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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Think the AMS doesn’t speak with one voice?

Then check out this remarkable visual created by Dr. Joanna Boehnert (a visiting fellow at CIRES) and posted on her Ecolabs blog:


Here’s how Dr. Boehnert describes the graphic: The poster illustrates relationships between prominent actors and major organizations participating in climate communication. These include: science institutions, media organizations, think tanks, government departments, non-governmental organization (NGOs) and individuals – along with some of the more significant funders. Actors are situated within four discursive realms: climate science; counter-movements (contrarianism); ecological modernization (often neoliberalism); and social movements (climate justice). These four discourses are mapped on a framework wherein actors are colour-coded according to where they are situated. In this first version the colour, the size of the circles and their positions are all speculative. Subsequent versions will use different methods for plotting the actors and linking the nodes.

Looking for the AMS? It’s the (rather small, and focused) dark grey circle just a tad above dead center in the “climate science” discursive realm. Her website’s original visual provides a magnifying cursor that will help you explore.

Those inside the AMS 13,000+ member community might say, “Wait a minute! I know my fellow AMS members, and they’re scattered all over the diagram, from Naomi Klein to Jim Hansen to Sarah Palin to Al Gore (all represented as dots on the figure).” But Jodi Boehnert’s diagram captures much of how the outside world sees our institution; and that external, much-broader and more diverse public sees us as more narrow-spectrum than we might see ourselves.

The graphic is thought-provoking and merits reflection and study. You’ll find other great visuals on communication of climate and environmental issues on her blog. Their creator tells us these depictions are works in progress; you might want to give her some feedback and encouragement.

Dr. Boehnert is early career. The forecast? We can expect great things from her in the years ahead.

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In memory of James Garner, why not consider a Maverick approach to DC-advocacy?


  1. Southwestern U.S. an unbranded calf, cow, or steer, especially an unbranded calf that is separated from its mother.

2. a. a lone dissenter, as an intellectual, an artist, or a politician, who takes an independent stand apart from his or her associates: a modern-dance maverick. Synonyms: nonconformist, individualist; free thinker; loner, lone wolf.

b. a person pursuing rebellious, even potentially disruptive, policies or ideas: You can’t muzzle a maverick. Synonyms: rebel, cowboy; loose cannon.


James Garner, a well-known and widely respected actor, died July 19 at the age of 86. He starred in many roles but got his big break in the role as Bret Maverick on the popular TV series by the same name. Some background, from Wikipedia, for younger readers who might not be familiar with this history:

“Maverick is an American Western television series with comedic overtones created by Roy Huggins. The show ran from September 22, 1957 to July 8, 1962 on ABC and stars James Garner as Bret Maverick, an adroitly articulate cardsharp. Eight episodes into the first season, he was joined by Jack Kelly as his brother Bart, and from that point on, Garner and Kelly alternated leads from week to week, sometimes teaming up for the occasional two-brother episode. The Mavericks were poker players from Texas who traveled all over the American Old West and on Mississippi riverboats, constantly getting into and out of life-threatening trouble of one sort or another, usually involving money, women, or both. They would typically find themselves weighing a financial windfall against a moral dilemma. More often than not, their consciences trumped their wallets since both Mavericks were intensely ethical.”

At the time the Maverick debuted, westerns were the most popular genre on television. Maverick stood in sharp contrast to most of the westerns of the time. In other TV series, gunplay was the preferred method of conflict resolution. Bret Maverick, and in time his brother Bart, were both as the “maverick” moniker implies, “loners… pursuing potentially disruptive ideas or policies.” Generally outnumbered and in the minority, they were reluctant gunfighters, preferring any and all other methods of reaching accommodation with their fellow man (and woman).

A bias favoring confrontation and conflict? That calls to mind politics in today’s Washington, on every subject from foreign policy to jobs to immigration to education. It’s not entirely dissimilar even for scientific disputes, and, closer to home, dustups over meteorological topics ranging from climate change to water resource management to air quality and more. Gunplay is not involved, but the atmosphere is just about that toxic. Meteorologists (who, historically as individuals or a class have not demonstrated any particular combat readiness) are constantly invited to enter the noisy fray.

