Wrong! Yet again.

The concerned wife phoned her husband, who was out on the road: “Honey, be careful out there! The TV says someone’s driving the wrong way on the Interstate.”The answer came back: Somebody? There’s hundreds of ‘em!”

My entire life I’ve been told, in a variety of ways – sometimes it’s subtle, gentle, sugar-coated, cautious, but more often (because blunt works better) it’s crisp and pointed:

“You’re wrong.”

This message, whether plain-spoken or ornately embellished, has come from all sides. From parents. From my brother. From the kids. From neighbors. Colleagues. Bosses. Employees. Strangers. From readers of this blog.

You know who you are.

And what’s more, you’ve always been right! Sitting here, wracking my brain, going back through 70+ years of memories, I struggle to recall an instance where you weren’t justified in your criticism.

So… thank you!

Over the years, this reality has shaped me, made me who I am. For example, even though you may think I’m in arrears in my apologies to you personally, I tend to apologize, early and often, to almost everyone else. (Some of you have shared with me that this practice of mine is itself wrong. One of my former bosses, Vernon Derr, put it this way in an exasperated moment: “Don’t apologize! Your enemies won’t believe you, and your friends don’t need to hear it.” So of course, you all are right to say this as well.)

A second impact is that any and all vignettes on this subject, from whatever source, make an impression. I can’t stop thinking about them. They become part of a store of memories. I then inflict them, repeatedly, on everyone I know.

Today it’s your turn.

A week ago I was having lunch with a good friend, who is former military and today on the faculty of the National Defense University – one of the smartest people I know. He recommended a TED video, a few years old now, by Kathryn Schulz, on being wrong, based on her book by that title. Two aspects of her talk stood out. First, early on, she asked the audience what it felt like to be wrong. She got the answers you’d expect: “It’s embarrassing. I felt ashamed. I felt wretched…” But she said, “No, that’s what it feels like to know you’re wrong. But to simply be wrong is to feel the same as it does to be right.” She referred to the old road-runner cartoons. The coyote would chase the roadrunner off the cliff, and be perfectly okay until the moment he looked down. Not much different from our friend driving on the interstate. She pointed out that no matter what our past history, we tend to live in a present, where, to our minds, we’re always feel we’re right, no matter what we’re saying or doing. Only when someone takes the trouble to bring us up short does our mindset change.

But most often, not at first. Here’s what Ms. Schulz had to say next:

She turned to the knowledge deficit model. You and I know this one. Scientists, say, reach certain conclusions about reality – doesn’t matter whether it’s how children learn, or climate change, or vaccinations, or genetically modified crops or whatever – only to learn that policymakers and the public disagree. It’s easy and natural for scientists to conclude that policymakers and the public suffer from a knowledge deficit – if only they knew what scientists knew, they’d be in agreement with scientists.

(By the way, husbands also initially think the same thing when they and their spouses are in disagreement: if she knew what I knew, she’d be on my side. And call me politically incorrect, but my experience has been, at least with my own spouse, and observing other relationships, that women are less prone to this kind of thinking than men. Maybe some reader has actual data to support or confute this perceived bias.)

So far, nothing new, at least to me. But Ms. Schulz carried this a couple of steps further. She said when we encounter someone with a knowledge deficit, then (irony alert!), out of the goodness of our hearts, our first response is to share with them the bounty of our surplus knowledge. To our dismay, we often find that this sharing fails to change minds. So, we reach a second conclusion: “Thanks to my generous sharing, this person now knows what I know, but still doesn’t see things my way. Poor soul! He/she must therefore be less capable of reason.” Once again, we generously share, this time the entire logical chain of our thought process. But according to Ms. Schulz, this often brings us a third level: “This person now has all the facts. This person now understands the rationale. This person still doesn’t agree.”

 “We therefore conclude,” she says, “This person must be evil.”

Wow. Talk about the light bulb going on. Ms. Schulz is a journalist, a free-lance writer, a popularizer. But this sure feels like expert social science[1]. You and I see this polarizing process at work across our society. First, with respect to the major issues of our times: poverty, justice, religion, politics, and more. And then down to the specifics: Admissions practices at universities. Abortion. Race. Sexuality. Immigration. The Keystone pipeline. Coral bleaching. Benghazi. Gun ownership. Our dog. The neighbor’s dog.

Not a shade of grey to be seen in any of these issues, or thousands more. They’re all simple black and white.

Earth scientists might be inclined to be smug. We might point to meteorology and the prediction of weather, an inherently chaotic system. Our methodologies are all tentative, iterative. They’re predicated on frequently, quickly detecting departures of forecasts from reality and re-initializing, starting over with our observations and numerical predictions.

But “smug” doesn’t suit particularly well. Consider this Union of Concerned Scientists blogpost on the “House Science Committee’s witch hunt against NOAA’s scientists.” The UCS folks have a point. Demanding years’ worth of documents be delivered in a two week period is clearly onerous. And yet the path of causation seems to go back to an earlier letter from a small group of scientists that the White house consider using RICO statutes to go after climate skeptics. (The letter suggesting this was subsequently pulled after causing a small firestorm, but the damage had been done.) In fact, the path of causation extends back decades now, with all parties to the discussion having quickly progressed to Kathryn Schulz’s third conclusion: the person who disagrees with me must be evil.

What’s more, it turns out you and I don’t have to be meteorologists to get in touch with this iterative, tentative, make-and-correct-errors way of approaching problems. We all do this every day when we get behind the wheel of our automobiles. We have destinations in mind, but at every moment in our journey we’re correcting one of four mistakes. We’re either going too fast, too slow, too far to the right, or too far to the left. We’re wrong. We’re expecting to be wrong, and we’re constantly looking for early signals we’re wrong, and making any needed adjustments. We’re also not expending a lot of emotional energy on it. (Excepting road rage – another discussion. But perhaps given what we’ve been considering so far, completing that sidebar is left as an exercise for anyone interested.)

If we can have this awareness with respect to something as simple as driving, surely we’re capable of holding the same approach towards weightier, more complex challenges that we’re all facing together. With respect to every issue that polarizes, we could be less interested in assigning blame and more interested in collaborating in a search for truth.

We might make it our goal to try that approach for 24 hours. And then, if we like the results, another 24.

By the way, if there’s any community in touch with what it feels like to be wrong and know it, it’s the country-and-western community – the songwriters, and singers and listeners all celebrate what it’s like to be wrong and live with the consequences. My favorite of this genre is a hit song recorded by Deborah Allen back in 1984. You can find the lyrics here, but you’d really rather hear the song.


There was in world history one, and only one, figure who was acknowledged by all who knew him well to be perfect… a man who never was wrong and never did wrong. Those who experienced him reported that what they found most astounding was not that he was right all the time, but that he did not seem to judge others on the basis of his righteousness. Instead, according to accounts, he also seemed to be the man most willing – in fact, the only one willing – to extend grace and love and respect to everyone around him.

In a few hours, I’m leaving to spend a few days on this man’s home turf. Of course he lived there 2000 years ago. He’s not there any more. Or is he? According to many people he’s here, everywhere, with all of us and accessible all the time now, so there’s no need for any traveling.

