Scientists and society: the social contract redux.

Some months ago, the folks at AGU were kind enough to invite me to write an opinion for, reflecting on the social contract connecting scientists with the society we serve. The piece was posted Tuesday, having finally cleared a thorough vetting process that included peer review, followed by extensive editing and reformatting. Thanks to all concerned for that extra care and attention; the revisions made for a better product.

One idea expressed was that we would do well to move beyond the post-World-War-II policy of “curiosity-driven research.” We might do better to channel the 17th-century natural philosopher Francis Bacon, and “seek knowledge for the benefit of life,” in a spirit of selfless love (or, in his vernacular, “charity”).

Something like this is expected of adolescents as they make they way into adulthood. Case in point: a close colleague has a brilliant son who is now finishing college. The son has made a splash over the past few years putting together a computer-controlled sound-and-light show for his major university to mark the Christmas holidays. The event has been something to behold, been featured on YouTube, etc.. But few expect that son to make a career of this. Instead he’s more likely to work at the interface of biotechnology and engineering, building on his summer internships along these latter lines… and making the world not just a more entertaining place but a truly better one, for all of us, for decades to come (no pressure, young man!).

Science itself is making a similar shift as it matures. Looking back over the past four million years, we’d say that for virtually all that time, S&T has amounted to little more than a sideshow in human affairs. However, over the last two thousand years, and especially over the past century or so, S&T has begun to matter. It is today the proximate determinant of humanity’s prospects and fortunes. We look to scientists to make all manner of incremental additions to the store of knowledge and to apply such new understanding to improve our lives.

But we’re also earnestly hoping (or perhaps praying? or perhaps all-too-complacently trusting?) for far more, in two respects. First, we expect scientists to deliver a cornucopia of substantial – more properly, transcendent – global economic opportunities. Second, we count on them to identify existential threats to the planet and life on it from a long way off (whether in space or time, and defined as “in time to avert disaster”), and offer any needed coping strategies.

So far so good, so long as we don’t look too closely. Thanks to science, we’ve harnessed a range of energy sources; tamed electricity; extended life, and the quality of that life; replaced human physical limits and frailty with the power of machines; morphed our mobility, and through IT have generated a new virtual universe of information and started to mine its vast potential (as in the discovery of DNA and the mapping of the human genome). Turning to risk management: scientists toil away identifying new means for feeding and slaking the thirst of nine billion people while keeping them meaningfully occupied, and at the same time protecting the Earth’s habitats and ecosystems, and building resilience to hazards. We keep an eye peeled for asteroids. We monitor disease outbreaks.

This comprehension and a corresponding sense of urgency need to underpin every aspect of human endeavor. When it comes to risk management we can’t tolerate blind spots or laggard response. When it comes to opportunities we must seize the day. Everything hinges on the pace of innovation and its application.

But we don’t normally see this played out at the broadest level. Instead we see particular conversations on pieces of the puzzle. Here’s a recent example: what’s been identified as the battle brewing over NASA priorities. Julian Hattem reports it this way in the

“A battle of interplanetary proportions is brewing on Capitol Hill.

It’s not “Star Wars,” but partisan lines are quickly being drawn in a budget battle over the future of NASA, which could have a long-term impact on the space agency’s ability to explore the deepest corners of space as well as the ground beneath our feet.

On one side are Republicans who accuse the Obama administration of taking its eye off the ball by funneling too much money into research about the planet Earth, rather than focusing on distant worlds and stars.

On the other, Democrats argue that the administration’s plan is critical to harness the best of NASA’s talents, protect our planet and consistent with the agency’s wide-ranging mission…”

The disputants here seem to see space research as a zero-sum game, and “study of the Earth” as somehow distinct and in opposition to the “study of distant worlds and stars.” The reality is something different. Neither Earth science nor planetary science can progress in isolation. Earth is the only planet presenting us opportunity to “ground-truth” observations we make from space. Our work of our remote probes must be strongly rooted in constant, diligent experiment and study closer to home. In the same way, study of other planets provides our only chance to assess the robustness of geoscience. How else can we reduce the risk that our conceptual and computer models of our world only seem to work – that in reality they’re merely empirically tuned to mimic conditions here?

We urgently need to make progress across the whole of space science and technology.

To repeat: how successful will we be at “feeding and slaking the thirst of nine billion people while keeping them meaningfully occupied, and at the same time protecting the Earth’s habitats and ecosystems, and building resilience to hazards?” The answer lies in the pace of innovation and its application.

“Application” is the key bottleneck here.

For example, remember: global change is not a slow-onset problem. Global change is rapid-onset, compared with the time required for seven billion people to agree upon what to do about it.

With respect to all these matters, including our policies for support of observations from space, building weather-readiness at a community level worldwide, and much more, the question to be answered (trumping budget considerations and all else) is

“What must we do to learn what we need to know in time?”

Imbedded there is a question from social science, (although social science provides us so much more):

“How much time do we need?”

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Valentine’s Day reflection for Earth scientists

“Out of the heart, the mouth speaks.” – Jesus (Matthew 12:34)

“Love doesn’t erase the past, but it makes the future different.” – Gary Chapman[1]



Joel Achenbach has written an interesting piece you can find online at the Washington Post, entitled Why Science is so Hard to Believe. Worth reading! However, you may find you have already discovered for yourself many of the reasons Mr. Achenbach lists: much of science is counter-intuitive; a lot of science debates, whether on fluoridation or measles vaccines or climate change, really manifest tribal warfare; our brains are wired to operate emotionally as much as rationally; today’s internet allows us to adopt a cafeteria-style approach to science, finding support for whatever positions we choose a priori to believe; and more.

Valentine’s Day reminds us that something else might be at work. It just might be that as a class, scientists have a problem with love. We could be among the Valentine’s-Day-impaired.

