What kind of world is possible if we act effectively?

To review: LOTRW posts over the past two days have noted that in the Digital Revolution, just as in the earlier Industrial Revolution, we human beings are struggling to find our place. The Industrial Revolution began with human beings servicing machines, instead of vice versa. Long days and brutal working conditions were the initial result. Similarly, in today’s Digital Revolution, as robots and computers get smarter, they’re taking on more and more of the work. Business is investing in such IT or using novel financial instruments to build profits. Unemployment, economic stagnation or deflation, and flat and declining wages for the human labor force have been the result. This is in contrast with the world we want – one in which human life is valued and respected, where interdependence is acknowledged and celebrated, and technology serves human purposes rather than the other way around.

How do we get to that world we want from here? What kind of world is possible if we act, if not perfectly, at least effectively? And more specifically, since the challenge is complex and evolving, and we lack the intelligence individually and as a society to see more than one move or so ahead on the real world’s chessboard – what’s the first step?

Here’s one answer[1]: build/rebuild critical infrastructure. A definition: critical infrastructure comprises assets essential for the functioning of a society and economy. These include electricity, energy, water, and food production, transport and distribution; highways, roads, rail, airports, harbors, and other transportation facilities; and softer infrastructure such as the public health and safety, financial, education, waste management, and public health systems. Much infrastructure worldwide is either aging or facing obsolescence because of innovation. In the U.S. alone, the ASCE estimates the bill coming due to be some 2 trillion dollars (compare to U.S. GDP, which is about $17T/year and U.S. national debt, which stands at $18T).

Here’s a short list of the benefits of such initiatives. At present levels of technology, building and rebuilding critical infrastructure is relatively labor intensive. It can’t be accomplished by IT or machines alone. Instead it puts large numbers of people to work and requires a broad spectrum of skills. What’s more, it sets the stage for increased labor productivity and economic growth – not narrowly, but across the board, for years to come[2]. Additionally, infrastructure projects remind us of our interdependence – as individuals, institutions, cities, and nations. Such projects also lend themselves to thinking globally but acting locally, in a place-based way.

Some people object to such investments now, on the basis that they require money we don’t have, and will lead to more deficit spending. But economists have a different message. They tell us that such projects actually have the greatest economical and societal benefit when they’re counter-cyclical[3]. What’s more, they reduce the risk of deflation, a great threat to the developed world today.

Note that some infrastructure spending confers more benefit than others. It’s essential to invest in the infrastructure needed for tomorrow, not that which was desirable yesterday. Some examples: As the nations of Africa build their infrastructure, they’re looking to cellphone networks, not landline communication. And they’re balancing growth in fossil-fuel infrastructure with investments in renewable energy; wind and solar energy are plentiful across the continent. Global enthusiasm for dams is declining as their shortcomings come to light.

Earth observations, science, and services (Earth OSS) provide a unique 21st-century opportunity. Earth OSS constitutes critical infrastructure for making vital decisions with regard to Earth as a resource (food, water, energy, and more), Earth as a threat (cycles of flood, drought, storms, earthquakes, and the like), and Earth as a victim (habitat, bio-diversity, air-, water- and soil quality, etc.). Earth OSS provides necessary inputs to design, deployment, operation and maintenance decisions for all other critical infrastructure, whether for energy, food, and water supply, public health, transportation, etc. These decisions are growing more complex, and consequential with each passing year. By contrast, the Earth OSS investments required are the merest fraction of the overall $2 trillion infrastructure bill. In the U.S., they amount to $15B/year. Doubling this annual investment would not only ensure that U.S. investment in its domestic infrastructure yields greater return but also open significant new international markets for U.S. goods and services.

Human spaceflight. Which brings us full circle to the discussion that opened Saturday’s LOTRW post. Even as we lament the struggles of the underfunded human space program, we’re overlooking the fact that all seven billion of us are in fact crew on the largest space mission now ongoing in our solar system. We’re on a unique spacecraft, weighing 6×1021 tons, and in a 93 million-mile heliocentric orbit. A clever choice! It eliminates any need for an impervious outer shell to contain our atmosphere, or an internal heating source to maintain atmosphere and water in amounts and forms needed to sustain life. And by hitching a ride in orbit around this particular sun, we’ve afforded ourselves some great sightseeing around the galaxy for millions of years to come. Like most crews of spacecraft or aircraft, priority #1 is keeping all the essential systems of the spacecraft humming, especially the ecosystem services, for the duration of the voyage.

In this regard, our biggest challenge remains our humanity itself. Studies suggest that we should place a lot more emphasis on crew resources management – how we work together (especially with respect to our interpersonal communication, leadership, and decision making) to ensure our safety and the safety of the spacecraft on which we rely. Investment in Earth OSS will address this need, but only partially. The biggest challenges are social and psychological. That’s the finding of NAS/NRC studies as well. For example, Safe Passage, NAS/NRC 2001 suggests from study of programs in the Antarctic and space travel to date that the stresses and tensions of such for extended periods make teamwork difficult.

Perhaps we see hints of this challenge on Spaceship Earth, aka the real world, with today’s wars, terrorist acts, and disputatious political dialog both domestically and internationally.

[1] Neither original nor unique to me; we see calls for this everywhere.

[2] In these respects it’s superior to homebuilding, which has long been a staple of economic recovery, and remains important.