An approach based on raised voices is unlikely to work well for meteorologists. The numbers tell the story. The American Meteorological Society can claim some 13,000 members; the American Geophysical Union, perhaps 60,000. Together both societies hold net assets totaling about $50M. By contrast, AARP membership is 1,000,000 – in the state of Virginia alone. Total membership is 37M million. And these senior-citizen members vote. AARP has $3B in the bank. Small wonder that when it comes to advocacy and lobbying, AARP and other similarly-large pressure groups favor contests to see who can yell the loudest.

The AMS and other scientific and professional societies might therefore do well to adopt the amiable, meaning-no-one-any-harm Maverick brothers approach. That doesn’t mean being a pushover. It doesn’t mean failure to act in self-preservation. But it does mean a posture of good will, and full use of intellect, not in an attempt to be sly, but rather to be conciliatory, and from that foundation build collaboration and partnership. And it does mean swearing off belligerence.

Professional societies following this approach may initially be seen as mavericks in the sense of the word’s western roots. But the original TV series quickly won over audiences by being different in this way. Turned out the audiences didn’t want unceasing gunplay; they wanted adult entertainment. And Maverick thus spawned a lot of imitators. Meteorological advocacy, played out this way, might prove similarly successful, and might become widely imitated… making for a better world.


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Off to a good start… The Weather Channel and its host Marshall Shepherd launched their new Sunday noontime series, WXGeeks, yesterday, amidst a fair amount of fanfare, generating considerable media interest (see, e.g., the Eric Holthaus piece in Slate).

The show lived up to the high expectations! It moved along at a good pace, and was able to remain both substantive and conversational – no mean feat in today’s media, which is necessarily fairly scripted. Viewers hoping to get a feel for issues related to storm chasing – the science stakes, the personal risks, and the thrill offered by that combination – were not disappointed. Chuck Doswell was a great choice for a guest to unpack these issues. Hosts and guest also nicely opened up a discussion of the challenge implicit in folding responsibility into the science-risk-thrill mix. What’s more, they found time to discuss the “science” behind proposals to build 300-m-high walls across vast stretches of the central United States to reduce tornado risk, identify a WXGeek-of-the-week (might have that title wrong!), and maintain weather-on-the-eights.

A forecast: what’s going to keep this programming interesting over the long haul (months/years) will be the breadth of host Marshall Shepherd’s scientific interests and expertise, his personal and professional integrity, and his positive energy and enthusiasm. Many of us were raised from childhood with sci-fi/adventure storybook heroes such as Tom Swift. In whatever he turned his hand to, young Tom Swift prospered.  Marshall Shepherd is as close as we come in real life to such a person. In this WXGeeks context, he seemed totally at ease, as if he’d been in the role for months.

Next week: guest Jason Samenow and a look at social media.

An issue to be (re?)visited sometime down the road… As shows such as WXGeeks mature, they have opportunity every year or so to revisit topics of universal appeal such as storm chasing, and dig deeper with respect to some of the particulars. Consider, for example, the issue of responsibility. On air, this was largely framed as a matter of reducing risky behavior and thereby maintaining meteorology’s good name. Storm chasers, if not careful, can themselves create a need for emergency response.

But lurking behind this concern is a larger one; storm chasers, particularly in large numbers, can interfere with emergency response in support of the larger public. So far, this concern is largely anecdotal (e.g., thoughts from this weather-ready Oklahoma cab driver-cum- emergency responder back in December of 2011), but it’s likely to grow with time. Science is one thing, but there’s something unsettling about tourists high-fiving each other at a tornado sighting while people nearby are losing their lives, their homes, and their livelihoods. In an interdependent society, there may be a limit to allowing such traffic to clog roads in ways that interfere, however slightly, with emergency responders on call. Youtube video (this clip, or something like it, was shown on air yesterday) gives a feel for the numbers of people who can be storm-chasing near a big event, in this case the El Reno tornado.

Fast-forward in your mind to a future in which most cars are Google cars or some equivalent; that is, robotic/computer controlled. Will these cars, which presumably will not simply incorporate the positions and actions of the nearest few cars but also build larger situational awareness of traffic and weather conditions into their decision making, allow you to chase tornadoes? In such a future, regulation and licensing of tornado-chasing will almost surely follow and grow increasingly stringent. (And, for that matter, what options the car designs and the law will allow owner-operators with respect to evacuation in the face of a tornado threat is equally problematic.)

As these hypotheticals become reality, we can anticipate that WXGeeks (and perhaps imitators) will be there.