In any event, I’m going to walk where he walked, and see what he saw. I’ll reflect on what he thought and what he shared with us. I’ll also see the churches and hotels and commercial establishments that have sprung up since he left. The fact is, people haven’t stopped talking about him, and the buzz is growing – more and more people are getting interested all the time. I’m hoping to get in touch with a Mindset that is all knowing, infinitely rational, knows I’m wrongheaded – and yet doesn’t see me as evil.

It just might change my life.

[1]Again, if you have actual literature to reference, please share.

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Our science: protecting the public in the 21st century.

“If your science doesn’t correspond to reality, you’re going to lose lives.” – Alexander E. MacDonald


AMS Summer Community Meeting participants may have had their separate motivations for making their way to Raleigh back in August, but all attendees would agree that the meeting’s absolute highlight was an after-dinner talk given by Alexander MacDonald, Ph.D.

Sandy MacDonald is Chief Science Advisor for NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, Director of its Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) – and, as good fortune has it, the current AMS president[1]. He billed his talk as “personal” and it was. He billed his talk as “techie at the core” and it was. But these two disparate faces of his remarks weren’t artificially forced together. Instead they were blended in a truly compelling way. The juxtaposition was so apt that it would be hard to imagine either piece without the other. It was a night to remember – and for those in the geosciences and science-based services – to be inspired. But you had to have been there.

That is, until now.

We’ve been given a second chance. Mr. MacDonald reprised this speech at an AMS Chapter meeting in Fort Collins, Colorado, and this time the lecture was recorded. You can find the link here.

While you’re downloading, here’s the kernel of his message. Those of us in Earth observations, science, and services are in the business of protecting people. The Earth is dialing up 21st-century challenges – volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, storms, floods and drought, pollution, tsunamis, climate change and sea level rise, and more – that threaten not just a few lives but entire populations, through direct impacts but also secondary effects on food supplies and public health. If we bring our best game we can see these dangers coming in time to mitigate them. But if we are unable to bring adequate understanding to bear – if our science is too approximate, or arrives too late to anticipate the hazards as they arise, or worse yet, is wrong-headed – we’re going to lose lives. As Mr. MacDonald makes clear from the personal part of his narrative, more than mere statistics are in the balance; we have a sacred calling to protect real, flesh-and-blood individuals.

Take time to view this talk over the weekend (has to be better than watching your favorite baseball or football team find yet another agonizing way to lose, right?), and you’ll be glad you did. You’ll no longer see your job as the “same-old, same-old.” You’ll find yourself champing at the bit to get to work Monday morning and play your role in the 21st-century’s greatest drama.


[1] Mr. MacDonald is also the inventor of Science on a Sphere, one of the most engaging, creative tools for teaching Earth science to come along in a generation. Visitors are entertained and learn from the demonstrations at more than 100 locations worldwide.

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The Anthropocene primate faces a new water challenge.

improbable primate

In 2014 the anthropologist Clive Finlayson published a delightful little, but intellectually-rich book entitled The Improbable Primate: How Water Shaped Human Evolution (Oxford University Press). For months since I’ve been unable to get the book and its message out of my mind. With apologies to Mr. Finlayson (never allow a physical scientist to summarize your anthropological work!), here are a few quotes (all from page xii) which capture the essence:

“… water was a key ingredient in shaping our evolution…

…the patchy distribution of water across the landscape in arid and semi-arid areas was critical to the origin and evolution of humans capable of traversing large tracts of land efficiently and speedily…

…In addition to this, the problem-solving, information storage and retrieval abilities of good brains were particularly favoured in situations where choices of where and when to go for water determined whether individuals lived or died.”

What he goes on to say, for some 200 pages, with a lot of climatological and biological data to support his argument, is that at a certain stage in our evolution, as we left the forest (and as climate changed and forests gave way to savannah and other habitat), we found the water we needed for daily survival less plentiful. The game we hunted was also searching for water. Because rainfall was patchy and river- and lake reservoirs were widely dispersed and seasonal, natural selection favored two changes. (1) longer-legged, slimmer, fleeter physiques worked better for chasing water than the squat, thick forms more useful for self-defense; we traded increased vulnerability for speed. (2) “Brainier” helped in reading the skies (clouds of that type mean it’s raining over there) and sorting out the water-implications of geography and seasons. Everyone benefited by thinking more – and by thinking more like meteorologists.

Fast forward to today – the Anthropocene. It’s not hard to imagine that we face a water-related challenge similar to that described by Mr. Finlayson – water shortages that seem new when compared with historical experience. As our numbers have increased, and as we’ve increasingly used water not just for our physiological needs and to grow the crops and raise the livestock on which we depend, but also for all manner of energy production and industrial processes, water-resource margins have precipitously declined. We’re depleting surface and geological water reservoirs unsustainably.

Adapting in two ways might help. However, physiological adaptation of the type studied by Mr. Finlayson and his colleagues won’t do the trick. The water challenge is upon us now. We need social change, in two respects. Interestingly, they are similar to those earlier adaptations from a million years ago.

Let’s take the second one first:

Brainier. When population and water-use per capita were small and margins ample, we could pretty much take climatological norms for granted. Assuming stationarity was good enough. By contrast, today we’re increasingly in the business of creating and tapping new reservoirs for water. We’re in full learning mode, adding to our store of knowledge about the Earth’s water – not just its distribution and amount – but how it works: How and why does water move, change form from solid to liquid to vapor? And we are advancing from clouds of that type mean it’s raining over there to more highly-diagnostic monitoring and prediction of water on every scale and over every time horizon. We’re asking what will water do next: What’s the flash flood hazard here over the next hour? What are the prospects the regional drought will be lifted over the coming season? What will be the pace of polar ice melt and sea level rise over the course of the century?  But here’s the concern: we’re finding even as we extend the time horizons for our forecasts we’re either barely keeping pace or falling behind the time horizons needed for major decisions: do we evacuate this neighborhood in the face of the flood threat now? If we plant this crop will it enjoy adequate rainfall over the coming three months? If we build this reservoir, will there be enough precipitation to fill it once we’re done? If we build this ocean retaining wall will it meet the requirements future sea-level rise and storm surge will place on it? Fact is, we’re making most of these decisions with less than-adequate information. In some locations and for some applications we’re winning the race to improve our forecasts at the speed required to meet growing user needs. In others, our forecast improvements are barely keeping pace. But in some instances we’re increasingly flying blind. We need to be brainier – as individuals and as a society.

Which brings us to:

More cooperative. Mr. Finlayson’s primitive hominids needed speed and brains. But there’s no question that such adaptation on the individual level was also accompanied by societal change. The same is true in today’s Anthropocene. Today we need adaptation still, but it’s less physical and more social, even spiritual. In particular, as we examine and learn more about our individual inner nature, our families, our communities, our governments, and our world, we see that at every level our failure to be more cooperative is breathtakingly costly. Resources that could be used to eliminate poverty; to educate and train; to eradicate disease; and to address energy and world hunger and indeed world thirst are being diverted to finger-pointing and blame; dispute and contention; abuse and domination; and ultimately, murder, terrorism and war.

Become more cooperative, and we’ll likely discover we can achieve the United Nations’ sustainable development goals — and in particular, master the water challenge — as a collateral benefit. Attempt to reach those goals while still bickering with each other, and we’ll likely fail at the whole lot.

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Robert Mayer White, 1923-2015.

