Critical thinking versus criticism thinking

Critical thinking: the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.


Google the expression critical thinking, and this definition pops up. Of course it’s accompanied by a rich set of other entries on the subject. From Wikipedia we find material like the following:

Critical thinking is the analysis of facts to form a judgement. The subject is complex, and several different definitions exist, which generally include the rational, skeptical, unbiased analysis, or evaluation of factual evidence. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem-solving abilities as well as a commitment to overcome native egocentrism and sociocentrism.

Scientists (and I am one) tend to hold critical thinking in high regard; often it’s tied to ideas of evidence-based thinking, systematic study through observation and experiment; occasionally notions of logic and mathematical analysis get thrown in. Scientists are encouraged to be the severest critics of their own work, and the peer-review process is essentially one that begins and ends with critique. It happens to be Peer Review Week (who knew?); you can find a bit more on this topic on the AMS blog, The Front Page.

But to read the newspaper (old school), as I did this morning on the Metro, or to go online and access social media, is to realize that the term has been misappropriated. The larger society frequently settles on something else.  For want of a better description, let’s call it

Criticism thinking:  the objective analysis and evaluation of a person in order to form a judgment.

As a society, as a species, we seem to be equally interested, if not much more interested, in fixing blame as we are in fixing problems. It seems that sooner or later, anyone and everyone who’s in the spotlight, who holds any sort or degree of responsibility, finds his or her decisions and actions first under intense scrutiny, and then as the shortcomings emerge (and they’ll always emerge), being criticized. Not long after, the focus of criticism becomes the character flaws of the person himself or herself. We’re not satisfied until we can bring the political or business leader, the athlete, the celebrity, the wealthy, down to our level. And we all fall short! So ad hominem attacks are low-hanging fruit.

Institutions are similarly vulnerable.

In meteorology, Hurricane Dorian is the most recent case in point. As of this morning, the death toll stands at 50 or so; more than 1000 people are still missing. Abaco islands and Grand Bahama look as if they’ve been hit by a bomb. Recovery will take years – a lifetime for many of those directly affected. But there’s just as much ink (old school again) or electrons (virtual media) devoted to fixing the blame (for hiccups in what was basically an excellent forecast/warning process) as opposed to attention to the larger and more consequential issues of weather readiness: what actions could accelerate short- and long-term recovery; how to improve resilience, reduce vulnerability, especially on tropical island nations; how to address the links between vulnerability and poverty, etc.?

But Dorian’s only one example of many. We face many other natural hazards: cycles of flood and drought, for example. We also confront natural resource concerns: meeting the food, water, and energy needs of eight billion people. Loss of habitat, biodiversity, and ecosystem services challenge us globally – by their respective names as well as the umbrella concern of climate change. In every instance, people are putting forward ideas – notional solutions. But we’re paying more than equal attention to finding fault – initially with the proposals themselves, but then quickly with the proposers whose suggestion different from our own. The poisonous polarization of the climate change dialog comes to mind. By the way, to think critically is to acknowledge that scientists display this same character trait pretty much to the same degree as the larger society.

Perhaps this misappropriation arises in part because of an Achilles heel in the above definition of critical thinking. It’s couched in terms of “an issue,” remaining silent on whether that issue matters. Perhaps critical thinking ought to read something more like

Critical thinking: the identification of salient issues, and their objective analysis and evaluation in order to form a judgment.

When it comes to misappropriation, it helps to know that science and scientists and other critical thinkers are not alone. Other terms, such as religion, have been hijacked in the same way. We’re quick to see the shortcomings of people who self-identify as people of this or that faith (they don’t practice what they preach), rather than examining the larger ideals and values that are on offer.

Diiferent faith traditions actually recognize this aspect of human nature early on. Take, for example, the Judeo-Christian story of the Garden of Eden, as found in the book of Genesis. We’re told that Adam and Eve, the first human beings, made a choice for the ages, one that still pretty accurately defines what it means to be human:

We’d rather be able to distinguish good and evil than live forever[1].