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Flocking behavior: implications for communicating with one voice

How important is it for meteorologists to “communicate with one voice?” What does that phrase mean in the context of our community? And if communicating with one voice is desirable, how might we go about it? A July 17 LOTRW post opened up that discussion, by suggesting that the idea of a single voice might be slightly relaxed. Instead of insisting on a foghorn monotone, the meteorological community might aim for something analogous to so-called ensemble forecasting or the harmony implicit in music with multiple instruments and voices.


Before proceeding further, here’s an additional analogy supporting the same idea: the swarming behavior of insects, schools of fish, and birds. Few sights are more beautiful. Those attempting to model swarming behavior on computers have found they can simulate the observed behavior by requiring that the individuals in the flock or swarm operate on three simple rules:

Separation – avoid crowding neighbors (short range repulsion)

Alignment – steer towards average heading of neighbors

Cohesion – steer towards average position of neighbors (long range attraction)

Perhaps something similar goes on when members of a group try to develop a collective voice:

Separation. Birds in flight want to avoid mid-air collisions. In the same way, members of any community continue to maintain a certain degree of individuality. Companies, universities, and public-sector agencies at every level of government all have a branding or identity that they want to protect within any form of collective voice. Each has a distinctive character/niche/special edge that is the basis for its value proposition, its raison d’etre, relative to others in its sector, and relative to the community writ large. Some government agencies are regulatory; others more research oriented. Some aerospace companies would prefer to sell hardware; others might prefer to sell data and/or information. University departments and schools showcase different strengths tied to location or historical precedent. Uniformity has its limits.

Alignment. Just as birds in flocks match speeds and flight direction locally, members of a community find themselves propelled by external circumstances and internal motivations in roughly the same direction. They share common interests and joint goals. In the case of meteorology, for example, we want to better serve a weather-sensitive public (safety in the face of hazards for society as a whole, and segment-by-segment help for agribusiness, energy, transportation, and water resource management sectors). Toward that end we share common need for public and/or government support for meteorological observations, science, and other infrastructure. We also need K-12 schooling that provides both a general ability among the population to use meteorological information, and an educational foundation for the smaller group wishing to pursue meteorology and its applications as a profession. We’ll find ourselves naturally giving voice to these common concerns.

Cohesion. In flocks, no single bird ever remains in charge; instead all are flying in a general way that maintains the flock. Outliers risk being picked off by predators or court other problems. In the same way, individual meteorologists, firms, agencies, and universities find it in their best interests to be aware of what others in the community are thinking, saying, deciding, and doing. As a rule, they don’t stray too far from that set of central set of ideals that comprise the discipline. This behavior is not imposed from some top-down command and control. The members of the group, whether bird or meteorologist, are largely self-policing. It’s to their advantage to be viewed as team players (as well as competitors, in that marvelous ambiguity of natural selection) unless the incentives for breaking rank are compelling.

This latter qualifier matters. Innovation happens. It just doesn’t lead to isolation so much as a new direction for the entire community (flock)… and a change in the community voice reflecting that new reality.

To an outside viewer, a flock of birds has a clear identity. It’s clear who’s out and who’s in. That’s not so obvious with the meteorologists, or any other professional group. Meteorologists and their institutions belong to multiple, diverse communities. This shows in their goals, their thought processes, and their communication.

That draws us back to the first feature of cohesion. No single bird is in charge. To draw an analogy, the function of a professional society such as the AMS may be less to serve as a voice for that community and more as a way (one of several) to identify that group… and provide a venue for discussion and debate. When we see birds flock, we also hear their cries. While it’s clear as they call or sing out that they belong to the same species, these voices aren’t necessarily reflecting unanimity. Their actions are speaking louder than their words.

The same is probably true for meteorologists who aspire to speak in one voice.

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Grandmother of the Year.

Here’s how you get nominated for Grandmother of the Year, in my book. On Thursday, a sunny, uncharacteristically cool and dry summer’s day in DC (reflecting, we’re told, at least by some, the magic of the “polar vortex”), you don’t just take the grandsons to the zoo, or the swimming pool, or the Mall, or out for burgers and milkshakes. Too ordinary. Too ho-hum. Instead, you head them out to (drumroll, wait for it…) the Fairfax County landfill down in Lorton, Virginia.


There you have them meet a guide for the two-hour tour you’ve arranged specifically for them.