[3] This is not just a macro-economic argument; it works at the individual level as well. If you and I commute to work by car, when our car breaks down we don’t throw up our hands and say, “too bad we don’t have the money to make repairs or buy another vehicle. We’ll have to accept unemployment as our fate.” Instead we go into debt; we do what it takes to keep our jobs. On the other hand, buying a new car simply because it’s new when our current car is still serviceable confers little benefit.

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Two postscripts to What kind of world is likely/do we want?

1. Lessons from history.

Does humanity serve technology? Or does technology serve humanity?

History books tell us that during the 19th century Industrial Revolution, the workweek could extend to 80 hours or even more. Those same books painted a gruesome picture of working conditions at the time. Here’s a brief summary excerpted from today’s Wikipedia:

“Child labour existed before the Industrial Revolution but with the increase in population and education it became more visible. Many children were forced to work in relatively bad conditions for much lower pay than their elders,10%-20% of an adult male’s wage. Children as young as four were employed. Beatings and long hours were common, with some child coal miners and hurriers working from 4am until 5pm. Conditions were dangerous, with some children killed when they dozed off and fell into the path of the carts, while others died from gas explosions. Many children developed lung cancer and other diseases and died before the age of 25. Workhouses would sell orphans and abandoned children as “pauper apprentices”, working without wages for board and lodging. Those who ran away would be whipped and returned to their masters, with some masters shackling them to prevent escape. Children employed as mule scavengers by cotton mills would crawl under machinery to pick up cotton, working 14 hours a day, six days a week. Some lost hands or limbs, others were crushed under the machines, and some were decapitated. Young girls worked at match factories, where phosphorus fumes would cause many to develop phossy jaw. Children employed at glassworks were regularly burned and blinded, and those working at potteries were vulnerable to poisonous clay dust.”

By the 1950’s, the workweek had trended downwards, to 40 hours. At that time I was in high school reading all this. The son of a mathematician, I thought knew a little something about trends and extrapolation. I calculated that as technology continued to improve, taking more of the burden off the shoulders of labor, the workweek in the early 21st century (as in… about now), would be as little as 24 hours. I looked forward to adulthood in such a leisure-filled world.

My morale remained high until about the 1970’s, by which time it was becoming apparent that this sanguine outlook was failing to verify – an early lesson in the shortcomings of persistence forecasts.

Particularly chilling was a Business Week article of the 1970’s, which noted the date at which the salary for a European executive working in Europe passed that for an American executive working in Europe. I remember the heart-stopping bottom-line verbatim: “The comparison is worse than it sounds, because the European executive gets six weeks of vacation a year and is expected to take it, while the American executive gets three weeks of vacation a year and is fired if he takes it.”

We all know the reality of the last four decades. The nominal workweek for hourly workers has remained steady at 40 hours/week or nearly so; Many hourly workers are forced to settle for part-time hours, so that employers won’t have to provide healthcare or pension benefits. By contrast salaried/professional staff find their work hours increasing slightly. Among the higher executive ranks today, workweeks of 50-60 hours are not uncommon. The health dangers are no longer posed by unsafe industrial equipment, but rather by sedentary, stress-filled lifestyles.

Going back to that persistence forecast, there is a bright side to the story. If indeed the past is prologue, we know from the history that the horrific working conditions of the Industrial revolution (which originated in the logic that the new machines of the age were expensive and needed to be operated by skeleton crews for long hours every day) proved transitory. Both labor and management saw benefits to a shorter workweek, and it was accomplished.

2. People of the Single-Marshmallow now.

What kind of world do we want? The one that provides instant gratification in preference to rewarding patience. The famous Stanford experiment of fifty years ago is receiving a lot of play these days. In case you’ve been on Mars and missed it, here’s the background (an extended excerpt from an online article by Susan Beacham, simply one of many extant):

“The Marshmallow Study, conducted in the 1960’s by Stanford University psychology researcher Michael Mischel, demonstrated how important self-discipline is to lifelong success. He started his longitudinal study by offering a group of 4-year-olds one marshmallow, but told them that if they could wait for him to return after running an errand, they could have two marshmallows. The “errand” took about fifteen to twenty minutes. The theory was that those children who could wait would demonstrate that they had the ability to delay gratification and control impulse.

How important is your child’s ability to delay immediate gratification? (Very important.) Is self-discipline a predictor of a child’s success later in life? (Yes.) Can a child who does not know how to delay immediate gratification be taught this skill? (Absolutely.)

Ok. Let’s take a moment and think about the child in our lives before I give you the results of the study. Close your eyes, visualize your child in The Marshmallow Study room chair. Is she eating? Is he waiting? We all know exactly what our children will do – or do we?

Like any good habit, delayed gratification can be learned.About fourteen years later, when the children in the experiment graduated from high school, the Marshmallow Study revealed startling differences between the two groups: the children who waited and did not gobble up the single marshmallow, were more positive, self-motivating, persistent in the face of difficulties, and able to delay gratification in pursuit of their goals. They had developed the habits of successful adults. The habits, the centerpiece of which is delayed gratification, point to more thriving marriages, greater career satisfaction which leads to higher incomes, and better health.