(Wow. Really? Let that sink in.)

Whether we think the account was divinely inspired or a purely human invention, we have to admit the authors had our basic character pegged.

Too bad Adam and Eve didn’t first stumble across the tree-of-the-knowledge-of-status-quo-and-how-we-can-work-together-to-improve-things. Fortunately, nothing’s stopping us from doing that today. To the extent possible, let’s forget about the blame and fix the problems – together.


[1]Genesis 2:16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

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AMS at 100: core values for tomorrow.

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” – Robert Frost

An earlier LOTRW post called attention to an updated set of strategic goals and core values the American Meteorological Society has promulgated in observance of its 100th year. That same LOTRW post hinted at a planned deeper dive.

That was July 11th.

It’s now two months later[1]. In the interim, Hurricane Dorian, the NOAA predictions, and related White House actions have provided us a stress test of those AMS core values and strategic goals.

Let’s have a look. Here are the

AMS CORE VALUES

  • We value the integrity of science and the scientific process.
  • We believe that a diverse, inclusive, and respectful community is essential for our science.
  • We believe that decisions affecting society should be made in a transparent, evidence-based manner.
  • We are committed to excellence, relevance, and agility in all our activities.

Unassailable. Timeless.

But perhaps too tidy to always be of material help for those of us living on the real world, which is constantly evolving, at times to the point of being dynamic, turbulent, even chaotic.

For example, formulations like this tend to frame the values as distinct and separable. This might be approximately true in circumstances where the weather is calm or benign, and where society is stable. People in positions both high and low have the time, energy, and margin to more-or-less think and behave in conformity to each core value. Good behavior can be sought, and improved upon, in isolation. Progress in one respect doesn’t lead to problems in another. Scientists of a certain stripe might call such a regime linear.

But extremes – hurricanes, tornadoes, flood and drought – are by nature nonlinear, integrative events. In these weather circumstances the constraints and guiding principles embodied in the core values can no longer be separated in some tidy fashion. They start to run together, and sometimes exaggerate, sometimes interfere with each other. Similarly, the world’s societies themselves are by no means stable. Eight billion people rubbing shoulders lead not just to bruises but bruised feelings, to irritation that can grow into distrust and lead into exploitation and disenfranchisement (and ultimately even into hate, terrorism, and war). And natural hazards further aggravate these pre-existing problems.

Dorian provides a recent and poignant illustration. As the hurricane approached first the Bahamas, and then the U.S. coast, all of these core values were tested, perhaps even thrown out the window. What’s more, Dorian revealed that past performance with respect to the core values hadn’t been nearly adequate. Those on Abaco or Grand Bahama were forcefully reminded of a history of ramshackle construction and the ratcheting build-up of inequity and vulnerability over years that had suddenly found them exposed to injury, suffering, economic loss, and even death. As for the Weather Enterprise, those in NOAA who’d done such a great job of forecasting the storm track and guiding national and international emergency response discovered their vulnerability to political attack, not originating from somewhere in the external world, but from the White House itself.

The experience raises questions, and it hints at deeper truths.

The questions. Are the AMS core values self-consistent when times are turbulent? Compare, for example, values of agility and relevance with transparency. Is today’s rapid pace and extent of events at hurricane landfall compatible with transparency? Just how transparent can decisions and actions be under such circumstances?

Do these values merely express our expectations of our AMS community (or tribe, or the Weather Enterprise) and how we engage with each other internally? Or do they refer to our expectations of how we expect to engage with and want the larger world to work? Since the values speak of relevance and decisions affecting society, the meaning tends toward the latter interpretation. But the larger society is a vast arena where we have little control and can only hope to offer leadership by example. And though our community is itself growing more diverse, it’s nowhere near so diverse as the outside world with its mix of different cultures and backgrounds. That larger society includes many members who’d say if asked that they don’t hold much truck with what our community calls scientific integrity or evidence-based process. And yet we value respect. As a practical matter, what does it mean to respect people holding those views?  