“NOAA is now positioned to advance United States in an environmentally sustainable manner. And that is the central problem of the 21st century.” – R. M. White (2005).

Robert M. White, in 1963, as Chief of the U.S. Weather Bureau

Robert M. White, in 1963,
as Chief of the U.S. Weather Bureau

Robert M. White, Chief of the U.S. Weather Bureau from 1963-1965, director of the Environmental Services Administration, 1965-1970, and first NOAA Administrator 1970-1977, passed away this morning at the age of 92.

One of the last executive appointments made by President John F. Kennedy prior to his tragic assassination? Kept on by President Lyndon Johnson and then appointed the first NOAA administrator by President Richard Nixon, a Republican? Retained for seven full years by Nixon and subsequently by President Gerald Ford? You don’t have to know any more to recognize that Bob White was someone special.

And yet there’s so much more to his career. He served in the military during World War II. After earning a meteorology Ph.D. from MIT he carved out a distinguished career in private-sector meteorology at Travelers Corporation, working for Thomas F. Malone (Tom Malone was Robert White’s mentor, if you can imagine such a thing; read Mr. Malone’s bio and you’ll understand how that all came about) – this during a period when such private-sector work was much less common. He chaired the first World Climate Conference in 1979 (think of this as a forerunner of the current series of UN conferences on Climate Change). When he stepped down from NOAA he quickly assumed the Presidency of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. He led UCAR/NCAR from a Washington, DC office (the first and only President to do so), over the period 1980-1983. In 1983 he left UCAR to become President of the National Academy of Engineering, which he led for twelve years (two terms) before stepping down in 1995.

Retirement? No, Robert White, then 72, wasn’t close to done. In that year he founded and became the founding president of the Washington Advisory Group (WAG; yes, the acronym was intentional) along with other senior science-policy officials who had become close friends and colleagues over his career: D. Allan Bromley, Frank Press, Erich Bloch (former NSF Director), Robert Frosch, and a handful of lesser lights. For fourteen years, these folks would consult with universities, major corporations, and other clients, helping them solve their science-policy challenges, commanding handsome fees. When the work became less fun, they sold their practice to others, in 2010.

Awards and honors? A fistful. If you want a hint of that, and more background to the merest sketch provided here, you might check out the text of a talk Mr. White gave to an evening audience at the National Air and Space Museum in December of 2005.

But Bob wants most a different kind of recognition from you and me, whether we work directly for NOAA or whether we’re part of that much larger swarm of collaborators: the people who work with NOAA and help use forecasts and outlooks to harness the world’s resources, or mitigate natural hazards, or protect the environment and ecosystems. He wants us to play our respective parts in helping fulfill his last forecast, embodied in his closing sentence to that 2005 talk:

“NOAA is now positioned to advance United States in an environmentally sustainable manner. And that is the central problem of the 21st century.”

He wants us to take fullest advantage of that position to solve that central problem.

Rest in (well-earned!) peace, Bob. We’re on it.

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Remembering Jim Mahoney: the NAPAP years.


(This is the second part of a two-part tribute to James R. Mahoney)[1]

James R. Mahoney is possibly best remembered by most (younger) readers of this blog as a former Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and Deputy Administrator of NOAA under President George W. Bush. He served in this role from 2002-2006 and during that same period also served as director of the U.S. government’s cross-agency climate change science program. In this capacity he worked closely with President Bush’s science advisor, Dr. John H. Marburger III. The two handled the geosciences portfolio in general and the climate change issue in particular with distinction during a difficult and contentious political period (so unlike the decorum that characterizes the public discussion of these subjects today?). History is likely to judge kindly the contributions of the two men; both died too early.

But what many of those same readers may not recall is that the Assistant Secretary role represented Jim’s second stint as a senior federal executive. The first saw Jim as the Director of the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program, from roughly the end of 1987 through early 1991. During those years, Jim was in his fullest physical vigor, bringing his great intellect and energy to bear on one of the defining environmental-science-and-policy challenges of the period. He worked literally night and day for over three years. In the end, he achieved an extraordinary triumph, but he never really received the national acknowledgment or gratitude due him. What’s more, the physical strain of this period set into motion or contributed to health problems that would bedevil him the rest of his life.

Here are some of the details.

When Jim took over NAPAP, the ten-year program had already been underway for seven years, and was in total disarray. NAPAP had never been anyone’s favorite from the beginning. Environmentalists and Canadians were among the most outspoken, saying that the science of acid rain was in fact already settled. Burning fossil fuels was the problem. Emissions from power plants and industrial smokestacks included sulfates and nitrates that were acid precursors. The acid was removed from the air by rain and snow, and by so-called dry deposition. It fouled lakes, rivers, and soils, damaging ecosystems on regional scales. It posed direct and indirect risks to public health. What else was there to know? It was time for action – for massive investment in scrubbers and other cleanup measures. Energy interests – particularly coal – pushed back: The threat was overblown. Human beings were only small contributors compared with natural phenomena. Environmental regulation would damage the economy and cost jobs.

(Sound familiar? It should; this was basically the climate-change discussion in microcosm.)

NAPAP thus drew criticism from both sides. It was either a blatant U.S. attempt to delay needed action, or that first step down a slippery slope toward oppressive government intrusion.

By 1987, the program had already seen off several previous leaders. Jim’s immediate predecessor had come in from private industry in 1985, at the moment when the NAPAP mid-term report was due to Congress. What’s more, that report was complete and ready to submit. But the new director announced it to be unacceptable in its existing form. He ordered it reworked, and delayed its submission for two years – until the fall of 1987[2]. He then slapped on a personally-written executive summary that he didn’t bother to clear with the agencies, submitted the report to Congress, and held a couple of press conferences to share his personal views. As a final touch he announced that he was stepping down in order to get married, and decamped to Hawaii. Washington (that portion that cared) was in an uproar. The Congress, the participating agencies, the Canadians and the environmentalists were furious. The scientists were holding their heads in their hands. The mood in the NAPAP Program Office was despondent. Though multi-agency, NAPAP was administratively housed in NOAA. NOAA leadership began a hurried search for a successor, zeroing in on lesser lights because the toxic context made the position demonstrably unattractive, even untenable.

Enter Jim Mahoney, who let it be known he would be available for the job if asked.

End of search. It had never occurred to anyone across DoE, NOAA, EPA and the other NAPAP participants that someone of Jim’s stature would have an interest. Took some time (another story in itself, as is the case with virtually all senior government hires), but he was eventually brought on board at NOAA.

Some notable aspects of his tenure/leadership over the next few years:

Jim was offered a permanent position. “No thanks. I’d like a three-year term appointment.” Really? Who asks for that, given all the uncertainties in life and delays characteristic of government process? He was first asked, then advised, to request an extension of the program, given there was only a scant two years remaining to accomplish what looked to be a good five years of work. Congress would clearly allow this, given the state of progress to date. “No thanks. It’s important to finish it on schedule.”

Jim then said, “before we can identify, choose among policy options, we first need a comprehensive, peer-reviewed state of the science.” In two years? Yeah, right. “Oh, and to be credible, we need scientific oversight.” Sure, Jim, sure.