You might think this off-base. Somehow, as individuals, scientists find ways to have lasting, loving, meaningful relationships. We get married. We parent children. We’re attached to significant others and partners much as everyone else. But in my case, and this may hold true for others, this is largely due to the patience and grace my wife, my family, and many friends have shown me for decades. This extended group has overlooked my faults and encouraged me by example and not by criticism to function better as a member of a true society than I would otherwise. You have been inclusive, and taken the initiative, and drawn me in. Despite my repeated provocations, you’ve never cast me aside or thrown me under the bus. (THANK you all!)

In return, we scientists have deliberately, and with glee, set up science as a largely love-free zone (with the possible exception of a few branches of psychology). We can’t write an equation for it, and measuring love has proved elusive, so we’ve left it out.

When it comes to the Navier-Stokes equations, or Newton’s laws, that’s exactly the right approach! But we carry it a step further. If our science happens to reveal our colleague’s science as deficient, so be it. No room for sensitivity there. He/she should have taken more care. If our science catalogs worldwide human failure, while failing to offer solutions, no need to pull any punches. Our work is done. Meeting these challenges is someone else’s problem. (But by the way, that failing, struggling world should keep paying us, and maybe even a bit more.) To top it all, as a class, though again perhaps not as individuals, we find the idea of a God, a God who is pure love, as a special irritant. With each new scientific advance, we’re fond of thinking, and sometimes making public, with a flourish… yet more proof that there’s no need for God. Therefore He doesn’t exist.

This love-free thinking carries over to our communication. The oceanographer Randy Olson in his book Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style points out we target our messages to people’s heads when we should be aiming for the heart and the gut.

As scientists, how can we learn to be more loving in our communication? Perhaps we could start with what the author and counselor Gary Chapman termed the five languages of love: gifts, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, and physical touch.

It might be tempting to dismiss these as playing no role in science, but remember: we’re talking about the communication of that science now. And fact is, we can point to success stories in how scientists have used these five languages of love over the years to build public and political support for science and scientists. Here’s a brief compilation of some of these best practices. With a little thought, you can quickly improve on this list:

Gifts. Science and innovation have been a source of material gifts since the beginning of time. Food for a hungry world. Water for every spigot. Electricity to every wall outlet. Medicines and therapies to improve health and extend life. Labor saving devices. Communications technologies to allow seven billion people to express their love more widely on Valentine’s Day. This has been science’s paramount language of love.

Acts of service. These come a close second. Science has provided many if not most of these gifts in the service of mankind… making life easier, more pleasant, more manageable, even more meaningful. The social scientists come especially to mind here. As the physical sciences and technology have advanced, social science has enriched our understanding of the resulting benefits, and how they’ve been distributed across social classes, their impacts on social equity, and much more.

Quality time. Through books, articles, talks, the Discovery Channel, and social media, scientists have created and spent quality time with the larger public, making science accessible to that public. And, fact is, time spent thinking about science and its benefits constitutes quality time.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Science and technology have created more opportunities all seven billion of us to enjoy quality time itself, and multiplied the ways such quality time can be used. They’ve provided insights into the nature of the universe and our place in it that enliven discussions of philosophy (and even the much-maligned idea of God). They’ve created new opportunities and arenas for artistic expression, adding richness to painting, sculpture, the performing arts and venues that don’t fall conveniently into these categories.

Words of affirmation. So far, science has been looking good! But this category and the next need work. Affirmation? Sometimes it seems we can’t be bothered. To start, we see little to affirm. We’ve been trained to look for shortcomings and we find them. Everywhere. Given such a reality, we feel that to affirm would be to lie, and there is no place for that in science. So we’ve become scolds, not just on climate change but also on the environment more broadly; obesity and other aspects of health and lifestyle; and more. Even the social scientists find themselves joining in. It may be one reason that political leaders find it difficult to support social science is that they find themselves favored targets of that science, whether on equity issues, matters of foreign policy, the state of the economy, etc.

We might do much better. Science could have evolved along different lines. We could have adopted the approach of improv theater and built science by supporting our predecessors and colleagues and building on what’s right about their work, however flawed, rather than focusing on the faults. We could seek to understand why leaders and the public behave as they do, and only then seek to be understood. This grace is the hallmark of all lovers.

Physical touch. You might think we can’t go there, but the fact is, we can. This is precisely what happens when scientists are embedded in the world of the practitioners: in electrical utilities, agribusiness, water resource agencies, emergency operations centers, teaching hospitals, etc. It’s what happens when social scientists engage in participatory action research, versus building firewalls between themselves and the people they study. In these settings, the differences between scientists and their practitioner-collaborators blur. The working relationships are especially close. Oh, and by the way, affirmation, not criticism, is the order of the day. This happens organically, from the grassroots, not because of any top-down prescription or mandate.

Two concluding thoughts. One negative: We’ll fail in our use of these languages of love if we pursue them as purely manipulative techniques. Jesus put voice to that truth we all know: you and I don’t take words at face value; instead we read each other’s hearts. One positive: While we can’t erase the past, we can make the future different. Let’s get on with it!

Happy Valentine’s Day! Much love to all.


[1] Author of The Five Languages of Love.

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SB=IA as a guide for US investments in science. Annotations.

Last week’s LOTRW post introduced a new “equation[1],” reproduced here:


A subsequent post will again pick up the thread of the main argument. This post is in the nature of an aside. It attempts (not entirely satisfactorily) to deal with a few pointy-headed loose ends regarding this statement before proceeding further.

For example, in the earlier post the terms of the equation could perhaps have been defined with a bit more care.  Innovation, as used here, refers to new knowledge, or idea, or method, or device[2]. Application refers to the act, or in the case of a society writ large, the many acts of putting that innovation into practice. The equation states that the societal benefit resulting from innovation doesn’t result from breakthrough alone but the application.

The proposition has already generated a bit of feedback – less than I’d like, and also less than appears in the form of comments to the blog; some has been communicated by direct e-mail, and some face-to-face.   Here’s an example. One person asked:

Am I correct that the “innovation” part involves a judgment of the value of the innovation?  That is, a weak innovation, even if applied widely has low benefit, such as the innovation of high-fructose corn syrup in food that reached high levels of application but was probably not a large benefit to society.  That would also imply that spectacularly good innovation, even if they have limited application, would “score” well, like finding a cure for a fatal disease even if it affects only a tiny fraction of the population and would therefore have very limited application.