The children who did NOT wait were more troubled, stubborn and indecisive, mistrustful, less self-confident. And, they were still unable to delay immediate gratification. Worse yet, these “one marshmallow” kids scored an average of 210 points less on SAT tests. Why? Distraction and the desire for instant gratification got in the way of good, focused study time. If not corrected, lack of impulse control will continue to trip these kids up throughout life, resulting in unsuccessful marriages, low job satisfaction and as a result low income, bad health and all around frustration with life.”

So much for the world that is coming if we take no deliberate action, and the world that we want. What kind of world is possible if we act effectively? We return to that question next.

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What kind of world do we want?

“Here’s my policy on cake… I’m pro-having, and pro-eating.”Boris Johnson,


Politicians may not all be delightfully frank as London’s mayor, but they are well-known to want their cake and eat it too.

But that’s unfair to politicians. They’re not the only ones. The desire is universal.

Call me chauvinist, but I want a world where science and technology serve humanity and not the other way around. I want a world where humans hunger to be human more than we desire to be rich, or powerful, or famous. I want a world where every human life is valued, meaningful, satisfying. I want a world where we celebrate each other and our interdependence as opposed to allowing our relationships to degrade into something much more unbalanced, one-sided, exploitative, or abusive. In the words of pastor John Ortberg, I want a world where we each are able to “do the right thing at the right time in the right spirit.”

I think that’s what you want too.

And that’s because we know in our heart of hearts that if we genuinely aspire and make it our aim to contribute to building that kind of world… then all the other things we want – personal and society-wide health, happiness, and safety; a robust, bio-diverse environment spanning our home planet even as it meets our needs for food, water, energy and other resources – are likely to come along as collateral benefits. We can have it all – literally have our cake and eat it too. By contrast, if we make material goals our primary aim, if we take what look to be shortcuts, and we jettison the angels of our better nature before we leave life’s starting gate, we’re likely to lose it all.


Except that no generation, no people – not even any individuals[1] – have ever been able to live by such rules. Throughout history, the have-it-all strategy has always been available to us, but we have always opted for something less – considerably less. Over love, and putting the truest welfare and interests of others first, we’ve chosen selfishness. But we haven’t stopped there. We’ve chosen depression over joy, war over peace, instant gratification over patience, toughness and even brutality over kindness. No surprise, then, that as individuals we’re often despairing, troubled, fearful, worried, and anxious.

Much if not most of the world’s great art – the major literature, the theater, the musical compositions, the paintings and the sculpture – explore these this human tragedy.

These themes are also the major focus of the world’s great religions. In fact, for much of human history, over most of the world, this problem has been widely understood to be spiritual, discussed in that language, and solutions sought in that realm. But in recent times, many people have chosen to reject any reference to the spiritual. Arguably this is attempting to solve the problem with one hand (or both?) tied behind our backs.

The rejection of the spiritual may be more prevalent among physical scientists than among the rest of the world. But as scientists have searched for ways to increase societal uptake of scientific and technological knowledge and capabilities (about climate change, human health, and much, much more), physical scientists have a halfway step back. They’ve acknowledged the importance of social science in casting light on risk communication, determinants of behavior of individuals and groups, etc. We scientists of both stripes might do well to embrace one step more.

Some world leaders are doing this, in what at first blush might be thought to be the most unlikely places. Take China. According to The Economist, Christianity’s rapid spread in China is causing leaders to rethink. The article suggests Christians number more than Communist Party members (87M), and puts them on track to reach 250M by perhaps as early as 2030. That would make their Christian population the largest in the world. And Buddhist faith is experiencing a similar resurgence. Some excerpts:

“Christianity is hard to control in China, and getting harder all the time. It is spreading rapidly, and infiltrating the party’s own ranks. The line is blurring between house churches and official ones, and Christians are starting to emerge from hiding to play a more active part in society. The Communist Party has to find a new way to deal with all this. There is even talk that the party, the world’s largest explicitly atheist organisation, might follow its sister parties in Vietnam and Cuba and allow members to embrace a dogma other than—even higher than—that of Marx…

…Some Chinese also discern in Christianity the roots of Western strength. They see it as the force behind the development of social justice, civil society and rule of law, all things they hope to see in China…

…In recent years the party’s concerns have shifted from people beliefs to the maintenance of stability and the party’s monopoly of power. If working with churches helps achieve these aims, it will do so, even though it still frets about encouraging an alternative source of authority. In 2000 Jiang Zemin, then party chief, and himself a painter of calligraphy for his local Buddhist temples, said in an official speech that religion would probably still be around when concepts of class and state had vanished…”

It’s the weekend. A great opportunity for us to perhaps read The Economist article in its entirety and to reflect more deeply on the kind of world we want.


[1]as in you and me; we’re all in this together.

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What kind of world is likely if we take no deliberate action?

It’s been awhile since we revisited the three questions on the LOTRW masthead. Today’s post and the two to follow give them a fresh look. Let’s stand back and take a running start with regard to the first one…

What kind of world is likely if we take no deliberate action?

For most of human experience, homo sapiens have become accustomed to taking our supremacy in Earth’s affairs as a given. True, there were difficulties in the early going — perhaps a million or so years past. Back then our numbers were few and we hadn’t yet doped out effective rules for living on the real world. But it wasn’t long before we got the human big-brain thing working to our advantage. The challenges once posed by the patchy availability of water and food[1] and the threats posed by predators swifter and stronger than us have long since faded from our memory, if not our DNA. But it seems going forward our value, and our supremacy in the scheme of things here on Earth, are no longer automatically assured. For the first time in a long while, we’re being challenged not just individually but as a species.