Jim first sought feedback from the National Academy of Sciences. But the NAS/National Research Council had given long-unheeded advice throughout NAPAP’s earlier history. Understandably, they chose to wash their hands of any further engagement. So Jim established his own oversight review board. (That never works, right? Always looks like a whitewash from the outside.) But Jim used his reputation to attract and establish an oversight board whose credentials were above reproach. It was chaired by Milton Russell, former chair of CEQ. Members included Ellis Cowling, one of the scientists who had first called for the establishment of NAPAP; Chauncey Starr, then a dean at Stanford University; Bill Nierenberg, a distinguished Scripps oceanographer; Tom Malone, a world-famed meteorologist; John Bailar, a public health expert; John Tukey, arguably the greatest statistician who ever lived; Kenneth Arrow, a Nobel-winning economist; and others. They met several times face-to-face and had a profound effect on the last years of the program[3].

Jim and his NAPAP staff (housed in the Jackson-Square brownstone where CEQ is headquartered today) then pulled off a succession of heroics. Within two years, they mounted a week-long State of the Science conference bringing together hundreds of investigators from around the world who summarized their work for the past decade. The output was published in 1990 in four massive peer-reviewed hard-bound volumes (each numbering into the hundreds of pages), that occupy about a foot of space on the bookshelves of anyone lucky enough to have a set. In scale and complexity it rivaled the IPCC reports to come, though devoted to a subject of smaller scope.

Throughout, Jim worked incessantly, convening and briefing the agencies, and building executive-branch consensus for the NAPAP policymaker recommendations, which would quickly follow. He and his staff developed artful language that triangulated the diametrically opposed views of environmentalists and the coal sector, and pointed toward the cap-and-trade policies ultimately adopted by Congress.

NAPAP’s reward? Criticism from all sides. (Hardly a surprise – remember, the program showed many similarities to the IPCC process and in some ways served as a model for it.) Some of the condemnation came in the form of claims that NAPAP had issued its final report only in early 1991, some months too late to meet its goal of informing the Clean Air Act reauthorization of 1990: therefore the program and its leaders should be considered failures. However, in reality Jim and other NAPAP leaders had been in regular contact with Senator Moynihan and other leaders from both parties on Capitol Hill throughout. Lawmakers were thus aware of the findings even though the agency vetting process was still grinding its slow way to final approval and release, and shaped the Clean Air Act reauthorization to fit. By any practical, outcomes-oriented measure the program should be considered a success for the policy process and for Jim Mahoney personally.

Having delivered on every promise he’d made to the Bush Administration, the Congress, and the world, Jim returned to the private sector. Senior NAPAP staffers, having been toughened physically and intellectually by the past several years, and buoyed by their extraordinary accomplishment, found themselves in high demand across the public and private sector, and went their separate ways. IPCC would claim very little, if any connection to NAPAP, but it’s there in the IPCC DNA.

Thanks, Jim, for thinking forward – and for being the change you wanted to see in the world. You made a difference.


[1] I’d very much hoped to complete this more quickly… but perhaps appropriate to post on the weekend of Jim’s memorial service in Boston.

[2] Are you like me? Are you lacking “the brazen gene?” When I was in college, I wouldn’t dream of being a day late with a class term paper. Where do you get the daring (is that even the right word? Would disrespect be better) to stiff Congress for two years with regard to a legislative mandate?

[3] Incidentally, the stature of the ORB and its standing relative to the program it was reviewing stood in some contrast to the NAS/NRC analyses of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which was just standing up at the same time. The USGCRP committees early on consisted of scientists at a stage in their careers where they would likely be dependent on the program’s fortunes for years to come.

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Remembering James Richard Mahoney (1938-2015).

“Think forward. – masthead on the LeMoyne College Website

Living on the real world – reality – is personal.


James R. Mahoney – Le Moyne and MIT-educated meteorologist, Harvard academician, private-sector entrepreneur, government leader, family man, larger-than-life human being – passed away last week at the age of 77.

It’s standard on such occasions and essential in Jim’s case to mourn the loss, to recognize that the world is diminished by his passing. In one sense, that’s evident enough. However, the opposite is equally true. The world he leaves behind is the better for him – and in fact, continuing to improve every day. His impact on his family and colleagues and on the geosciences community is only beginning to be felt. The positive ripple effect will not just endure but grow for years to come as that host of people he inspired and whose lives he changed pay it forward in their turn.

Meteorologists, better than most, understand this. Thanks to Ed Lorenz, a professor at MIT when Jim was there, we know what a single butterfly can do. And if by mindlessly flapping its wings, a butterfly can create a hurricane a world away three weeks later, and influence the course of weather forever, how much more can a man or woman, acting intentionally over a lifetime, change the history of the world?

In part, that’s why the work and lives of meteorologists – and, for that matter, the lives and work of all seven billion of usis sacred. As you and I go through the ordinary circumstances of each day, whether mountaintop experience or mind-stupefying slog, we are indelibly and profoundly altering the future.

(No pressure!)

Jim’s career and contributions were extensive and must be seen in their entirety to be appreciated. (The Boston Globe obituary reprinted here at the end of the post provides a quick overview.) At the same time he made those contributions at a richly personal level, one at a time, day by day, and year by year. You probably have your own favorite story from the larger Mahoney narrative. But here and in the next post(s?) is mine: Jim’s tenure as the director of the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program, or NAPAP, from roughly 1987-1991.

A little bit of background before we dive in: As the Boston Globe piece reminds us, after getting a meteorology Ph.D. from MIT, Jim was on the faculty at Harvard’s school of public health for seven years. About 1968, he co-founded Environmental Research and Technology, Inc., which grew into one of the first large companies devoted to environmental services and engineering, as it capitalized on the new need for corporations to file environmental impact statements. After selling ERT in 1983, Jim went to work for Bechtel. 1987 found Jim and Bechtel playing a major role in the Three-Mile Island cleanup, which was still ongoing after the 1979 nuclear accident. Reactor radiation levels were so high that the robotics of the era, though primitive by today’s standards, had to be harnessed to the task. To operate the robotics, the Bechtel crews were dependent on the views provided by cameras. However, in the heat generated by the radioactivity, the coolant water remaining in the chamber had turned the reactor core into a huge Petri dish. Algae and mold were growing profusely on all surfaces, including the camera optics. Jim and his team were engaged in a crash course in image enhancement science and technology in their efforts to keep the billion-dollar cleanup moving.

As it happens, in that same year, problems with the National Acid Precipitation Program (NAPAP) reached the breaking point. We’ll pick up the story here in the next post.

A final footnote, demonstrating the influence of a single human being. As the bio below shows, Jim received his undergraduate degree of LeMoyne College, a small Jesuit school only founded in 1946. A Penn State meteorology professor by the name of Charles Hosler, now in his 90’s, came to campus and gave a talk at the time Jim was a student in physics. Hosler made such an impression on Mahoney, and vice versa, that it wasn’t long before Jim was going to school in meteorology – and at MIT. During his tenure at Penn State, Professor Hosler also inspired hundreds of other students, including a young man by the name of Joel Myers, who founded AccuWeather, and another young man by the name of Richard Hallgren, who went on to become a director of the National Weather Service and subsequently executive director of the AMS.

Well, back to work, everyone. Who will you influence today? And how will you and they change the world as a result? Think forward!