Absolutely correct. To follow up a bit on this thread, there’s an underlying supposition here that it’s possible to assess an innovation’s “potential” in some sense. One interesting attempt along these lines: in 1970, Alvin Weinberg, then director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, gave several talks and wrote a paper on The Axiology[3] of Science; The American Scientist 58, pp 612-617[4]. Weinberg argued that

  • Pure is better than applied
  • General is better than particular
  • Search is better than codification, and
  • Paradigm breaking is better than spectroscopy.

He argued that these were so deeply ingrained in scientists’ prejudices as hardly imply a theory of value. Of special interest here is Weinberg’s suggestion (reflecting the sense of his time) that applied science was inherently less valuable than pure science, when viewed through the lens as science, rather than societal benefit.

It’s in this respect in particular that John Plodinec’s thoughtful comment seems very helpful. He suggests that in his management of science he tended to place his bets primarily on application. As John has in the past, he’s tended to anticipate where I’m going next. Specifically, I want to argue in favor of investing far more substantially in the “APPLICATION.” More in the next post. In the meantime, hopefully, other reactions, comments, questions will continue to come in.

Please hang in with me here. This is going someplace. I promise. :)


[1] Asking your indulgence… up to this point I’ve been careful to use quotations and explain that this is not a real equation, with carefully defined variables and expressing a rigorous mathematical relationship relating carefully defined variables. It would be convenient to drop the quotes going forward. In the same way it would be helpful to drop the subscript, remembering that the societal benefit referred to is always that contribution to societal benefit resulting from the innovation in question.

[2] Some definitions of “innovation” refer to the introduction of new knowledge, etc. In such a framing both the idea of “something new” and the notion of “application” are incorporated implicitly in the one word “innovation;” the two are deliberately separated here to make it possible to tease out and speak to their separate roles.

[3] “axiology” refers to the theory of value.

[4] Roger Pielke Jr. makes available an on-line encapsulation of Weinberg’s thinking here.

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U.S. “policy for science” … and a (possibly) new “equation” to focus minds.


Science policy analysts usually distinguish between “science for policy” and “policy for science.” The former denotes a unique role of science in informing policy on all aspects of the national agenda – national security, foreign affairs, the economy, public health, education, natural resources, hazards, environmental protection, and much more. The latter covers the national strategy for investments in science – not just the amount and allocation of funding across disciplines, but also the balance of funding for universities versus in-house federal laboratories, the emphasis on STEM education, etc.

World War II, and development of radar, the atomic bomb, rocketry and jet aircraft, and even penicillin put policy for science in the national spotlight. Since then, political, military, and corporate leaders as well as the broader American public have supported substantial, sustained federal investments in research. With some oversimplification, the funds have been widely distributed across the sciences. In general the basic premise or policy has been that scientists and researchers within each of the many disciplines were best positioned to judge research opportunities and research quality, and to allocate their apportioned funds most effectively.

Though U.S. funding for science has been broad, it has been uneven. Some of the roots for this are simply historical. Others reflect the reality that experimental science tends to be more expensive than theoretical work, or the field of mathematics; or that the requirements of physical sciences for laboratory equipment such as particle accelerators and mainframe computers exceed those for, say, social science, which are more labor-intensive. Some of the allocations reflect political opinion on the maturity or utility of certain branches of science relative to others.

Not surprisingly, policymakers have changed the apportionment of funds from time to time. For example, in the 1950’s the Cold War was on and the country invested heavily in particle/nuclear physics. Soon the space race would consume resources for similar reasons. In the 1990’s investment in the biological sciences and technologies accelerated. In general, these shifts in funding have been few in number, broad in nature, and enduring. As America has looked over its shoulder at the experience of other nations, it’s seen evidence that governments aren’t expert at judging winners and losers – that is, which fields of endeavor will yield the greater or quicker payoffs.

Over time, however, the costs of science have been rising. Increasingly, research falls into the category of “big science.[1]De facto, political leaders appear to have settled into a policy default that science funding should never amount to more than a certain percentage of GDP[2].  This has resulted in a squeeze on science. In turn it has encouraged some in the policy world to break ranks and propose stagnation or declines in funding allocations to certain fields in order to prolong growth in support for other science. A recent round of such proposals has put funding for geosciences and social sciences in the crosshairs. That in turn has prompted a search for counter-arguments from stakeholders in those fields. Such discussions are no doubt inevitable and are probably a good thing. However, given the polarized nature of today’s politics, the conversation runs the risk of making federal allocations for science a political battlefield rather than a non-partisan discussion.

The equation. A large part of the discussion centers around the idea of “innovation.” And that’s where my proposal for a new (?) “equation” comes in. The word “equation” is in quotes, because this is not a true equation such as f=ma, or e=mc2, with clearly defined physical parameters and precise mathematical relationships. Rather, it’s more in the spirit of the “equation” familiar from risk analysis that Risk=HazardxVulnerability. Here, risk, hazard, and vulnerability are not single, easily measured variables so much as they are conceptual ideas. And the equation itself is really more of a guide to thinking than a rigorous mathematical statement. It reminds us that the risk posed to society by floods or a K-T-like asteroid hit depends not just on our vulnerability (easily managed) to local floods and (the-end-of-life-as-we-know-it) vulnerability to the asteroid hit but also the frequency of that hazard: (everyday, somewhere) for the flood versus (every 50 million years or so?) for the asteroid strike.

With that preamble, then, consider this equation, offered in a similar spirit:


This equation reminds us that the societal benefit (economic growth; national security; public health and safety; environmental quality, and more) resulting from innovation (and hence denoted by the subscript i) depends critically on how extensively that innovation is applied –not just on the innovation per se[3]. Thus, the invention of the transistor, by itself, has arguably paid for all the science that has ever been done or ever will be done. But that is not just because of the invention as such. It is because of the extensive application of that invention across every field of human endeavor since[4].  It follows that if the goal of publicly supported science is societal benefit, we ought to give as much primacy to applying science as we give to advancing it.