An overstatement? Possibly. But here are a few recent data points on this particular trend line. They’re anecdotal, cobbled together. They only hint at the problem. To do this more comprehensively or definitively would require a book (and several have been written along these lines). You can easily come up with your own, better list. We start zoomed-in, looking at interests close to home for readers of this blog; then expand our field of view, zooming out:

A late-October workshop on spaceflight. Several participants and stakeholders familiar with the U.S. space program from different perspectives assessed the prospects for human spaceflight. They found that future problematic. In particular it doesn’t appear that federal budget resources are there in the amounts needed to reach aspirational goals such as putting people on Mars.

The Orbital Sciences explosion on launch of October 28 and the Virgin Galactic crash of October 31. These two events occurred on the heels of the workshop as if to drive home the point. The latter flight involved loss of human life. The former was a cargo lift – scheduled resupply for the International Space Station, a human venture. Both efforts attempted to do spaceflight on the cheap… the Virgin Galactic effort looking to put recreational space tourism within reach (for the wealthy, at least). The Orbital Sciences mission relied on a Russian launch vehicle mothballed for many years before being pressed into service to cut costs.

Drones. Meeting the needs of fragile human beings isn’t just expensive in space. It’s also an issue in flight – especially military flight. The cost of today’s fighter aircraft are high in part because of the need to protect fragile human occupants, either from the altitudes and g-forces that 21st-century high-performance aircraft can achieve or from hostile action. Such protection was necessary when computers and IT infrastructure weren’t up to the demands of flight. But today’s drones are proving quite capable of performing many military missions. And amidst concerns, there’s talk of allowing artificial intelligence a greater role in choosing targets for robotic weapons. (What’s more, the world’s armies are giving the idea of using robots in ground combat a long look.)

Other forms of transportation. But of course we’re seeing a future in which artificial intelligence will take control of virtually all vehicular travel. Google has been advancing and demonstrating robotic capabilities to drive cars for several years. Truckers are contemplating fleets of robotic vehicles whose drivers will no longer tire. If ground-based personnel can fly military drones, presumably they can pilot commercial flights.

Zooming out further…

The global workplace. Since the 2008 financial debacle, business media (see, e.g., the recent special report on technology and the world economy published in The Economist) have been telling us repeatedly that the world’s economies have been growing but job numbers have not kept pace. Moreover, wages remain stagnant or have been declining slightly. Corporations have preferred during this most recent recovery to improve their stated profits through financial measures such as stock buybacks, relocating their headquarters to tax havens, and through investment in robotics and technology rather than hiring people (with our inconvenient propensity to tire after several hours of effort and our pesky need for health benefits and retirement plans). The articles moot the proposition that unlike the first two industrial revolutions, which ultimately led to vast improvements in the human condition across the board, the current digital revolution may not confer the same benefits to all… that employment opportunities will be available only to a privileged few. Pundits such as David Brooks and Tom Friedman have also recently picked up on the theme. They question whether we will master machines or they will master us.

In summary, then, some world trends hint that if we take no action, the human race, individually and as a species, will have to scramble to maintain its place in world affairs over the course of the 21st century. Taken to the extreme…given the talk of recent decades that overpopulation is the root cause of most environmental woes… the recent events might be suggesting that the ideal population level for us might be … zero.[2]

Which brings us to the second LOTRW question, slightly rephrased…

Is that the kind of real world that we want?

You know the answer. More in the next post.


[1] For an interesting take on this see The Improbable Primate: how water shaped human evolution, by Clive Finlayson, Oxford University Press 2014.

[2] A tongue-in-cheek prediction, made in the context of this summer’s LOTRW posts: should there ever occur such a decline in human numbers, at no point will the handful of people remaining “speak with one voice.”

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Speaking with one voice: building accord.

“If you want to walk fast, walk alone. If you want to go far, walk together.” – African Proverb

“We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” – Benjamin Franklin

“Hatred is so much easier than reconciliation; no sacrifices or compromises are required.” – Lawrence Wright[1]

An infinitesimal fraction of the world’s seven billion people – perhaps an infinitesimal fraction of our much smaller community itself – may have noticed a long hiatus between recent posts here on LOTRW. In part[2] this pause stemmed from a promise made in the LOTRW post of August 20: “the weightier matter of actually building consensus [is] to be discussed in the next post.” Simply put, it turned out to be a bit more difficult to distill a few thoughts on this than I’d anticipated.

Let’s review. “Speaking with one voice” is often promoted within the realm of political advocacy. The logic behind the idea is that if this or that community of interest or practice, comprising, say, public health professionals, or retired persons, or corn growers, or – closer to home, those providing Earth observations, science, and services – speaks with one voice, then political leaders at federal, state, and local levels will either be encouraged or (even better, say some) forced to listen. If instead such communities are less communal, if their members hold a diversity of contested views, then elected leaders feel free to ignore the resulting babble and take their attention and energies elsewhere.