The boys see where waste of different types is captured: “white goods,”

discarded automobile tires,
IMG_20140717_105416_001construction debris (in hundred-foot-high hills)
IMG_20140718_140141and bagged waste, each headed for a different fate (and different still from recyclables, which are taken to other sites).

The boys visit the Fairfax County energy-from-waste facility where automated, remotely-controlled robots claw whole loads of trash from an unending line of trucks, feeding an incinerator with an insatiable appetite (3000 tons every 24 hours).


Some background:

The I-95 Energy/Resource Recovery Facility, operating as Covanta Fairfax, Inc., began commercial operation in June 1990. It is Covanta’s largest facility, processing more than 3,000 tons per day of municipal solid waste for a population of more than 900,000 in the Washington, D.C. suburbs of Fairfax County, Virginia. The facility sells over 80 megawatts of renewable energy to Dominion Virginia Power Company, enough energy to meet the needs of over 80,000 homes. It is the first Covanta facility to have a non-ferrous metal recovery system.

The boys see where millions of pounds of ash from the incinerator are dumped daily and capped with a very-low-density polyethylene (VLDPE) liner.


Meanwhile, over the two hours, the guide recounts the history,


going back to the time that the landfill and the Lorton prison co-existed on the site, where methane buildup began to permeate the correctional facility until December 3, 1984 when someone lit a match triggering an explosion. A repeat event occurred on December 6, three days later, killing one inmate and injuring another.

If you’re Grammy, you follow that by going with the boys out to the surrounding landfills… grass-covered mounds more than 150-feet high (and extending down another 60 feet) dating back to the 1960’s and 1970’s, where enough methane is being captured to meet the electrical-power requirements of another 6000 families (the February 2006 issue of GeoTimes provides a nice discussion of this). And you take a picture:


showing the three of you, and catching sight of one of the pipes drawing out the methane from the field, with the incinerator/power generation facility in the background, which you e-mail to the old man.

THAT’s what I’m talking about! An LOTRW moment: resource needs (20% of the power needed for homes in Fairfax County) and environmental protection (700-fold reduction in waste volume and 7-fold reduction in waste weight) accomplished simultaneously. Public education: a younger generation gaining a bit better feel for the scale and complexity of the waste disposal issue. Against a backdrop of manmade and natural extreme events, such as the explosions and the disruption occasioned by heavy rainfalls such as the three inches of rain on the site that preceded our recent drop in temperature.

My wife… definitely grandmother of the year.

And those two boys, smiling for the entire two hours and not just for the photo? Candidates for grandsons of the year… despite stiff competition from the two in Colorado.


A shout-out to Fairfax County and to Wayne Blake-Hedges, environmental specialist/engineering there, for their good work over the years, and for guiding everyone around and taking the fullest measure of a teachable moment.

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Speak with one voice? Or vive la différence?

The meteorological community occasionally wrings its hands at “our failure to speak with one voice.”

It would really be interesting to hear your (likely differing) voices on this topic! In hopes of stimulating such a discussion, here’s a perspective to focus minds, or (should you prefer a grittier metaphor) to serve as a target. Please join the discussion/post a comment.

Concerns about reaching consensus are as old as meteorology itself, but have mounted as the topic of conversation has turned from meteorology per se to related issues of weather impacts on society, the contributions of science to policy, and the national policy for science (including but by no means limited to federal R&D budgets). Talk of a need for consensus has grown particularly poignant since the release of the NAS/NRC Fair Weather Report of 2003. The report, a singular milestone for our community, suggested, inter alia:

“Recommendation 3. The NWS and relevant academic, state, and private organizations should seek a neutral host, such as the American Meteorological Society, to provide a periodic dedicated venue for the weather enterprise as a whole to discuss issues related to the public-private partnership.”

Meteorologists and the AMS have taken that particular recommendation to heart. Just one example, but a singular one: ever since then, they’ve held an annual Summer Community Meeting . [A brief infomercial: This year’s meeting is scheduled for State College, Pennsylvania August 11-13. Every topic is on the table, and it’s not too late for you join in! Just click on the link to check out the agenda, register, and then you too can play a part.] The meetings have been valuable, and increasingly so over the years. Today they’re just the tip of the iceberg of a growing web of communication and collaboration that now goes on between meetings. The joint is jumping.