This is where the geosciences and the social sciences come in. Both contribute substantially to innovation intrinsically. But they make at-least comparable, and arguably far larger, contributions to application, and hence to societal benefit[5]. In particular, they help us be as disciplined in our approach to application as we are to innovation itself. Our past attention to application has arguably been more happy-go-lucky. We see application as kind of miracle that follows effortlessly and inevitably from innovation, in the spirit of Sidney Harris’ famous cartoon.

More on the implications of this in a future post. In the meantime, better-educated and more-well-informed readers can tell me where they’ve seen this equation or something like it in economics or some other field.


[1] Look for an aside on the definition of “big” science in a future LOTRW post.

[2] Note that this is a choice. Instead of being resigned to limiting research funding to 2.7-2.8% of GDP, the U.S. might instead have opted (or could still opt) for raising that by as much as, say, a percent, and tested (or test) what difference that might make in GDP growth.

[3] Not to get too pointy-headed here; there is obviously societal benefit intrinsic to pure innovation and the joy it brings to the innovator or the innovator’s audience; but in cases of interest I’d argue that these benefits are dwarfed by larger societal benefits to much broader publics.

[4]That’s unsupported by data or peer-reviewed analysis, but prove me wrong. To appreciate the scale of this: there are something like 100 million transistors in every cellphone integrated circuit. Intel estimates that this year the number of transistors worldwide is 1.2 sextillion. That’s 1.2×1021 (or roughly 2×1011 – 200 billion – for each human on the planet).

[5]Numerical weather prediction didn’t break new ground in physics at the start. It took existing equations of motion for fluids and applied those equations to modeling the atmosphere. Not long after, however, the insights gained from that application generated innovation, creating a new field of physics: chaos theory.

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Is there an echo in here?

The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

 The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.” – 1 Kings 19: 11-18

the climate- and measles discussions show similarities

the climate- and measles discussions show similarities


Burnout on the job is commonplace today, even among those engaged in Earth observations, science, and services (despite the fact that such labor is clearly some of the more interesting and less onerous tasks daily facing a 4-billion-person workforce). It’s easy to think that burnout is something new, a 20th-21st-century invention, and forget that it happened to workers, and prophets, down through the ages. This Old Testament account documents one such case… the prophet Elijah.

Take the trouble to read the text[1] prior to the excerpt above, and you’ll find that Elijah is coming off the pinnacle of his career. Years earlier, he’d forecast a severe drought – a forecast which verified(!). But the forecast and the manner in which he’d made it inspired the anger of the power structure of the time (sound familiar?) and he’d been forced into hiding for the duration. After years of running from Israel’s king in the desert, Elijah resurfaced, confronted hundreds of the king’s hired naysayers, and with the help of the larger Israeli public, slew them all. And with that, the years of the drought come to a dramatic end.

You’d think Elijah would have been on a high. But instead burnout and depression sank in, and he fled, seeking shelter in a cave. That’s when he and God (think of God as Elijah’s boss/employer) had the conversation above. Elijah’s boss goes easy on him. Essentially God says, “I see you’re hurting, Elijah. Tell you what, you’ve done a good job, let’s wrap up a few things and name your successor. Elisha would be good. But oh, by the way, you were never alone the way you thought. You had plenty of company. Thousands of ‘em.”

Two comparisons with today:

First, to hang out with climate scientists is to realize that here is a group that feels put upon, perhaps uniquely so, much as Elijah did. The forecast of global warming and its likely consequences, and the way we’ve made it have brought not praise but opprobrium. And the way we’ve reacted to that has brought more disapproval still. We look at other branches of science with wistful envy. We ask ourselves: Why didn’t we go into nanotechnology? Or IT? Or robotics? Or fast food? Or almost anything else?

But in recent days, if we take the trouble to look over our shoulders, we see the same raging debate about – wait for it – measles inoculations. I vividly remember the days I spent in bed with measles at the age of five. My parents told me later, and then throughout my life, that the closest I ever came to dying was back then, and how worried they’d been. Measles would compromise my health throughout the rest of my childhood. The same happened to thousands, millions, of other kids. So when the vaccine came along in the 60’s it was naturally and widely celebrated. But read the newspapers today, or follow the broadcast and social media coverage, and you’ll see the climate change argument replicated down to the smallest detail. (Hint to climate scientists: take everything you’ve ever written about climate change and substitute a few words like “measles,” “vaccination,” “uncertainty,” “unintended consequences” in the right places and you can double your list of publications… all before going home tonight.)

Oh, and let’s be clear here. The generalized lesson for you and me to learn is not that “all scientists are put upon.” Fact is, the feeling that we are uniquely misunderstood and alone is nigh on universal. Every one of us — whether husband or wife, parent or child, lawyer or ditchdigger, clerk or CEO — tends to see life this way, at least in the darker moments of the soul.

Here’s the second comparison, more particular to Washington DC. Our city is populated by about 500,000 people who were told by mom and dad to “go and make the world a better place.” Each day we slave at it. But instead of reminding ourselves that we’re part of a 500,000-person support group, we think we’re the only ones… just like that prophet Elijah.

And just as wrong-headed. So today (and tomorrow, and in the days after that) try this: every time you write an e-mail, or pick up the phone to take or make a call, or post on Facebook, or engage in conversation, instead of mistakenly seeing that interaction as combat, or struggle, recognize it for what it is – a celebration of what it means to be alive and a player in the 21st century. And help the person or persons at the other end of that dialog to the same realization.

That’s what mom and dad sent you into the world to do.

[1] The full story is found in 1Kings Chapters 17-19.

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Climate Change? Anthropologists weigh in.

LOTRW readers may remember earlier posts referring to a four-volume report on Human Choice and Climate Change, Springer (1998) edited by Steve Rayner and Elizabeth Malone, with particular emphasis on their ten suggestions for policymakers.