 The deeper truths. These questions (and countless others; we’re only scratching the surface here) quickly point us to a deeper set of core values. Expressions of these would vary (after all, we’re diverse and inclusive), but would include notions such as:

  • Love.
  • Forgiveness/mercy/grace.
  • Trust.
  • Commitment to each other and relationship.

Considered in the abstract, these might seem to many minds as far too fuzzy and abstract. Contemplated during the real world’s beguiling but sporadic linear moments, they might be viewed as so vague as to be useless. But in light of Dorian, the way it’s forever changed the lives and prospects of those in its path, and the resulting political and media storm here in the United States, their vital meaning becomes clear. Consider this joint community message from the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association:

September 12, 2019

The past few days have been unprecedented for the weather community. As much as we dedicate our professions to societal resilience, this week we have proven our own resilience. We come out of this past week with one wonderful piece of evidence: we in the weather community are a tightly knit group whose camaraderie transcends the boundaries of a standard professional group. We have studied, trained and worked together for more years of our lives than not. We have shared life events together and been by each other’s side through weddings, births, and losing loved ones. We have a shared interest, passion, and mission to help save lives and understand this remarkable natural phenomenon of weather. We have a shared pride in our work because we know we are making a difference and we do it with honor and integrity. So it’s no surprise that this past week has been an emotional one for everyone. From the top ranks to the bottom, we all feel pain when this community is hurt. In many ways, we are a true professional family and that relationship was tested this week. Yet we prevailed. Issues will come and go but the dedication of this group is long lasting; the dedication to both our profession and each other. It has been heartwarming to see the sincerity, respect, and forgiveness that many in our community have shown and it proves we are, indeed, resilient and have a long future ahead together. -American Meteorological Society and the National Weather Association.

A clear expression of love, forgiveness, trust, and commitment to relationship. Needed in these times. Well and truly said.


[1] Lesson learned: In the future, instead of promising or even hinting in a given LOTRW post that in the next post or sometime soon I’ll revisit a topic or theme – I’ll just waterboard myself, or lie in a bed of scorpions, or ask readers to inflict their preferred forms of torture. No matter how copious or obvious the raw material looks for future posts, no sooner do I commit, than any shred of insight vanishes; every bit of enthusiasm flees, every last vestige of the joy of writing is sucked out of me. I experience the dreaded writer’s block .

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Scientific Integrity? Simple and easy – until it isn’t.

This morning’s print edition of the Washington Post ran an op-ed authored by some former NOAA leaders who know their stuff – Jane Lubchenco, D. James Baker, and Kathryn D. Sullivan. The three joined forces to inveigh against political interference with weather forecasters. You can find the full on-line version here. They open this way:

Monday brought the welcome news that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration career leaders are pushing back against political interference with weather forecasts. Craig McLean, the acting chief scientist , is investigating the agency’s apparent attempts to defend President Trump’s inaccurate statements about the danger to Alabama from Hurricane Dorian. And another career civil servant, National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini, publicly defended the “integrity of the forecasting process.”

Weather forecasting should never be political. The National Weather Service, an agency within NOAA, issues forecasts and warnings that are based on science and focused squarely on public safety. For more than a century, the agency has played a vital role in protecting the lives and property of Americans across the country

They go on to describe the recent breach in this observance, occurring as Hurricane Dorian’s path took it over the Bahamas and sideswiped the U.S. coast, and in the days since. Their perspective merits a thorough read. And if interested, readers can find the broader context as well as fuller details of the political interference and pushback here[1] and discussion of just why and how such interference is problematic here.