From the Boston Globe:

Mahoney, Dr. James Richard Whose distinguished career as an academic, a scientist, a business executive, and the director of key U.S. Government environmental programs spanned five decades, died peacefully on September 23, 2015 at his home in Eagle, ID. Jim was also a devoted husband, father of eight and grandfather to twelve. Before retiring to Idaho in 2006, Jim was based in Washington, DC and served as Assistant Secretary of the Department of Commerce and Deputy Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. During his tenure at NOAA, Jim also served as the Director of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, and was responsible for overseeing the Federal Government’s numerous research studies and developing policy directives on climate change. Jim was born on September 19, 1938 in Syracuse, NY, and attended Christian Brothers Academy followed by Le Moyne College, where he earned a Bachelor’s degree Magna Cum Laude in Physics. He then proceeded to MIT, earning a Doctorate in Meteorology and Geophysical Fluid Dynamics. In 1966, Jim moved across town to Harvard, as a well respected Associate Professor of Applied Meteorology in the School of Public Health for the next seven years. In 1968 Jim co-founded Environmental Research and Technology, Inc., one of the earliest environmental engineering and services companies, serving as Senior Vice President until the sale of ERT in 1983. His excellence in environmental management issues continued on the West Coast, where Jim became Director of Bechtel’s global environmental industries business group, based in San Francisco. In 1988, Jim accepted an important role in the Executive Office of the President under the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, merging his scientific and leadership talents as Director of the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program. Upon completion of that government assignment, Jim returned to the private sector as Senior Vice President of International Technology Corporation in Los Angeles until his assignment at NOAA. He is survived by Taya, his wife of 25 years, their daughters Courtney and Caitlin of Eagle, ID. He is also survived by his former wife, Margaret (Eells) Everbeck and their six children: Deborah Briggs and her husband Geoff Briggs of Randolph, MA; James Mahoney and his wife Jane Chung of Columbia, MD; Robert Mahoney and his wife Marcia Mahoney of Byfield, MA; Peter Mahoney and his wife Joanne Mead of Newton, MA; David Mahoney and his wife Elizabeth Mahoney of Roslindale, MA; and Paul Mahoney and his wife Mary Tamer of West Roxbury, MA. Jim is also survived by 12 grandchildren. Jim’s family already celebrated his life at a Funeral Mass in Idaho and a memorial service will take place on Sunday, October 11, 2015 at 2 p.m. at the Newton Highlands Congregational Church, 54 Lincoln St, Newton, Massachusetts.

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The sacred work of meteorologists.

It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future. – Yogi Berra (?[1])

The confluence of three events this past week shapes this post:

yogi berra

yogi berra

At age 90, former New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra passes. My generation knew him as one of the great catchers of all time. Growing up, I got to see him play a couple of times in the old Yankees stadium (as in, the original stadium built in 1923 before its 1970’s renovation, and its eventual replacement by today’s Yankee Stadium in 2009). Back then, the pillars of the old structure and the fedoras and the haze of cigarette smoke from the adults obscured my view of the field but didn’t diminish the excitement of seeing Yogi, and Mickey Mantle, Phil Rizzuto, Whitey Ford, Allie Reynolds and other legends actually play the game).

Today’s generation, at least those who don’t confuse him with Yogi Bear, remembers Mr. Berra more for his malapropisms and mis-pronouncements, many captured in spirit in his classic, The Yogi Book: I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said! One of those quotes frequently cited is the lead-in reflection above, on predictions.

That quote holds particular salience for meteorologists, and well it should. More than one writer (Nate Silver and David Orrell come to mind) have suggested that meteorologists are better at predictions than most – including, for example, economists, election pollsters, and sports prognosticators – and perhaps even the oracle at Delphi. Meteorologists are right to take pride and satisfaction in harnessing science and technology to the task of protecting lives and property in the face of weather hazards.

Meteorologists are also right to recognize that improved predictive skill is urgently needed. Here’s an analogy: Imagine that you’ve been driving a car for several daylight hours on the interstate highways of the high plains of Nebraska and Colorado. You can see miles ahead in the bright sunlight, and the road seems to stretch on straight and true, without limit. But night falls as you reach and enter the Rockies. Suddenly, just as visibility is limited to that provided by the headlights, a dense fog rolls in and the road ahead becomes a succession of twists and curves. It hits you: you’re driving too fast for conditions.

In microcosm, that’s the predicament of the human race. For all of history, our numbers have been limited and our weather-, water-, and climate-related decisions could be based on persistence. We could usefully assume that conditions we’d face in the future with regard to extremes of flood and drought, storm and calm would be similar to those we’d faced in the recent past. Today – whether we’re trying to provide for public safety in the face of weather extremes; or keeping surface and air traffic moving in rain, snow, and ice; or meet food production goals from the coming growing season in light of growing global demands; or storing water to protect us from flood or sustain us through a drought – we’re essentially driving blind. We’re making weather-sensitive decisions based on hope and guess rather than knowledge. We have to start evacuating cities before we know to a certainty that the hurricane will actually hit. We have to decide what crops to plant before we can be sure the coming season will be wet or dry. We are making huge investments in coastal critical infrastructure in the face of indeterminate sea-level rise. The time horizons of these and other decisions greatly exceed the extent of our predictive capability.

Here is where the analogy breaks down. An individual driving too fast for conditions can and does slow the vehicle speed, either in response to the external realities or in response to the pleas and demands of concerned passengers in the car. That’s not what’s happening when it comes to the human race and weather-, water-, and climate-related decisions and actions. Simply “slowing down” the seven-billion-person “vehicle” is not a viable societal option. Crops need to be planted on a rough timetable. Critical coastal infrastructure – the roadways, the waterworks, the electrical grid, and more – needs to be constructed and maintained at a pace dictated by social and technological necessity – even if we can’t yet discern what future natural extremes will stress the system.

For a society that can’t “slow down,”, the alternative of intensifying the headlights, or supplementing them with radar and collision-avoidance gear and GPS thus looks attractive and relatively cost-effective; hence the keen interest in extending the time horizon and improving the specificity of weather, water, and climate prediction, and quickly integrating any new progress into improved decision support tools.

Which brings us to the second event of the past week…


“Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation. You are the face of its people, their representatives. You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics. A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.” – Pope Francis, speaking to the U.S. Congress


Pope Francis visits the United States. Here in Washington, D.C., prior to the pope’s visit, the news focus was on the likely impact of his schedule on the DC-area commute and the availability of papal-bobblehead dolls. But during his visit, the news coverage morphed into something deeper. The video and audio revealed not a celebrity but a simple man, someone like the rest of us – in this case, a former-barroom-bouncer-turned-parish-priest, an immigrant. And this was not a man needing – hungering – to feed on the adulation of the crowds and the dignitaries. Instead, throughout, he had something to offer: food-for-thought to the great personages, and true material food and blessing to the homeless, the sick, the children, those in prison, young and old alike – all on an individual basis. Whatever his company or circumstances, he was happy, at peace.

And he gave us the greatest gift of all: he reminded us that our individual lives have profound meaning. In fact, here is what he said at the beginning of his address to the Congress, leading in to the quote above: “Each son or daughter of a given country has a mission, a personal and social responsibility.”

Each of us. A personal and social responsibility.