Here’s another welcome addition to the discussion from social scientists, this newly-released from the American Anthropological Association (AAA), entitled “Changing the Atmosphere. Anthropology and Climate Change.” The report offers an anthropological perspective on the causes and consequences of climate change, and suggests further avenues of anthropological study[1]. The AAA has also published a brief policy statement, provided here in its entirety:

“Climate change creates global threats that affect all aspects of human life, including our health, homes, livelihoods, and cultures, as well as our physical environment. Threats of this magnitude affect our stability—our sense of cultural identity, our well-being, and our security. As the discipline most clearly devoted to the human condition over time and space, anthropology offers important insights that can help create workable solutions to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

We put forth the following eight points for understanding the impacts of climate change from an anthropological perspective:

  1. Climate change is a present reality that alters our physical environment and impacts human cultures around the globe. Climate change is not a crisis of the distant future or a myth. It affects us now, at home and abroad.
  2. Climate change intensifies underlying problems—poverty and economic disparities, food and water security, and armed conflict—heightening these issues to the point of widespread crisis. Anthropologists predict climate change will accelerate migration, destabilize communities and nations, and exacerbate the spread of infectious diseases.
  3. We can expect to see widespread impacts on communities as they face dislocation and pressure to migrate. Climate change will challenge peoples’ cultures and beliefs as their sense of safety and daily habits are undermined by an increasingly unpredictable relationship with their environment. People in both developed and developing countries will feel the pressures. Those who have directly depended on natural resources for centuries—in high latitude/altitude areas, low-lying island nations, coastal environments, and other biomes— will have their lives most disrupted.
  4. While climate change affects all of Earth’s inhabitants, the impacts will fall unevenly and with particular weight on those already affected by existing vulnerabilities, including children, the elderly, those who live with handicaps and restrictive health conditions, and those who do not have sufficient means to move or change their lives. The most vulnerable will be uprooted or forced to move. As climate impacts intensify, public expenditures needed for emergency aid and restoration will escalate.
  5. Specific human actions and choices drive climate change by emphasizing fossil fuel as the primary energy source, creating a culture of consumerism, and favoring land use practices that undermine ecological resilience. Anthropologists recognize that humanity’s actions and cultures are now the most important causes of the dramatic environmental changes seen in the last 100 years. We consider this period the Anthropocene.
  6. The archaeological record reveals diverse human adaptations and innovations to climate stresses occurring over millennia, providing evidence that is relevant to contemporary human experience. The archaeological record shows that diversity and flexibility increase resilience to stress in complex adaptive systems, and that successful adaptations incorporate principles of sustainability.
  7. Climate change is a global problem with local and regional impacts that require local and regional solutions. Successful adaptation to climate change varies by locale even within regions experiencing similar environmental pressures. Thus, it is important for there to be community involvement in crafting, determining, and adopting measures for adaptation, not solely global and national governance and plans.
  8. Focusing solely on reducing carbon emissions will not be sufficient to address climate change—that approach will not address the systemic causes. Climate change is rooted in social institutions and cultural habits. Real solutions will require knowledge and insight from the social sciences and humanities, not only from the natural sciences. Climate change is not a natural problem, it is a human problem.”

Much food for thought here.

The anthropological take shares much in common with the earlier Rayner and Malone suggestions, particularly the emphasis on (1) seeing the climate-change challenge as more than a question of emissions reductions, and (2) the need for place-based, local and regional approaches.


[1] The report was largely the work of a AAA task force: Shirley Fiske, Susan Crate, Carole Crumley, Kathy Galvin, Heather Lazrus, George Luber, Lisa Lucero, Tony Oliver-Smith, Ben Orlove, Sarah Strauss, and Rick Wilk

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WxGeeks. A serious voice in a vital national conversation.

WxGeeks. The name for this weekly offering of The Weather Channel has a lighthearted, slangy feel, but don’t be fooled. The conversation is pure gravitas.


To see this, it helps to review a little history. Time was, more than half a century ago, the country had only three national television networks instead of several hundred. Back then, every Sunday morning, the country and the television industry would shift attention from entertainment to serious matters. The same families that huddled around the set during the week to watch I Love Lucy or Howdy Doody or Leave it to Beaver or Friday night boxing would tune in early Sunday morning for religious programming. Then, immediately following, they’d watch CBS’ Face the Nation or NBC’s Meet the Press, or ABC’s Issues and Answers. There the American public would find moderators and small panels of reporters interviewing prominent figures from the world of politics or business on important issues and events of the day. The shows weren’t slanted toward a conservative or liberal bias; instead they were middle-of-the-road. By virtue of their selection of topics, guests, and conversational, unscripted formats, they built public awareness of challenges and opportunities facing the United States. At the same time, and this was largely an unintended consequence, they contributed to building consensus on how to move forward, and at an even deeper level, forged American values[1].

Today, all that has changed. Cable and the internet now bring hundreds of channels into every home. This technical revolution has fragmented U.S. viewership, and fostered niche markets playing to diverse audiences and a wide range of particular views. The social implications are proving profound. The experience to date suggests the richer variety of today’s offerings is dividing us into multiple communities as much as it is building any unity. However, the benefits to airing and celebrating America’s full diversity are incalculable.

One such benefit? Against the backdrop of these powerful social and technological trends, The Weather Channel appears to be breaking new ground with its new Sunday noontime talk show, WxGeeks.  All of us would do well to pay attention to what’s unfolding. At the start, WxGeeks (perhaps in an attempt to lower expectations) seemed to promise a show primarily for weather professionals and weather aficionados. It  looked to focus on the backstory behind the advance of meteorological science (writ broadly: encompassing climatology, oceanography, space weather, hydrology, environmental issues, and much more), and the development of forecasts, warnings, and other services. As such, it’s been a welcome addition to the network’s fuller complement of forecasts and stories based on the experience of weather, particularly in extreme events.