A few observations:

1. The instant political interference with science begins, the distinction between “right” and “wrong” no longer remains simple. However tempting it is to assign a label of “good” or “bad” to every player, such tags need to be replaced with “shades of grey.” That’s because the basic operating premise of the civilian executive branch is similar to that of the military: legitimacy flows from a single central authority. It’s not like the legislative branch, where authority is distributed[2] across multiple, independent centers. This means that whenever an improper order comes from above, the only choice available to those in the leadership/management chain, whether they be political-appointees or career employees, is a choice among the illegitimacy of the particular act, or the illegitimacy of breaking the chain of authority: essentially lose-lose. A third option – resignation – creates additional negative repercussions throughout the agency that must be factored into any incumbent’s decision. Resignation can as easily be an act of cowardice as an act of courage. What’s more, civilian leaders have few standardized, thought-through guidelines on which to rely. Ethical attention given scientific integrity at an institutional level (as opposed to the personal level) is far less extensive than say, the thought and consideration given to war crimes – actions deemed illegitimate even in the chaos of armed combat, as articulated in the Geneva Convention and elsewhere.

Support for the bench-level forecasters (in this case the Birmingham Forecast Office) is an easy call. At the same time would-be critics might be more measured and deliberate before assigning blame to leadership, even at very high levels. To the extent leaders are struggling, it may well be because the challenge they face is monumental and complicated, not because they’re any less high-minded than the rest of us.  

2. The threat to the integrity of NOAA science is nothing new on the current US political landscape; rather, it’s simply NOAA’s turn. For over two years now, the United States has seen political pressure across government science agencies, most notably EPA, but extending to DoE and NSF (climate research); USDA (wholesale relocation of USDA scientists), and Department of Interior, to name just a few. Until this latest dustup, NOAA scientists had thought they’d seen less interference than at other agencies; now they’re simply “one of the crowd.”

3. Commander-in-Chief versus Scientist-in-Chief[3]? The real-world experience with the former is extensive, and includes considerable attention to civilians encumbering such a role. This is generally accepted practice across nations of the world. With the latter, there’s less to go on. One might think that natural because the stakes of warfare are higher. But consider the example of Thabo Mbeki, Nelson Mandela’s successor to the presidency of the Union of South Africa. By inserting himself into the country’s policy response to the AIDS epidemic – and denying his people access to retroviral therapies – he made himself responsible for an estimated 350,000-400,000 excess deaths out of a population less than 20 million. This is a toll comparable to that of any nation’s war losses. Any attempt by a national leader to take control directly and unilaterally over even a single field of science unaided by expert advisers should be cause for concern. But for a leader to exert such individual control cavalierly across not just one but several branches of science, and for that to happen in the United States, a leader of the free world, and on globally-important challenges such as climate change, is reckless.


[1]Full disclosure: You’ll quickly find this link doesn’t take you to a single source, but rather sets you afloat on an ocean of links. Each in turn leads to yet other sites. The particulars of the various accounts can differ, sometimes significantly, and the emerging story line and identification of heroes and villains will vary from path to path. The world may move on, so that the story dies down, or it may stay alive and clarify as new information comes to light.  

[2] or is supposed to reside; these days there are some real questions about how well the legislative piece is working – whether the Congress itself is independent from the executive, and the extent to which members of Congress can realistically exercise independent agency in the face of party political pressures.

[3] Not to be confused with Chief Scientist, a common role in the C-suite of many tech companies and government agencies.

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Queeg.

Writers haven’t been the only artists to have been profoundly moved by hurricanes. This 1899 watercolor, by Winslow Homer, entitled After the Hurricane, Bahamas, is especially poignant after last week’s events.

“Art imitates life.” – Aristotle

“Life imitates art.” – Oscar Wilde, in his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying.

Perhaps you’re already acquainted with both mimesis and its opposite, anti-mimesis. If not, maybe you will find this interesting.

From Wikipedia:

Anti-mimesis is a philosophical position that holds the direct opposite of Aristotelian mimesis[1]. Its most notable proponent is Oscar Wilde, who opined in his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying that, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”. In the essay, written as a Platonic dialogue, Wilde holds that anti-mimesis “results not merely from Life’s imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realise that energy.”

What is found in life and nature is not what is really there, but is that which artists have taught people to find there, through art. As in an example posited by Wilde, although there has been fog in London for centuries, one notices the beauty and wonder of the fog because “poets and painters have taught the loveliness of such effects…They did not exist till Art had invented them.”