So far, so good. The problem arises when the desire to speak with one voice prompts some to try a shortcut. They may either try to speak with a simple majority voice, ignoring any minority opinions extant. Alternatively, a small group may simply misrepresent themselves as “speaking on behalf of” or otherwise embodying the views of some larger constituency that is in fact internally conflicted or divided or has differing views.

Previous LOTRW posts have argued that to speak with one voice it helps to be of one accord, and that it’s also sometimes possible to identify previously existing but unsuspected accord. But truly building accord – getting from initial difference of opinion or even violent disagreement to true consensus – takes some work. To accomplish that work usually requires that all parties share some larger common value or goal, or destiny.

The older wisdom was clear. For instance, at the time of the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin motivated his disputatious hearers to reach agreement by reminding them they were all in it together – whether they succeeded or failed, they would share a common fate.

We can go back even further in time: the African proverb reminds us that the key to sustainability, a value that most 21st century thinkers would claim they hold dear, is to build, and then remain in, accord. And for the centuries during which divorce wasn’t really an option, couples would reach a range of accommodations[3].

In recent decades, however, the trend has been to factionalize, to polarize, to splinter. We see this in U.S. politics. In the recent Scottish independence referendum. In failed marriages. In media coverage of these issues and myriad more. Along the way, we’ve often found it expedient to justify such splits on the basis of principle rather than mere self-interest. In divorce courts, the grounds most often cited are “irreconcilable differences.” Lawrence Wright suggests similar logic underlies enduring Middle East problems. In like manner, we’ve elevated our debates over healthcare, jobs, education, foreign policy, the environment, and much more to this level, jettisoning any ambition of problem-solving in favor of self-righteous stands.

When it comes to living on the real world, we would do well to walk according to Franklin and the ancient African wisdom. Our individual destinies are inextricably intertwined with one another, whether with respect to wealth or poverty, good health or illness (yes, including Ebola), resilience to hazards or vulnerability, peace or war. When I see my interests as the same as your interests, and you see me in the same light, we’re one step down the road to building accord.

A closing thought – think of it as lying somewhere between a conjecture to be proved or disproved by events, and a conditional forecast:

If we make it our common goal to be more collaborative, more willing to accommodate, more in community with one another, we might become (1) more effective in our use of natural resources, (2) more resilient to hazards, and (3) better stewards of the environment as a collateral benefit.

But if instead we attempt to realize these three goals while remaining as contentious as we are today, we’ll likely fail on all fronts.

Just saying.

[1] From his new book, Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David.

[2] There were other contributors to this pause, including a succession of family matters and my own desire to reevaluate the goals and purposes of this blog before moving forward. Perhaps more about the latter in future posts.

[3] Full disclosure; I’m divorced and remarried myself, for more than 38 years now.

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Google Hangout tomorrow, September 18

Readers of this blog will be interested in the upcoming Google hangout on-air live webcast scheduled for Thursday, September 18 from 12:00-1:00 pm EDT. Entitled Overcoming Extreme Weather: Informing a Weather-Ready Nation, it brings together prominent government officials, academics, and social-media leaders from the weather community. A great chance to learn from the best about the emerging science, technological advances and social change that are creating new opportunities for reducing vulnerability to severe weather. A collaboration of the American Astronautical Society, the American Meteorological Society and Northrop Grumman.

Untitledlocation: www.northropgrumman.com/ExtremeWeather

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Speaking with one voice: identifying pre-existing accord

“Recent” LOTRW posts have dealt with our desire to “speak with one voice” as an Earth observations, science, and services community, however tightly or loosely defined. On July 29 (an eternity ago, as measured in blogosphere years!) we agreed on the starting point: to speak with one voice it’s first necessary to be of one mind[1].

Straightforward enough, on the face of it. But how do many thousands of people, distributed geographically and busily engaged in a wide range of separate pursuits ever discover that they (we, in this case) are of one mind? How might communities such as those in Earth observations, science, and services identify areas of agreement or accord?

Here’s one approach. Suppose, hypothetically, that the community in question, though largely self-organizing, and populated primarily by essentially independent actors, has some structure, such as that often associated with scientific and professional societies. Let’s suppose further that said society is a form of representative democracy… that is, it has a governing body, elected by the members and empowered to make a limited set of decisions on their behalf (as specified by agreements or a constitution of some kind). This smaller governing body, through its connections to the larger group, and through the insights its members have regarding the larger context in which the society or community operates, can readily identify issues, subjects, and topics that of concern to the fuller membership. Some may be essentially technical and of concern only to the members. Some may stem from a desire to build public awareness of scientific or technical advance. Some may be views or perspectives concerning larger societal issues that the professional society is uniquely qualified to offer by virtue of its niche of expertise.

The leaders could announce intent to develop a consensus statement, and invite interested members of their community to volunteer. The leaders could develop a draft writing team drawn from the self-identified volunteer/experts and perhaps the leadership itself. The governing body might then circulate the resulting draft, giving the entire membership an opportunity to comment. The writing team could then reconvene and make appropriate revisions. The revised draft could again be circulated, offering members a final chance to comment before putting the draft to final leadership edits and a vote. The resulting product could then be promulgated.

Something like this happens (please don’t hold me to the details!), for example, with the development of American Meteorological Society statements. Other societies have similar practices. In truly exceptional circumstances, other societies will even adopt another society’s statement verbatim. For example, for several years the American Geophysical Union was content to rely on the AMS statement on geo-engineering.