But in more recent weeks, it seems the show’s ambitions and reach have grown. Increasingly it’s tackling the connection between Earth observations, science, and services, and national and even global concerns. In so doing, it’s carving out a unique space. By treating issues that matter to the entire American public, WxGeeks is putting itself on the same level as those legacy Sunday morning programs on the broadcast networks. But it’s focusing on a single but major slice of that national agenda – water and atmospheric resources, and their link to food and energy production; hazards and their threat to public safety, business continuity, and even national security; and environmental protection. The guests on the program are of truly national, even international standing: The President’s science advisor, John Holdren. The eminent British primatologist, ethologist, and anthropologist Jane Goodall. Former astronaut and current NOAA Administrator Kathy Sullivan. Former Oceanographer of the Navy, Admiral David Titley (Ret.).

Consider the February 1 program, for example. It brought together FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, NOAA NWS Director Louis Uccellini, and NBC/NYC Channel 4 Chief Meteorologist Janice Huff to discuss the forecasts and emergency response to last week’s nor’easter that paralyzed Boston and Long Island, but spared (relatively speaking) the heart of New York City. The discussion provided a nice tutorial of the difficulties in making hazardous weather forecasts, the need to mobilize emergency response based on forecasts, rather than waiting for snow on the ground, and the role of the private sector in communicating such risks to the public. The conversation was refreshingly thoughtful, nuanced.

The policies the United States adopts with respect to challenges such as these, the investments we make in what NOAA Administrator Sullivan refers to as environmental intelligence, and our stance in sharing what we learn and know in with other nations, will shape our place in the world throughout the remainder of the century. If The Weather Channel can keep a high-level focus on issues that matter, and continue to bring in guests of comparable stature and quality over the coming months – then the network will bring much-needed national attention to these subjects. If this can be sustained not just for months, but for years, then it will transform America’s prospects every bit as much as, say, President Theodore Roosevelt did when he instituted our system of National Parks.

A closing reflection: through a mix of luck and brilliant insight, The Weather Channel hit on Marshall Shepherd as the host for WxGeeks. A first-rate researcher, gifted communicator, who asks thoughtful questions rather than baiting his guests, Dr. Shepherd has already been compared with Neil deGrasse Tyson; soon he may be compared with the likes of Bob Schieffer or Tim Russert.

To all involved, keep it up! Please.


[1] Something similar of course was available from PBS during the same era.

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Want to reduce weather hype, weather blame? Then build weather resilience.

The term “news cycle” connotes coverage of an event, followed by reporting on reactions to the earlier reports by prominent figures and the general public. With the advent of cable, the proliferation of channels, and internet alternatives to broadcast and print media, the process has both accelerated and intensified.

Here in the United States, coverage of weather hazards has not been immune. And it seems that the news cycle in these cases – hurricanes and winter storms especially, but also tornadoes, floods, drought, etc. – boils down to this: Hype. Blame. Repeat.


We’re just coming out of the latest instance: the nor-easter that pounded New England earlier in the week. Much of the area is shoveling out from under 2-3 feet of snow, dealing with the aftermath of storm surge that battered coastal areas, restoring power to darkened neighborhoods, attempting to reboot the air-rail-roadway transportation infrastructure, and loosening emergency restrictions placed on the public at the start of the storm.

Hype. News coverage in the run-up to the storm was breathless, non-stop, and ubiquitous. National, regional, and local media were all over the story. Reporters interviewed everyone at federal, state, and local levels of government as well as private-sector leaders who would bear any responsibility for the weather forecast or for the emergency response.

To many in the general public, the intense coverage may have come as a relief. In the days prior, an equal amount of hype surrounded another low-air-pressure event: the New England Patriots and Deflate-Gate. Surely an actual storm, threatening a big fraction of America’s population, was a better claim on our attention than the tempest-in-a-pigskin that had preoccupied us earlier.

But to many others, the hype was noxious. Here’s an excerpt from a typical media response, posted by Nick Gillespie on Time.Com (you can find the full piece here):

“So there was no Great Blizzard of 2015, or Snowmageddon, or anything more than a routine dumping of white stuff in mid-winter over a godforsaken region of the country that people are already leaving in droves.

 The predictions for a Northeastern snow and ice storm of biblical proportions — if the Bible had snow, that is — just didn’t happen. Apart from a few Twitter jokes, what lessons should we draw from this latest media-driven anticlimax?

At the top of the list: Can we shut up about weather for a while, especially weather that is totally in keeping with the seasons in which it’s taking place? It’s only 2015, but it seems like we get storms of the century about every three to six months. Our parents famously walked three miles (uphill both ways, mind you) in sub-zero and scorching temperatures in shoes made of detergent-box cardboard while also mining coal and smoking unfiltered cigarettes by the carton. And here we are, snug in our all-wheel-drive vehicles and Gore-Tex weather wear, demanding work and school be canceled on a 40% likelihood of snow flurries…”

Blame. Of, course, since the event, media attention has been apportioned between the storm’s aftermath in New England and the finger-pointing and a few mea culpas in New York and points south (you can find just a few samples and the smallest handful of links to a much larger universe of stories here). Some of the attention focused on local political leaders. A contribution from Frank Bruni (We Dodged Icy Doom. Let’s Gripe), published in Wednesday’s New York Times, was more forgiving than most. Here are extended excerpts:

“You can’t be a Monday morning quarterback on something like the weather,” Bill de Blasio said right after the snow.

Oh really? On Tuesday morning we hurled second guesses and grievances the way Tom Brady tosses an inadequately inflated football.

By “we” I mean not just us New Yorkers, who were promised the icy end of the world and then forced to make do with something less dramatic, but also all of those who gazed upon the city, state and region and gleefully joined a chorus of instant complaint.

We grilled de Blasio, wondering if he might be using an emergency — and his role as responder in chief — to shake off that nastiness with the police and turn the page.

We put Andrew Cuomo on the hot seat, noting that as long as he was gasping at the possibility of a record-breaking blizzard, he didn’t have to deal with the actuality of jaw-dropping corruption on his watch.

And we marveled that Chris Christie was even present in New Jersey. He spent months gallivanting around the country collecting i.o.u.s for a presidential campaign, then thundered home just in time to close roads and prophesy disaster? What a storm queen.

That’s one perspective, and a sizable share of the cynicism is warranted. These guys are showboats who always preen and play the angles. It’s called getting elected.