Wow. Leave it to Oscar Wilde to take on Aristotle – and on so basic a topic as the very nature of the real world.  And then to conclude that lying was in decay, and then to buck that trend. A man ahead of his time.

And a bit of a surprise to discover that weather – fog, in this case – was Wilde’s example of choice.

Weather, of course, figures prominently in all our lives, at least from time to time. For the past week or so, to live in the Caribbean or along the eastern coast of the United States and to think of weather in this region has been to think of hurricanes – especially Dorian, its stunningly tragic impacts and aftermath, and what they continue to reveal about our 21st-century lives, our leaders, and our institutions.

Hurricanes have preoccupied writers for centuries. Google search offers myriad entries, most of which take Shakespeare’s The Tempest as a starting point. (Those searches turned up relatively little from the realm of Asian art and literature, but some of the latter dates back a thousand years or so; perhaps Baidu would reveal a wholly different set of results.)

One bit of such writing that captivated a post-World-War-II generation was Herman Wouk’s (1951) Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, The Caine Mutiny, and a subsequent successful and influential (1954) movie by the same title. Here’s a capsule version of the story (seen through the lens of mimesis; you’ll be rewarded if you decide to read or re-read the entire book or watch the film):

The setting is World War II. (Wouk himself served in the Navy during that war; it was the backdrop for his best work.) The protagonist is Willie Keith, a Princeton graduate who is stumbling through life. A series of missteps and blunders finds him as an ensign on board the USS Caine, a World-War-I vintage minesweeper called back into service due to the exigencies of the war. The assignment is a big disappointment to Keith. The ship is a rust bucket, in continuing decay. The crew is slovenly in dress and action. Keith attributes this to poor leadership of the ship’s captain, Lieutenant Commander William DeVriess. Keith’s spirits are initially buoyed by DeVriess’ departure and the arrival of DeVriess’ replacement, Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg.

Keith naively sees Queeg as a by-the-book guy who just might make the Caine great again.

But that initial impression is quickly displaced by a more sobering reality. Queeg has never led a ship and crew before, and commits a string of blunders. Right out of the starting gate he breaches regulations, bullying the officers into selling him their liquor rations. He attempts to smuggle the liquor off the ship; when it’s lost, he blackmails Keith into paying for it. Later on, in battle, instead of escorting LSTs landing on Kwajalein under fire, he leaves a yellow dye marker and departs the combat area posthaste. Page by page, scene by scene, the list of character flaws and performance gaffes continues to grow. Repeatedly, in both the book and the film, Queeg refuses to shoulder responsibility or focus on the missions at hand. Instead, he obsessively hounds his crew members about minutiae and imagined slights, such as a small quantity of strawberries that go missing from the officers’ mess.

Matters come to a head when the Caine is caught in a typhoon. Queeg, who’s already lost the confidence of his men, seems incapable of the seamanship and decision-making needed to save the ship and the crew. Keith and Stephen Maryk, the chief executive officer, relieve him of his duties and take over command. They turn the ship into the wind and ride out the storm.

The two junior officers are court-martialed for their pains. Their Navy-appointed lawyer helps them avoid prison time only by putting Queeg on the witness stand, where Queeg’s character flaws under the questioning become visible to the tribunal. (An aside: after the trial, instead of congratulating the officers who led the mutiny, that same lawyer privately castigates them, stressing that mutiny is still reprehensible, and perhaps had been unnecessary, even under the dire typhoon conditions.)

(There are myriad other threads woven into the narrative, but you get the idea.) By book’s end, Keith is the last commanding officer of the Caine prior to de-commissioning; he realizes his accumulated experiences have transformed him into a true Navy officer.

Art imitating life? That would probably have been the judgment when the book and the movie came out. In 2019, six decades later? It might be possible to reach the opposite conclusion.


[1] Of course, to look past the fancy Greek words and the name-dropping is to recognize that this is little different from the classic “chicken-egg” problem.

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Dorian.