This process for identifying group consensus works reasonably well for most circumstances. It does suffer limitations. Here are three.

Labor intensive.Taking the AMS as an example, the process of identifying topics meriting statements requires a lot of thought and discussion among the leadership. Depending on the subject, the writing teams can spend many hours in drafting text, winnowing down the material to something short (usually less than 1000 words), identifying the salient points and the areas of agreement. Council and some fraction of the membership can spend considerable time individually and as a group in careful study of successive drafts.

Slow. At the AMS the gestation period for a statement is comparable to that for a human birth… about nine months. For many issues, this sloth-channeling pace may suffice, but for others it’s far too slow – positively glacial. This frustrates members and leadership, and leads to a continuing search for shortcuts. Generally speaking, shortcuts don’t identify consensus more quickly so much as they settle for something that only approximates consensus[2].

Works best for issues that matter least. In reality, the same charge can be leveled at the nine-month process itself. The AMS rediscovers this every time the statement touches on contentious matters, especially for statements that are not solely in some technical arena but instead bridge science and societal implications. Climate change comes to mind but is by no means the only topic that poses challenges. The statement process has built-in shortcomings that members willingly paper over on most, but not all, subjects.

Which brings us to the weightier matter of actually building consensus, to be discussed in the next post.

[1]no one wrote in to disagree, and as that post suggested, there should be no non-concurrence through silence…

[2]One popular shortcut involves pre-positioning statements on important topics (much as FEMA pre-positions emergency-response assets prior to hurricane landfall, so that help is able to move in quickly to the affected area). The Society writes letters to selected audiences on time-critical subjects that draw from the wording and conclusion of pre-existing relevant statements. You can find examples of these on the AMS website.


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Science is the Art of Approximation

Occasionally (all too rarely!), someone will offer a guest post for LOTRW publication. Below is a thoughtful and welcome contribution from John Plodinec, who’s posted here before.

Scientists may seek Truth, but Science is the Art of approximation. Just as artists use their media to represent the truths they see about the world, we scientists use our equations, models and case studies to represent the truth as it has been revealed to us. But in those dark weary hours in the dead of night, we acknowledge to ourselves that we have provided only a representation of reality, an approximation of a deeper truth. Our models and conclusions are like shells in which we hope to hear an echo of the great ocean beyond.

Just as artists are judged by how well they have captured and conveyed the beauty or the ugliness, the emotion and the feeling of the scenes they portray, so we scientists should be – and are – judged by how well we represent the reality we see. George Box, the Renaissance Man of statistics, famously said – “Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.” And this statement, I believe, reveals a prime criterion for judging how well a scientific model represents reality: its usefulness. As an example, look at how long it took for the elliptical model of planetary orbits to displace the older Ptolemaic system, which most now recognize as an inaccurate rendering of the Music of the Spheres. It was only when it was proven (applying Newton’s physics of gravitation to Tycho Brahe’s measurements and observations) that the elliptical model provided greater accuracy and predictive power (i.e., was more useful) that Ptolemaic epicycles were abandoned and eventually forgotten. Thus, the usefulness of a model depends on how accurately it predicts things that we are interested in, recognizing the uncertainties in what we see and measure.

What, then, should we make of claims that “The Science is settled,” or that “The consensus is clear,” in any domain? And, more importantly, what should we do if our models predict that bad things are going to happen?

To the first question I resoundingly reply that Science is never settled: we may – or may not – be satisfied with our models’ usefulness, but we must expect that more precise or different kinds of observations will eventually change our views on the usefulness of our models. Just as the experiments to confirm the Theory of Relativity demonstrated the limits of Newtonian physics, we can be certain that any model we find useful today will be at least modified and perhaps superseded by future scientific advances.

And what of Consensus? This is a much more difficult question because it is more multi-faceted. If we look at the world of Art, 150 years ago there was a clear consensus among the cognoscenti that the works of Manet, Monet, Renoir and other Impressionists were scandalous and did not conform to the standards required of true Art. It took decades for some of their works to be accepted as offering a new and useful way of looking at the world – one with greater light, more vibrant colors, more realistic scenes that echoed what each of us encounters in our daily lives. In other words, the consensus slowly changed and eventually reflected the belief that Impressionism provided a useful representation of our world.

If we apply this analogy to scientific models, we have to say that while consensus is important when it speaks to the utility of our models, it is also evanescent: today’s unthinkably radical representation of reality is tomorrow’s accepted truth; eventually to be displaced by something even more radical – and more useful. And a consensus about an assumption on which a model is based (e.g., that humans are affecting climate) says little about the usefulness of the model itself. Models must stand or fall based on their accuracy and predictive power.

The last question – what should we do if a model predicts something bad will happen – is the most difficult to answer, because it transcends the world of reality into the realm of values. And while I am relatively fearless in talking about science, I am not – quite – fool enough to venture anything but carefully into that minefield.

The preceding is not intended to drive opinions toward either of the antipodes of the climate debate, but rather to tone down the rhetoric. The lack of civility and the degree of intolerance demonstrate an unseemly – and unscientific – lack of appreciation of the Art of Approximation. We know much about our climate, but that knowledge seems dwarfed by the uncertainties inherent in that knowledge and the certainty that there is so much yet to learn. This, to me, inspires humility rather than the arrogant certainty that seems to abound.