But before we reflexively shovel too much censure on them, let’s get a few things straight.

None of them hallucinated those forecasts of two feet (or more) of snow, nor did they cherry-pick apocalyptic ones. Meteorologists and broadcasters aplenty tripped over their adjectives to describe the frigid horrors in wait for residents of the northeastern United States.

Our politicians heard what we heard, and the same tidings that had us picking grocery-store shelves clean and standing in epic checkout lines had them cordoning off bridges and tunnels. Everyone braced for the worst, which is a whole lot smarter than hoping for the best…

…And it was indeed a bad storm. In New England, people did get several feet of snow. They also got that much in areas of Long Island that aren’t all that far from the New York City border, as the mayor noted at his news conference on Tuesday…

…imagine if all the snow predicted had arrived and scores of motorists were stranded. We’d be asking those nannies why they’d abandoned us, and we’d be looking for their replacements.”

However, much if not most of the criticism was directed at weather forecasters and the National Weather Service. This discussion has largely centered around presentation of uncertainty. For its part, and much to its credit, the NWS at national and local levels and to varying degrees of formality has issued mea culpas.

Hype. Blame. Repeat? Do you and I hate this cycle? Do we want to get off the hamster wheel? Then we need to pay more attention to root causes. Investing more in Earth observations , computing power, and social-science massaging of the forecasts and warnings is cost beneficial and will help. But these measures by themselves are not enough. The core problem is America’s chronic, pervasive weather vulnerability.

To see this, put your focus for the moment not on weather extremes, but on “a perfect weather day.” Not too hot, not too cold. A bit of rain (if needed), but otherwise sunshine and fair-weather clouds. Not much there for the broadcast meteorologist or the political leader/policymaker to work with, is there? Hard to say much more than “it’s a great day. Get out there and enjoy it.”

When we build weather resilience – when through land use and building codes and attention to the continuity of critical infrastructure such as roadways and the electrical grid and water supply, etc. we reduce the ways nature can hurt us – we expand the range of what constitutes “a great day.” When as a nation we’re truly prepared, everywhere, for whatever nature may throw our way, then forecasters, emergency managers, political leaders, the media, and the general public don’t need to over-warn or over-react as a safety measure.

That resilient circumstance is where hype and blame go to die.

The National Weather Service can’t achieve this Utopian ideal alone. Resilience to weather extremes and other hazards requires national priority as well as balanced attention at the grassroots, local level. It can be accomplished only community by community. That’s why the NWS has started a program by the name of Weather-Ready Nation and it is inviting all of us to join in.

Let’s accept that proffered hand.

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Schumpeter’s gale.


A victim of Schumpeter’s Gale…                                     …and the man himself

Named tropical storms have been with us for decades; Andrew, Katrina, Sandy and other names are today not familiar only to meteorologists; they’re part of the public vocabulary. Starting in 2011, The Weather Channel began naming winter storms, although this practice has so far proved more controversial.

Which brings us to Schumpeter’s gale, a decades-long-enduring, but ever-coming storm that ought to focus the minds of meteorologists – and, for that matter, Earth scientists, and indeed earth scientists and academics of every stripe.

Schumpeter’s gale is actually better known to economists than meteorologists, and even in the social sciences and public discourse is better known by its other, generic name: creative destruction. Here’s an excerpt from the Wikipedia link, which gives the idea:

Creative destruction (German: schöpferische Zerstörung), sometimes known as Schumpeter’s gale, is a term in economics which has since the 1950s become most readily identified with the Austrian American economist Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of economic innovation and business cycle.

Creative destruction describes the “process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.”

Economists would describe the collapse of former industrial giants such as Kodak and Xerox and the rise of Microsoft and Google, the outsourcing of call centers, cellphone manufacture, and many other jobs overseas, the rise of Fed Ex and other carriers to challenge the U.S. Postal Service, and much more as examples of creative destruction.

The concept originated in the work of Marxist economists, who considered such processes a necessary, and extremely negative, end result of capitalism. Here’s more from Wikipedia:

The German Marxist sociologist Werner Sombart has been credited with the first use of these terms in his work Krieg und Kapitalismus (“War and Capitalism”, 1913). In the earlier work of Marx, however, the idea of creative destruction or annihilation (German: Vernichtung) implies not only that capitalism destroys and reconfigures previous economic orders, but also that it must ceaselessly devalue existing wealth (whether through war, dereliction, or regular and periodic economic crises) in order to clear the ground for the creation of new wealth.

In Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942), Joseph Schumpeter developed the concept out of a careful reading of Marx’s thought (to which the whole of Part I of the book is devoted), arguing (in Part II) that the creative-destructive forces unleashed by capitalism would eventually lead to its demise as a system.

Today, mainstream economists tend to see this oppositely: as a necessary but positive aspect of innovation, and as a strong positive, not just for market economies, but for societies as a whole.

It’s tempting to see creative destruction as belonging to another realm. However, much as U.S. hurricanes wreak havoc on Caribbean nations prior to their arrival on U.S. shore, the track of creative destruction is headed for our science-based and academic community. Here are a few signs (you can easily come up with your list of better examples.

Crowdsourcing science. Historically, perhaps the cheapest way to accomplish science and invention is to offer prizes. In the 1950’s when I was growing up, my father, a research mathematician, used to hold up the example of the invention of the tin can. Napoleon, he said, needed a means of preserving food for his army. He offered a prize. The can was the result. Years earlier, the British government had offered a prize for a practical means to determine longitude; John Harrison’s chronometer ultimately claimed the award. Even then my father claimed that offering such prizes might be a much cheaper, faster way of accomplishing scientific research, and that scientists might once again struggle to support themselves, much as they had during the 1800’s.