Though the pope used the phrase “social responsibility” here, what he was really saying in words and actions here and throughout his visit was that our lives and work are a sacred calling. Though he didn’t mention meteorologists by name, he included us in remarks both to the Congress and to world leaders at the United Nations. For example, when it came to climate change, he didn’t frame the issue as a mere technological or even a social challenge, but as a spiritual one – a matter of providing simple justice for those poor and weak and otherwise disenfranchised who will bear the brunt of the problem and who are in no position to make their voices heard.

Meteorologists have made great strides over the past several years in recognizing the opportunity to combine forces with social scientists to improve risk communication. But social science tells us that when meteorologists speak of protection of life and property in the abstract, and in relation to large numbers of people versus individuals, we risk falling prey to so-called “psychic numbing.”[2] By contrast, whether addressing climate change, or poverty, or war, or the sexual predation of (a minority of) prelates, or (in a positive vein), the importance of families, the pope found language to articulate the issue, again and again, in terms of the sacred value of the individual.

Which brings us to the third event of the week…



Hundreds die in Hajj stampede. Talk about psychic numbing. This terrible tragedy – the loss of 770 lives and injured numbering countless more – was not the worst in the history of the hajj but only the worst in the past quarter-century. In 1990 over 1400 pilgrims lost their lives in a similar episode. It is in the nature of these events that sectarian feelings run high and accusations fill the air. Iranian leaders are calling for investigations; some 130 0f the 770 victims were from Iran.

Why mention this here?

Because, in many respects, “evacuation in the face of weather threats” is “stampede” by another name. The 2005 evacuation of Houston under threat of Hurricane Rita and the mobilization of Oklahomans in the face of the El Reno tornado come to mind. In the case of Hurricane Rita, we’re told that in chaotic road conditions some 100 people (many probably with pre-existing health conditions) died from the traffic gridlock and excessive heat prior to hurricane landfall, including 23 elderly who were killed when the bus that had been evacuating them from their nursing home caught fire. The El Reno tornado event saw thousands of people leaving their homes and took to the roads in an ill-advised effort to avoid harm. Some estimates suggest that hundreds of lives might have been lost had the tornado maintained its form and transited the clogged freeways.

If meteorologists have a sacred responsibility for the protection of lives and property, then we have a similar responsibility for encouraging leaders and the public at local, state, and national levels to do everything in their power to reduce the need for evacuation in the face of weather hazards, versus merely to attempt to manage evacuations of ever-increasing scale and complexity. In evacuations of hundreds or even thousands, deaths will be rare. But in emergency responses mobilizing hundreds of thousands or millions, fatalities are inevitable. We need to be strong advocates for better land use and building codes, and increased priority to uninterruptible critical infrastructure.

Our colleagues the dentists know this. Their offices feature happy-tooth signs over the caption “you don’t have to floss all your teeth; just the ones you want to keep.” We need to say something similar: “you don’t have to evacuate all your homes; just the ones you don’t build to code and situate on the floodplain.”

NOAA’s Weather-Ready-Nation initiative and similar programs offer many opportunities to proclaim such a message and build upon it.

In closing, perhaps it’s worthwhile to return to the idea of the sacred value of the individual. I don’t know each and every person who clicks on this blog, or bothers to read each post through. But I do know some of you. And every single one of you already sees your work as a calling, already sees your family, and those who follow your research or use your forecasts or sit in your classes or discuss these matters with you across the backyard fence as persons of inestimable value. And they in turn see you as performing a role not dissimilar to that of the pope. You’re not necessarily in front of an audience of millions, but those who know you and watch you in action come away inspired a bit and thinking the world is a better place because of you. Give yourself the grace to see that noble element that others see in you. Nurture it. Allow it to grow.

Good job! Keep it up!

More on the sacred work of meteorologists soon.


[1] Quote Investigator tells us this is really an old Danish proverb. Yogi was Danish? Who knew?

[2] The great psychologist of risk, Paul Slovic, quotes Mother Teresa and adds this: “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” This statement, uttered by Mother Teresa captures a powerful and deeply unsettling insight into human nature: Most people are caring and will exert great effort to reserve “the one” whose needy plight comes to their attention. But these same people often become numbly indifferent to the plight of “the one” who is one of many in a much greater problem.” The fuller article available by via the link is worth the read in its entirety. This same idea has been succinctly captured in a quote widely attributed (but again possibly falsely) to Joseph Stalin: A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

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Remembering Katrina (and the human condition).


These past weeks, you’ve likely found yourself struggling to stay afloat in a storm surge of ten-year Hurricane Katrina remembrance. News/social media outlets have been awash with reflections on the 2005 storm itself, which killed 1000-2000 people (yes, the range of estimates is that great), and inflicted $100B of losses in the form of property damage and business disruption. Media coverage has explored the subsequent enhancements to flood-protection infrastructure; recent improvements in weather- and storm-surge warnings; the progress of the recovery with respect to housing, demographics, poverty, education, the economy of the region, and the lives of individual survivors (those who have since returned and those permanently displaced); and much more. No aspect has gone ignored. The narratives have been poignant and gripping.

The Katrina retrospectives come on top of a worldwide tide of recollection. This past month has also marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, including the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed tens of thousands, and brought a close to a decade of conflict which saw 50-80 million deaths (50-70% civilian), some 3% of the world’s population of the time. And, these days, each week calls to mind centennial reminiscence of particular World War I events, which killed another 15-20 million people over the period 1914-1918.

Statistics such as these impoverish the respective discussions. It is the individual deaths that consecrate the events. Abraham Lincoln famously captured this point in his Gettysburg address, saying about that Civil War battlefield:

“…we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Some might wonder, or even take umbrage, with the idea of lumping together those who died from so-called natural disasters with those who died heroically in war, but the reality is that there’s no clear dividing line between the two groups. Many who have died in combat were drawn in by degrees – through accident of birth and position and a series of small decisions and a process of acquiescence – rather than making any dramatic, conscious decision to sacrifice their lives for others or for a cause. And many who die from so-called natural hazards find much the same thing – that it was the last climactic consequence of the poverty and associated assumption of risk imposed on them by life’s circumstances and the actions and failures of others as much as any personal shortsightedness of their own making. They had, in effect, been in a war all along.

Back then, Lincoln noted that there was (and is) only one decent way for the living to respond: through renewed and enlarged determination, to avoid any repetition of the tragedies of wars and natural disasters.

As we look around, we see evidence that we’re doing a far better job of remembrance than such rededication. Media coverage on Katrina and its aftermath has been thorough and eloquent. Katrina recovery efforts – still underway, and likely to be needed for yet another decade – on occasion provide reasons for cheer. But New Orleans hasn’t seen the back of the hurricane threat. Those risks are ongoing – if anything, growing. That is even more true of the hurricane threat to the United States more generally, and truer still of the broader risk exposure – to floods and drought; sea-level rise; earthquakes and volcanism; pandemic; acts of terror; and cyber-vulnerabilities. Disasters, like snowflakes, are all different. Each day we draw 24 hours closer to a diverse range of catastrophes that we’ll then add to our growing calls to remembrance.

