti-scientific populist political trend of claiming conflict of interest about research when the researchers have political opinions on the policy implications of the study.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it now:  Wanting research to have certain results does not discredit it.  Having research funded by an organization wanting certain results does not discredit it.  The only thing that can discredit research is its methodology.  It doesn’t matter who does the project, merely how it is done.  That’s how the scientific method works.  If you want to criticize or attack scientific research with which you disagree, you have two options:  Find a flaw in the methodology that undermines the claimed conclusions, or prove fraud.  That’s it.

Yes, it’s advocacy when a climatologist in “the 97%” is quoted in the media as offering policy suggestions.  It’s advocacy when a think tank commissions a study about climate change or hires its own in-house scientists to do it.

And there is nothing wrong with that.

September 9, 2014

Why I’m Against Privatizing the National Weather Service

Filed under: Politics,Science — PolitiCalypso @ 5:18 pm

Note:  This was an essay for a seminar.  I thought it turned out pretty well, though, so I’m putting it online too.

Introduction

The issue of the proper role of government is an extremely controversial—and often emotional—topic in the United States today.  Lines are drawn and sides are staked out, with people on both sides often taking a hard-line principled stance, looking only at resources supporting their own position, and applying their principled belief no matter what the circumstance.  Over the past thirty years, this overarching debate has come to include a governmental agency whose function had not been questioned previously:  the National Weather Service.  Since 1983, the idea of cutting taxpayer funding for the National Weather Service and related agencies, and turning over their operations to private companies, has periodically surfaced.  The proposal has taken two primary forms:  the suggestion of cutting funding for forecasting operations with the expectation that private firms would take over the task, and the suggestion of selling weather satellites or other sources of weather data to the highest bidder and buying back the data that the sources generated.

History of the National Weather Service

The National Weather Service (NWS) originated after the American Civil War with the advent of a national telegraph system.  For the first time, weather observations could be transmitted immediately.  The science of meteorology had also advanced to the point that scientists studying the atmosphere knew that they would need observations from a broad geographical area in order to apply physical principles and produce a weather forecast, and the new technology had finally made this possible.  In 1870, President Grant signed a bill of Congress authorizing the creation of a government agency to collect these observations from official stations and issue notice to downstream areas about incoming storms.  The agency was initially part of the Department of War (now named the Department of Defense), but late in 1890, it was moved to the Department of Agriculture, a civilian agency, and renamed the Weather Bureau.

Throughout the twentieth century, the Weather Bureau steadily improved its forecasting capabilities with the addition of new technologies for gathering data and a continuous refinement of its numerical weather prediction tools.  The invention of the computer in the 1940s provided an obvious opportunity, and in 1950, the first computer was, in fact, used to produce the first computer-generated weather forecast.  In 1954, an inter-agency group of specialists formed the Joint Numerical Weather Prediction Unit, which processed weather observations from ground stations and began to generate basic forecasts on the computer.  Radar made its mark on the government’s weather-related agencies in the 1950s as well, and in 1960, the launch of the first weather satellite provided a source of observations from far above the troposphere.  In 1970, in the 100th year after its formation, the Weather Bureau—which had been moved to the Department of Commerce five years earlier in recognition of the profound impact of weather on commerce—became known as the National Weather Service.

(Read more…)

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