Crowdsourcing science is now on offer in our field. Here’s an example, which we’ll introduce by telling a Joe Fletcher story (yesterday’s LOTRW post mentioned Joe in a different context) that gives you an insight into the man and his thought process. Joe was telling me in the 1980’s how he had launched the so-called international Comprehensive Ocean-Atmosphere Data Set (COADS) project, which offers gridded 10x10 marine data going back to 1800. The core task involved digitizing records from ship logs of the period. Joe first sought funds (the order of $500K) for doing this in-house in NOAA from the then-director of the NOAA Environmental Research Labs, George Ludwig. George refused, saying it was too expensive. “So”, Joe told me, “I realized that I needed to have this done somewhere in the world where scientific standards were high but labor costs were low.” He made a personal three-week trip to China, but relations between the United States and China were strained during those Cold War years. He then tried India, where he gained a welcome reception. He approached Robert White, the NOAA Administrator of NOAA at the time, for funds. Bob growled, according to Joe, that “there was nothing in it of advantage to India.” “So,” Joe said, “I went back to Boulder for a few weeks, then revisited Bob, showing him what was in it for the Indians.”

Today, Joe could have saved himself trouble and effort by going to Zooniverse. A major player in the crowdsourcing arena, Zooniverse acts as a needed middleman for such efforts. Click here and you’ll see opportunities to digitize ship data or analyze patterns in old hurricane storm imagery.

(Here’s a link to one of thousands of online posts on crowdsourcing science. Of special interest is Michael Nielsen’s TEDx lecture linked there, which gives a great success story, the Polymath Project, but discusses why crowdsourcing has been slow to take hold in science more broadly. )

Uber for experiments. This recent article in The Economist discusses innovative ways and means being explored to make major experimental facilities available for hire, much as Uber has provided a means for individuals needing a lift with nearby individual drivers willing to take them to their destination. Here’s an extended excerpt:

Most research equipment is under-used. Once it has been budgeted for, grant proposals written or fee schedules set to cover its purchase, kit costing millions of dollars can sit idle for most of the working day. This inefficiency troubled Elizabeth Iorns, a biologist from New Zealand. So she came up with the idea of a marketplace where laboratories could rent out their machines to conduct experiments for others.

Dr Iorns started Science Exchange in 2011 when working as an assistant professor at the University of Miami. She was backed by Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley firm that helps startups, and she now serves as the exchange’s chief executive.

Laboratories that carry out contract research have existed for a long time. But Science Exchange is exploring a new frontier, that of the shared economy, in which the best-known examples are Uber, an app-based ride-sharing and taxi service, and Airbnb, which helps people rent out rooms. The idea is that the marketmaker shaves away the awkward bits relating to contractual, ad hoc relationships, often between parties who do not know each other, to create something fungible or nearly so.

Dr Iorns is clear that certain laboratories are demonstrably better at some things than others. Her firm takes out contracts with some of the leading ones, including facilities at Johns Hopkins University, the Mayo Clinic and Harvard Medical School. It then provides ratings, reviews and other feedback, coupled with vetting, so that users can choose laboratories that can provide what they require and then compare pricing.

MOOC’s. More generally, the unsustainable rise in the cost of higher education is prompting exploration of alternatives, such as Massively Open Online Courses or MOOC’s. And when U.S. leaders start suggesting that the first two years of college should be free, as President Obama did the other night in his State of the Union address, you may be skeptical of the particulars and the political realities. But you can be equally sure that public pressures will force creative destruction of some kind.

Public-private partnerships in the provision of weather services. The weather community is currently in a great discussion of how weather information should be gathered and made available for both public and private benefit. Recent NAS/NRC reports – e.g., Fair Weather: Effective Partnership in Weather and Climate Services, and Weather Services to the Nation: Becoming Second to None – have articulated some of the issues and opportunities.

Schumpeter’s Gale is coming.

The Navier-Stokes equations are silent on this unfolding future. If you think the communication of weather impacts and risk could stand improvement, ask yourself how communication of Schumpeter’s gale and its implications for the environmental intelligence community (and our society as a whole) is going. And consider this: creative destruction here, as elsewhere, is inevitable and ongoing. It confers risks for those clinging to the past, but offers enormous benefits for those who embrace and even shape it.

So please, the N-S equations not withstanding, don’t you remain silent! Join in the discussions already underway on these matters, and where appropriate initiate side conversations of your own.

Remember… in today’s world, people aren’t satisfied with leaders who can ride out the storm. They expect their leaders to make the weather.

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Craig McLean selected as Assistant Administrator for NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research.

“If you want to move a barge, and you kick it – you’ll just hurt your foot. But if you lean against it, pretty soon it has to move your way.” – Joseph O. Fletcher


Joe Fletcher, former NOAA OAR Assistant Administrator, would certainly have cheered yesterday’s appointment of Craig N. McLean as his latest successor in that important role. Joe was former Air Force. He flew B24’s[1] in World War II, landed on the North Pole by plane in the 1950’s and accomplished much more. He’d have approved of Craig’s nearly-25-years of duty in the NOAA Commissioned Officer’s Corps, the smallest of the Nation’s seven uniformed services. He’d have been interested in Craig’s founding of NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration, and impressed by his service across several NOAA Line Offices in different roles in succeeding years. He’d cheer Craig’s background in marine resource law and management.

Joe would have especially admired Craig’s leadership of OAR for more than one extended stint in an acting capacity. No stranger to such interim roles himself, Joe knew better than most that to hold such positions in an “acting” status was in many ways more difficult than being the permanent incumbent. Adding all this up, he’d have seen in Craig someone adept at “leaning against the barge” of a bureaucracy such as a federal agency or a major corporation and getting things done.

As NOAA Assistant Administrator for OAR, Craig McLean will bear responsibility for guiding innovation and integration across NOAA’s research enterprise. A key element will be his ability to work with his peers – the other NOAA AA’s and their respective service line components – and with NOAA Administrator Sullivan, Chief Scientist Rick Spinrad and others in the NOAA front office. One major dimension currently focusing the minds of this leadership: R2O – seeing that scientific advance is harnessed to benefit and serve society.

Congratulations both to Craig McLean and NOAA on this appointment – and continuing best wishes.


[1] The same stubborn, nearly uncontrollable bombers described by Laura Hillenbrand in her magnificent book Unbroken (about the life of World War II hero Louis Zamperini, and recently made into a movie by Angelina Jolie).

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