Often it feels that we’re sleepwalking into this problematic future. But there’s good news buried in this reality. First, not all future disaster scenarios are hidden from us. Thanks to advances in the geosciences and social sciences we know where many of the vulnerabilities and risks lie. What’s more, we don’t have to “guess exactly right” when it comes to the next disaster. We can take many measures now to build a generalized resilience to those future events, whatever precise form they may take (much as our immune system provides continuing protection against infections we’ve survived, and as an autumn flu shot provides added protection not just to the few strains in the serum but to a broader class of viruses). What’s more, to enlist in and prosecute the effort to build societal resilience to hazards can be profoundly satisfying. Ask any emergency manager, or NOAA National Weather Service forecaster, or anyone working toward a weather ready-nation or emergency healthcare or business continuity; they’ll tell you.

But this doesn’t have to be a spectator sport for the rest of us. We actively build societal resilience whenever and however we work to create a more equitable and just society, to provide health care to all, to enhance public education, to create meaningful jobs, to protect habitat and the environment.

And at the core, it’s about values. As we respect others, love each other, make opportunity for action and participation available to all, both locally and nationally – in short, as we respond to Lincoln’s age-old call for a new birth of freedom – we’ll find community-level resilience to hazards arises as a co-benefit. (By contrast, attempt to build hazards resilience while refusing to address or even acknowledge the challenges posed by basic human values, and we’ll likely fail at both.)

Are you in?


closing note: I started the blog LOTRW back in August of 2010. One of my earliest posts was on Katrina five years on. If you’ll compare this post with that, you’ll find a similar perspective… including drawing on Lincoln’s remarks. In the five years since, I haven’t really been any more successful in putting my arms around that tragedy.

At the time, I followed the Katrina post with a short series of posts outlining broad policy recommendations:

  • No adverse impact (an ASFPM analog to environmental impact statements)
  • learning from experience (an NTSB analog)
  • keeping score of losses in the national economic statistics
  • building a strategic-level public-private partnership
  • making fuller use of the U.S. Department of Commerce remit and connectivity toward these ends

You can reach these by clicking on the old Katrina link and then scrolling forward in time through the successive string of posts. The same recommendations are in my 2014 book by the same title. All of these ideas continue to merit further attention and work. Hold a serious national and international conversation on these ideas, and we’d progress toward a safer, happier, more satisfying world.

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Remedial reading… from the Huffington Post and The Economist


“Our job is to ensure that NOAA is as relevant fifteen years from now as it is today.” – John Knauss, during his tenure as Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, 1989-1993.

President George Bush[1] had initially considered John A. Knauss for the position of NOAA Chief Scientist, which at the time was also a Presidential appointment subject to Senate confirmation. But as a search for NOAA Administrator candidates dragged on, the President and his staff came to realize that Knauss would make an excellent leader for the agency as a whole.

Knauss did not disappoint. He was not only respected but revered by those who worked for him.

The Chief Scientist job would certainly have suited Dean Knauss’ temperament and background. As an academic oceanographer and Dean of the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, he was renowned for his science and his leadership of science. And he certainly saw that the key to making NOAA as relevant fifteen years in the future as it was at the time was not administrative so much as it was the advance of science and its application. He’d have enjoyed far more the chance to shape that future for the agency than to spend his time putting out fires: cost overruns in the NWS Modernization and Associated Restructuring, Congressional calls for downsizing and/or privatizing the NWS, delays in both the polar and geostationary satellite builds and launches; the torrent of digital data engulfing the NOAA line offices and the data centers; uninvited Congressional earmarks; and coastal-zone management crises; all of which plagued his tenure. (Yes, Millennials, today’s problems aren’t unique to this generation; they’ve long abided with and vexed us.)

That fifteen-year challenge was from the perspective of the early 1990’s a very high bar. At the time, more than 150 of the world’s leaders, including President Bush, were preparing to assemble in Rio De Janeiro in 1992 for the first-ever United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. And they were convening at such a high level and for such an extended period – and setting into motion an international conversation that continues to this day – for two reasons: (i) a data time-series showing the inexorable increase of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, started by Charles David Keeling at Scripps but by then maintained under NOAA auspices, and (ii) NOAA/GFDL models showing that a CO2-doubling would lead to several degrees Centigrade of global warming.

NOAA science was behind the global fuss.


The science challenge doesn’t simply face NOAA, or the environmental agencies. It spans the whole of the national agenda. Today, many if not most federal agencies continue to focus on the advance and application of innovation as a necessary means to fulfilling their mandates. To lead this function, they have installed Chief Science Officers. Recently, several of these officials, including Rick Spinrad, currently NOAA’s Chief Scientist, and some of his counterparts at USDA, NASA, DoE, and NIH, shared some of their common concerns and aspirations in a Huffington Post op-ed . Referencing another Bush –in this case,  Vannevar – they identified three areas where they believe America must make headway if we’re to retain preeminence in science:

First, we need more American pioneers to develop the innovative technologies needed to build more resilient, sustainable communities, protect human health and make progress in improving quality of life. We can do this through continued support of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education, which is the catalyst for spurring and maintaining a highly-skilled American workforce.

Second, we need a renewed commitment for critical investments which provide the funding and resources our scientists in basic and applied research fields need to do their jobs. And in following these tenets, we need to fund projects that our well-trained scientists believe will lead to major breakthroughs.

And now more than ever, we need more policy champions to keep the trust in his vision and help promote the basic research our agencies, our research partners and our commercial industries need to keep the U.S. on the leading edge.”

As our chief science officers pointed out in their fuller article, Vannevar Bush realized that America’s geographic frontiers were finite, but its science frontiers were, and will remain, endless.

If you’re harboring any doubts on this latter score, then you might be interested in this short piece from The Economist (also dating a couple of weeks back) which speaks to science’s unsolved mysteries. It’s eloquent and inspiring, and reproduced here in its entirety:

“I SEEM to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” Those words, ascribed to Sir Isaac Newton, might still be spoken, with the appropriate correction for sex, by any scientist today.

The discipline of natural science that Newton helped found in the second half of the 17th century has extended humanity’s horizons to a degree he could scarcely have envisaged. Newton lived in a world that thought itself 6,000 years old, knew nothing of chemical elements or disease-causing microbes, believed living creatures could spring spontaneously from mud, hay or dirty bed-linen, and had only just stopped assuming that the sun (and everything else in the universe) revolved around the Earth.

Yet even today, deep problems and deeper mysteries remain. Science cannot yet say how life began or whether the universe is but one of many. Some things people take for granted—that time goes forwards but never backwards, say—are profoundly weird. Other mysteries, no less strange, are not even perceived. One is that 96% of the universe’s contents pass ghostlike and unnoticed through the minuscule remaining fraction, which solipsistic humans are pleased to call “ordinary matter”. Another is how, after billions of years when the Earth was inhabited only by single-celled creatures, animals suddenly popped into existence. Perhaps the deepest mystery of all is how atoms in human brains can consciously perceive the desire to ask all of these questions in the first place, and then move other atoms around to answer them.

Known unknowns

Over the next six weeks we will be running a series of briefs that explore these unsolved scientific questions. Some are more tractable than others. Our first brief, on life’s origin, looks at a chemical puzzle that may well be elucidated over the next decade or so (see article). The nature of the unseen 96% of the universe may start to manifest itself later this year, as the newly cranked-up Large Hadron Collider, the world’s biggest particle accelerator, begins creating things massive enough to be particles of the “dark matter” that theory predicts.