John, I loved this piece. Many thanks for taking the thought to craft it, and for the spirit behind the thinking. It deserves reader comments, which I hope will be forthcoming. And I hope as well that others will accept my standing invitation to submit posts. A range of views are welcome.

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Want to speak with one voice? Then be of one accord.

“… the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” – Jesus[1]

“The thought is father to the deed. – American proverb

We meteorologists frequently find ourselves urged to speak with one voice. As the opening quotes remind us, unanimity is easy and natural on topics where we all agree. When we’re all already thinking along the same lines, our uncoordinated, spontaneous voices may not be a true monotone, but they’re harmonious and the common message is clear and easily discerned. Recent LOTRW posts have explored this.

With some considerable (over)simplification, the urging both from within and external to our community to go a step further rises in two primary contexts… risk communication (how will the public know how to respond to a weather hazard if warnings are contradictory?) and dealing with the Congress about budget support for (and extending perhaps to regulation of) Earth observations, science, and services (how will Congress give us the attention we need and the funding we deserve if our requests are all over the map, even conflicting?). Today’s post has some application on both aspects of coherent messaging, but is more focused on this latter, policy voice.

Some see this challenge as bordering on the merely technical. The views of the individual professionals and numerous institutions from government, companies, and universities who make up our community are diverse and contradictory. We need a process that allows us to identify the views of the majority and communicate that to the outside world as representing the views of our entire group.

We can find wisdom from three perspectives: the U.S. Constitution; Stephen Covey’s 1989 management classic, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People; and Perry M. Smith’s far more obscure management book from 1986, Taking Charge: a Practical Guide for Leaders (National Defense University Press), written primarily for the military.

The U.S. Constitution.

A little reflection quickly reveals that this challenge confronting the Earth/OSS community is not so different from that facing the Founding Fathers when they framed the Constitution: how to institute majority rule while at the same time respecting the rights of minorities? How large does the majority need to be? Two-thirds? Can it be as low as 51%? Or must it be as high as 90%? Remarkably, by means of much ongoing discussion, not just during the development of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, but extending across the time since, they created a process for working matters out that has worked well for over two centuries.

It’s possible to look at the Constitution and focus solely on the numbers. A simple majority of the electoral college determines the winner of presidential elections. A two thirds majority in each house of Congress is needed to override a presidential veto of legislation. And so on. But such myopia misses the broader point. For example, the work of Congress has always been about identifying areas of agreement and/or developing consensus, through extensive hearing-out of divergent views and working through differences. Congress has functioned best during those periods where this has been the primary goal. It tends toward the dysfunctional when members succumb to the temptation to take shortcuts just because they see they can meet numerical criteria. (You can best judge for yourself which phase of the cycle we’re in now.) As a community, we’ll similarly function best when we seek accord in preference to taking advantage of some slight majority.

Stephen Covey.

Stephen Covey reaches much the same conclusion in his long-term best-selling book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.[2] The premise of his book was that throughout history, success literature had promoted virtues and values, whereas such books published by his late 20th-century contemporaries tending to substitute manipulative techniques and shortcuts. He states specifically that “to try to change outward attitudes and behaviors does very little good in in the long run if we fail to examine the basic paradigms from which these attitudes and behaviors flow.”

Mr. Covey’s Habit 4 deals with interdependence/working with others: Think win-win.

Some excerpts, from the multiple chapters he devotes to this and related subjects:

Win/Win is a frame of mind and heart that constantly seeks mutual benefit in all human interactions. Win/Win means that agreements or solutions are mutually beneficial, mutually satisfying. With a Win/Win solution, all parties feel good about the decision and feel committed to the action plan. Win/Win sees life as a cooperative, not a competitive arena.

In fact, Mr. Covey argues persuasively for a higher expression of this idea: Win/Win or No Deal. He says:

When you have No Deal as an option in your mind, you feel liberated because you have no need to manipulate people, to push your own agenda, to drive for what you want. You can be open. You can really try to understand the deeper issues underlying the positions.

With No Deal as an option, you can honestly say, “I only want to go for Win/Win. I want to win, and I want you to win. I wouldn’t want to get my way and have you not feel good about it, because downstream it would eventually surface and create a withdrawal. On the other hand, I I don’t think you would feel good if you got your way and I gave in…”

As a community, we should aspire to identify and/or develop a true accord, and then, out of that accord, speak with one voice. We should be reluctant to accept shortcuts towards speaking with one voice, based on some numerical advantage in numbers, or some procedural fine print in some rulebook, even our own.

But there is an additional step. To speak with one voice requires that we build accord. But to build accord, we must first build trust.

Perry Smith.

Mr. Smith had this to say in Taking Charge (remember this is in a military context):

Leaders may wish to establish a “no non-concurrence through silence” rule. Subordinates who do not concur with the decisions being made in meetings and discussions must understand that they have a responsibility to speak up. By remaining silent in these discussions, they do the leader a grave disservice. A major part of subordinates’ duties is to speak out on issues, particularly when they disagree with either the context or the thrust of the conversation in which a decision is being made. The leader must create a decision making environment in which subordinates feel free to express concerns, raise new options, and disagree with the leader and others. Leaders must work hard to avoid “group-think” in which there is too much compatibility and consensus on issues is arrived at too quickly. False consensus, excessive conformity, and group-think are not in the interest of any large organization.