Note that the NAS/NRC stopped short of recommending that the meteorological community speak with a single voice. Even back then, they recognized the community was probably too diverse for that… that what we needed most was opportunity and means to discuss our differences internally. Community members hold divergent views on climate change; on risk communication; on journal purviews; on big-versus-small meetings and conferences; on whether the government should buy observing hardware or purchase data streams. We can find reason to hold spirited exchanges on virtually any topic.

That said, on many occasions and with respect to a number of subjects, it’s valuable and important to be able have a process for closing ranks (or conclude that such closure is either unnecessary or unattainable). This may be particularly true when we’re not dialoging among ourselves, but rather with the larger public. Consider questions such as the following: why are forecasts sometimes different from provider to provider? What are our priorities for observations? For research? For services? How can we foster public safety in the face of weather hazards? What do we need from STEM education? What do we know about geoengineering? When discussing these matters with close colleagues, it’s well and good to be exploratory, to surface conjecture, to identify and debate views, etc. As the discussion expands to take in a wider range of publics, those newcomers to the conversation may find these distinctions confusing or off-putting.

So the question is, how controlled should our message be? Where should it lie on a scale with the Tower of Babel (as depicted here by Pieter Breugel the Elder):


at one extreme


and a foghorn monotone at the other?

Here are two examples – one from the world of meteorology, and one from the world of music – that might stimulate thought:

Spaghetti charts. (LOTRW has blogged on this before). Weather forecasters construct such spaghetti charts or diagrams (aptly named) by juxtaposing different numerical forecasts… in this instance, for the track of hurricane Sandy back in October of 2012.

sandy spaghetti

The ensemble of such tracks may be derived from a single numerical weather prediction model by introducing a small bit of noise into the initial conditions or by compiling results from independent numerical models. The charts either look well-defined or present a hodge-podge depending upon the sensitivity of the forecast to the initial conditions or model assumptions. In the current figure, it’s easy to see a consensus that Sandy would turn inland somewhere around New Jersey, but several runs showed the hurricane moving instead out to sea.

By analogy, when people ask different members of our community about specific issues or topics, and encounter a range of responses, they can surmise there’s considerable uncertainty or difference of opinion. If instead they find the responses to be relatively similar, that suggests community consensus. Responses that are generally similar with the exception of a clear outlier or two don’t destroy the notion of consensus so much as they make a statement or offer insights about the people or institutions proffering the wildly different views. This picture suggests that our community might reasonably be relaxed when individual members exercising considerable variation in their views on just about any topic.

Harmony. Imagine trying to perform Handel’s Messiah in a single voice. Which would you choose? The bass part? Tenor? Alto? Soprano? The result would be the palest shadow of a magnificent piece of music. What matters as much as any single voice is the harmony of the whole – how it all fits together. When meteorologists offer diverse positions on any topic, but it’s evident to the hearers that the community is in general accord, or singing from the same score (substitute your own choice of metaphor here), then it’s easy and natural to grasp both the core essentials of the message and the nuance.

In conclusion, then, perhaps we ought to see communication – even communication of risk in the face of hazards, where the historic emphasis has been placed on strict discipline – as ensembles (spaghetti charts), or harmony-laced musical scores, rather than narrowly monotonic messages. By the way, with today’s ubiquitous social networking most publics are more accustomed to and comfortable with getting their messages in this mode. They/we live and function in an information soup… and it’s a wonderfully thick and nutritious information soup… versus the thin (information) gruel my generation was raised on.

The key ingredient to the information soup, the secret sauce, is harmony. When others hear our separate messages and experience harmony, they can accommodate a range of views. They’ll linger. They’ll pitch in. But if they look at our community and find discord, invective, backbiting, or condemnation, then they’ll look for an excuse to walk (or run) away.

Going back to that music analogy, jazz might be an even better example than classical music. Musicians have little more than a card reminding them they’re playing A Train, not Basin Street Blues. No two performances are ever the same. And if jazz is too complicated, let’s go back to something you likely remember from childhood, and I remember from parenting young children: Sesame Street’s High, Middle, Low.

Worth a listen… and like most Sesame Street wisdom, worth taking to heart, whether child or grownup. You might give it two minutes, let it take you back… :)


[Note: I hope – but sadly can’t promise! – to explore this topic further in subsequent posts. Next up would be a look at an example where the AMS does speak with one voice now: our statements.]

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