Other mysteries, such as the unidirectionality of time, probably await lightning-strikes of insight of the sort that produced the theories of relativity a century ago. By contrast, discerning the early history of animals will require a lot of hard graft—the painstaking reconstruction of a jigsaw in which the pieces include palaeontology, genetics and embryology.

Some mysteries may remain so for ever. The idea of a multiverse containing an indefinite, possibly infinite, number of universes, each with its own laws of physics, is mathematically plausible and would deal with the puzzling fact that if the physical laws of the actual, observable universe were only slightly different, life could never have come into existence. With multiverses, every possible set of laws would exist somewhere. Unfortunately, unless the separate universes intrude onto one another, the idea is untestable. As for the nature of consciousness, this is one question which science has not yet fully worked out how to ask. Studying the bits of the brain that seem to generate consciousness does not answer the question of what such perception really is.

Does it all matter, a cynic might ask? Will humans really be better off for knowing such things? The answer, written on the tomb, in St Paul’s Cathedral, of Newton’s contemporary, Sir Christopher Wren, is: “If you seek his monument, look around you.” For the monument to Newton’s pebble-collecting child is no less than the modern world.

Bacteria and Brontosaurus. Oxygen and octane. Quarks and quasars. All are the offspring of Newton’s child. Moreover, it is the manipulation of nature which science permits that has brought today’s unprecedented plenty and prosperity. Most of all, though, science has brought self-knowledge, for it has put humans in their place in two contradictory ways. It has dethroned them as the centre of the universe, by showing that mankind is a Johnny-come-lately, living on a tiny planet orbiting an ordinary star in an unremarkable galaxy that is, itself, one of more than 150 billion such galaxies. But it has also enthroned humanity, revealing the extraordinary nature of the universe’s inner workings in ways that Newton’s contemporaries were only beginning to glimpse. Simultaneously demoted and exalted by science in this unprecedented era of discovery, Homo sapiens still has oceans to survey.


So, let’s introduce our schoolkids and university students to the beckoning excitement and challenge of science’s endless frontiers. Let’s sustain professional scientists as they mount expeditions into that unknown. And let’s champion this vision, whether we work in halls of Congress, or lead agency science, or serve in more ordinary ways.

Let’s get this done.

[1] That’s George Herbert Walker Bush, aka Bush 1 or Bush 41.

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Weekend thoughts… on “Agency.”

Social scientists stress the importance of agency, defined along the following lines:

“In the social sciences, agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. By contrast, structure is those factors of influence (such as social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, customs, etc.) that determine or limit an agent and his or her decisions.”[1]

This issue arises in multiple ways across the full natural hazards/weather-resiliency context, as discussed in the previous LOTRW post. That post prompted some comment on Facebook. Here’s the meat of the exchange:

“Giving people more agency works great if they can be trusted to make good decisions, but it can backfire horribly if the people are uninformed or overwhelmed by the decisions to be made. A 401(k) offers much more agency than a pension, but most people would have more retirement money with a pension than a 401(k) because most people are not finance experts. A middle route of training people to make good weather decisions plus offering a curated set of decisions when disaster does strike seems like best way to go.”

“Have to agree. Full agency is great as an ideal, but far from practical in the real world. A forecast of 1 to 13 inches WILL be ignored by a lot of people and likely result in a loss of credibility. I suppose presented on some sort of probability curve it would have a bit more value, but even then a lot of folks just aren’t equipped to interpret that either.”

“I’ve been saying for decades that the NWS shouldn’t be telling people what to do. They should provide information about the weather that, in combination with other types of information, allow the recipients to make their OWN decisions. Including decisions that might on occasion go terribly wrong for them, since no one can mandate only “good” decisions.”

The three perspectives capture the heart of the dilemma. When it comes to public safety, where does responsibility ultimately lie? In various levels of government? With forecasters? With emergency managers? With their private-sector partners? Or with individuals in harm’s way? What’s the right balance between “agency” and “structure?”

Of course the puzzle extends across the whole of life. Here are two weekend examples that might have something to teach us.

Football. On any fall weekend, and even as early as August, as training camps open, Americans turn to thoughts of football. Picture this practice or game scenario. The coaches are working hard with the quarterbacks and the wide receivers to nail down a variety of pass plays. The wide receivers are constantly missing their assignments, running the wrong patterns. One approach the coaches could take would be a special sensitivity-building session, focusing solely on the quarterbacks: “You guys are thinking too much about the technicalities of these pass plays, the x’s and o’s! You’re calling plays that are just a jumble of numbers and code words. You all clearly need to sign up for social-science classes and communication. You need to start delivering impact-based messages in the huddle!”

But that’s not all they do. Instead, coaches also grab the wide receivers by the shoulder pads as they come off the field and give them a message, delivered from a distance of less than eighteen inches[2], along the lines of “stop thinking about how hot it is or that girl friend of yours in the stands or how much money you stand to make some day. Get your head in the game!”

In the same way, we’ll never achieve a weather-ready nation until most Americans see safety for themselves and their family in the face of the real-world’s hazards as a cultural value rather than an unforeseeable interruption of, or irritating distraction from, real life. By the way, perhaps the most important part of the social contract between professional football players (indeed all athletes) and their respective teams also contains the A-word: free Agency. Players had to fight for this right.

Faith. Football isn’t the only religion observed on the weekend. And much of faith, whatever flavor you and I subscribe to, centers around the issues of free will and agency, and questions like, “If God or Allah or Yahweh (or whatever deity, however defined or named) isn’t good loving and all-powerful, then why is any religion worth the bother? But on the other hand, if God or Allah or Yahweh or whomever or whatever is good and loving and all-powerful, then why is there evil in the real world?” And the answer that invariably comes back from every theology and every scholar has to do with “agency.” Unless you and I have free will, it’s impossible for us to experience love and to truly love in return.

A quick aside for the social scientists and risk-communicators in the crowd: the Judeo-Christian faiths show a God who has throughout history been experimenting with impact-based messaging:

Attempt #1. You are my partners and collaborators here in the Garden of Eden. We’ll live eternally, and in perfect love and harmony, so long as you meet one condition: you don’t eat fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

What could go wrong?

Attempt #2. You, Israel, otherwise a puny and no-account nation, are to be a chosen people. I’ll lead you out of slavery in Egypt, and so long as you obey a set of ten simple commands you will live lives of miraculous abundance, power, and peace, even in the midst of nations larger and seemingly stronger than yourselves.

Of course we know that didn’t work.

Attempt #3. A series of prophets, laying out clearly the blessings that would follow obedience and the personal and national downside to going it alone.

Generally speaking, we ignored this advice, preferring to experience repetitive loss. But first we’d kill those pesky prophets.

Attempt #4. God says, I get it. You want free will. And I want you to have it. I’ll solemnize this by sending my Son so that we can maintain your Agency and Mine but keep the lines of communication open.

Social scientists should quickly recognize that Jesus was/is the ultimate boundary-spanner, negotiator, bridger (insert your favorite term)… and churches major boundary organizations spanning physical and spiritual realities.

So.. on this particular weekend, football coaches are going with “structure.” But as for the rest of us, we all say, “Even though it often brings brokenness, and dysfunction, and even pain and loss, we prize Agency.”

And God says, “Amen!


[1] Excerpted from material you can find here.

[2] :) A tip of the hat to Susan Jasko. (Those of you who attended the AMS Summer Community Meeting know what I mean.)

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