It’s difficult enough for leaders to build trust of the degree described even among direct subordinates. Far harder, absent any corresponding degree of control, for the individuals or institutions (universities, agencies, companies) comprising a professional society or NGO or more informal community to make the effort needed to develop such trust. It is tempting instead to keep disagreements private, and use back-door means of communicating those differences to each other and to outsiders. Such work of consensus development, the type also espoused in the 2003 NAS/NRC Fair Weather report, is easier said than done.

To speak with one voice, we need to be of one accord.


How, then, might communities such as those in Earth observations, science, and services, identify areas of agreement or accord? And how might our community go another step, and build both trust and new areas of consensus? Your thoughts and ideas are not simply welcomed but needed. In their absence, some strawman ideas, to stimulate thought and discussion, will be forthcoming in future posts.

[1] (Luke 6:45, NIV)

[2] For youthful readers who may not be familiar with this book, it is to business publications what Harry Potter has been in the world of fiction.

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Ken Crawford remembered.

“When you’re born, you cry and the world laughs. Live your life so that when you die, you laugh and the world cries”.—origin unknown

Norman, Oklahoma and the meteorological community has seen a second outpouring of grief in as many months, first with the death of Pete Lamb, and now with the passing of Ken Crawford yesterday:

ken crawford

Ken received more honors and recognition than can be cited here. He was elected an AMS Fellow in 1993 and awarded the Society’s Cleveland Abbe Award in 2002. The citation for that latter recognition read this way: “for nearly 40 years of visionary service as a forecaster, researcher, teacher, and mentor dedicated to building bridges between operational and research meteorology.” With a remarkable economy of words, this brief statement reflects the professional essence of the man, and yet it doesn’t begin to capture the way the vision, the mentorship, and the bridge-building played out in hundreds of lives. His death lit up social media last night; everyone who knew Ken wanted to share a special time. Three words, to add what’s already out there on the web (and more to come):


“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” – Jesus (Matthew 5:5)

Ask any pastor, and they’ll tell you, “Meekness is not weakness; meekness is power under control.” That was Ken. He had a unique power over all who knew him (see the second word, “salesman,” below). And yet he was the humblest, most mild-mannered man any of us will ever meet. His power came from a deeper source.


You might not think at first that this word fits with the other two, but it does. Here’s the backstory. It’s based on one example, but it illustrates a larger truth about Ken and his purposes. The example is what we know now as the Oklahoma Climatological Survey. From the website:

The Oklahoma Climatological Survey was established by the State Legislature in 1980 to provide climatological services to the people of Oklahoma. The Survey maintains an extensive array of climatological information, operates the Oklahoma Mesonet, and hosts a wide variety of educational outreach and scientific research projects.

In his years at Norman, and during his stays in Washington, DC and elsewhere, Ken was constantly promoting and selling the Survey in one way or another. Say “good morning” to Ken, and he’d reply, “speaking of the climate survey,” and the day would begin. The Survey has been an extraordinary success, and for years scientists based in the other 49 states have lined up to ask Ken how Oklahoma achieved this. Ken would reply that the starting point was a genuine service orientation; that line about providing services to the people of Oklahoma wasn’t just a nice-sounding slogan; it was a fundamental, shared value of everyone at OCS. He’d then talk about the importance of the surface mesonetwork to complement other observing systems and the importance of scientific integrity. The would-be imitators would then go back to their home states and for the most part flop. They failed to recognize that the secret sauce was not some abstract mission statement but rather Ken’s passion and the integrity of his service orientation. He’d go out and do personal evangelism, farmer by farmer, rancher by rancher, and state legislator by state legislator. And it was never about him. He would listen – truly listen – to their needs and make sure that they understood how they could contribute to and how they would benefit from OCS… and then he executed tirelessly and delivered on every promise.

:) A side note: To have Ken ask you for help was an amazing experience. In minutes, you’d be saying to yourself, “It’s not that I’m getting something out of this. It’s not that I’ll oblige Ken in order to get him out of my hair. If I do what he’s asking, I will be part of something truly ennobling and grand. But if I don’t or if I fail to follow through, I simply cannot live with myself as a human being. I will carry shame the rest of my life. ”


One of the most fascinating chapters in Ken’s career was his stint as deputy director of the Korean Meteorological Agency. South Korea is vulnerable to flooding, and after a particularly bad stretch of failing to prepare and warn their people adequately, the KMA came to the United States, trolling for candidates to go back and set KMA aright. Ken had some experience along those lines working with our own National Weather Service (another story!). To the credit of all parties, Ken volunteered, and KMA accepted. For several years he brought his trademark service-orientation to that culture. His digs were right across the street from a Korean megachurch (15,000 members? Maybe three times that many? Can’t remember the number) and Ken used to go there to worship. He couldn’t follow the details of the service but he knew he was in God’s presence. Ironic that he’d moved from the buckle of the US Bible belt, to the buckle of the world’s Bible belt, the Christian church in Asia.

Along those lines, it’s easy to imagine Ken saying to each of us something like this. “Don’t mourn for me. I’m in a better place. I’m sorry to have left you behind for a while, but I expect to be with each of you for eternity. Because it won’t be heaven for me unless you’re part of it.”

God bless, Ken. We’ll all be with you soon.

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