Huge areal extent. High winds at the core (at times, category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson scale). Slow-moving, featuring long dwell time over endangered areas. Strong, prolonged storm surge.  

Observations, numerical weather prediction and subsequent dissemination equipped the world to see trouble coming. Throughout the duration of the event, clear, actionable messages reached most communities and individuals in harm’s way. Moreover, the public responded appropriately, given the limited options available. But public officials, emergency managers, corporate leaders, and the general public could alleviate those impacts only at the margins – especially when it came to protecting island populations sheltering in poorly-constructed buildings and depending on fragile infrastructure in low-lying coastal areas. Loss of life, injury, human suffering and community disruption continue to mount – and grow more visible with each passing hour.

Tragic – in every sense.

As always we can honor the victims and survivors best by thinking-through and committing to reducing future loss.

That’s because Dorian won’t be the last hurricane to inflect catastrophic loss on the Caribbean and Southeastern United States. The Caribbean is a target-rich shooting gallery for hurricanes, and each year the equatorial Atlantic reloads (think Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Barbuda – all still recovering from 2017).

It’s not just that as individuals and as a society we’re slow to learn from experience. The region offers so much natural beauty and economic potential that we cannot simply abandon it. Fact is, the recent large losses from hurricanes reflect sustained triumph as much as failure – the result of humanity’s extraordinary growth in numbers, geographic spread, and material success over the past century.

But economic growth accompanied by growing dependence on fragile critical infrastructure has hardwired a lot of vulnerability into the region’s future for at least the next half-century. And that’s before we factor in the impact of current climate change – sea-level rise and the rest.

So the question is: how to build the resilience of the region and minimize repetitive losses over time? What innovation, or suite of innovations, could make a lasting difference?

Ultimately, the answers lie in more appropriate land use (aimed at co-existing with nature versus attempts to make that nature irrelevant). This means retreat to the extent practical from the shoreline itself, and anticipating the encroachment that will accompany sea level rise. Such policies, if carried out with vision, could actually increase the beauty, ecosystem function, and recreational (and economic ) value of coastal lands.

However, to realize this potential requires concomitant strengthening of building codes and hardening of critical infrastructure. For island populations and nations it means increased investment in shelter-in-place: beginning with home-by-home measures, but taking the extra step of elevating and hardening the public facilities in local communities that will occasionally be used to ride out storms.

Poverty is the enemy here. It plays in from several directions.  In the aggregate, it reflects a lack of means. Insurance and other protective measures against uncertain future risks is a luxury available only to individuals and societies that are well-off. But distribution of that wealth is also an issue. Those who can are often eager to provide for their individual protection, but reluctant to pay for the safety and well-being of others. And the wealth is unevenly distributed across ethnic groups, the aged and infirm, gender, and other demographics. Current political discourse in our country and abroad suggests we’re not yet ready for the kind of social engineering that would be required to moderate such barriers.

Bill, tell us something we don’t already know.

Okay! Not sure this qualifies as new, but the key challenge is not just about where we want to end up but also how we manage and drive a transition to the desired state.

Here’s a suggestion. Bring information technology, and in particular the rudiments of artificial intelligence, to the task.

We are told that the AI embodied at the Watson-level might be available in individual smartphones as soon as 2023. To see how this might be applied to the hurricane context, imagine a capability looking something like TurboTax. TurboTax breaks down the stupefying task of identifying and reporting individual income into a highly-structured series of decision trees. It asks tax preparers step-by-step questions couched in simple language. In the same way, it’s feasible today to offer tools to guide individual risk management in the face of hazards such as hurricanes. If today’s IT can provide generalized weather warnings, it can also provide particulars as they pertain to any individual’s circumstance. Five days out, what is the list of the things we have to start thinking about, the decisions we have to start making, the preparations we might make, the actions that will be needed? Mass communication through daily or even twice-daily press conferences by emergency managers and other officials is a blunt instrument for managing the response of a massive, distributed, and diverse population to hurricane threats. AI could help individuals map out nuanced responses, particularized to their access to transportation, their job situation, household location and construction, health and fitness levels, family situations, income, and much more – and update all this frequently in response to everything from changes in hurricane track, strength, timing and duration to changes in traffic along evacuation routes, shelter options, and much more as the endangered-region’s population mobilizes.

And that’s just for the immediate time frame of a single storm. In fact, however, such technology could easily be extended to provide background information on the likely hurricane risks over longer time frames, such as the contemplated lifetime of a house purchase or home rental. Its risk assessments could extend to other natural hazards. It could incorporate these risks in a fuller set of health and economic risks.

To innovate, and innovate rapidly, it’s probably best to leave these developments in the hands of the private sector. Liability protection would undoubtedly be an issue for firms. But just as TurboTax and similar products and services offer protections against certain types of errors, a similar risk management tool could stay within the bounds of identifying options and likely consequences versus venturing into specific recommendations. In the manner of tax preparation software, risk management tools could link users directly with services offering higher levels of assessment and professional advice.

Over time, through development and application of such tools for managing the transition years, we should achieve that desired ultimate outcome. At the same time as publics saw the results of using such tools, they’d also see the limitations and constraints imposed by preexisting vulnerability. They would find new determination to improve land use, strengthen building codes, and perhaps even reduce poverty – and in so doing, build resilience and reduce future hazard loss.

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Tomorrow’s AMS for tomorrow’s Earth.

Came into the office this morning after the three-day holiday weekend to find the latest print edition of Science magazine waiting in the snail-mail Inbox. Science, like most technical journals, runs a bit behind, so this one is dated 23 August 2019. On this issue’s cover, two articles were highlighted under the heading of Tomorrow’s Earth.

Hmm. Wonder what they could be about?

Turns out the first is entitled Reducing tropical deforestation. (Not sure whether the link will be any help, or whether you’ll need a subscription to access it), but the thrust of the article – very timely given the current concerns over the Amazon river basin fires – is that prevention of deforestation requires different policy tools and strategies from location to location. Three regions – the Amazon, the Congo Basin, and Indonesia – are singled out for attention. Policies considered include establishing protected areas; law enforcement, aided by remote sensing technologies; withholding state aid to non-compliant local governments; voluntary private-sector commitments, including downstream companies; as well as restoration. The authors argue that implementation remains a challenge. They suggest that building public awareness of the benefits of maintaining forests helps motivate political and corporate leaders to do the right thing.

The second presents The case for strategic and managed climate retreat. Here the focus is on why, where, when and how should communities relocate in the face of climate change – a subject of special poignancy and relevance as Hurricane Dorian continues to pound the Bahamas and turns toward the U.S. southeast.

(Again) Hmm.

These two articles and their real-world context remind us that hundreds, indeed thousands of articles, scientific papers, notes, books, and missives could comfortably fit under the label Tomorrow’s Earth. Millions of decisions are made, actions are taken, and outcomes tweaked  each and every day in every sector – energy, food and water supply; emergency management, public health, transportation, environmental protection – based on a view of what tomorrow’s Earth will be or should be.

If you’re reading this post, chances are good that such work is not only your occupation but your preoccupation. It’s in your thoughts whether you’re at work or at home or out with family and friends; threaded through your meditative moments. It’s part of what defines you; it’s your calling.

Here in the U.S. the timing is special. We’re coming off the Labor Day weekend, and everyone is switching from a more-relaxed summer’s posture to focus and resolve on making the fall season productive.  Each of us is facing questions: how are the natural world and human society trending? How and in what ways can I improve the forecasts of those trends – extend their time horizon and improve not just their accuracy and but their utility? What’s to like and what’s problematic about those trends? What can I do during this fall season to go beyond the mere predictions and contribute my bit to making the world a better place?

Energizing! Our blood should be singing.

A concluding note. You’re working to make the world a better place. Here at the American Meteorological Society, as we’re wrapping up our Centennial year, our focus is on equipping you, helping you succeed going into the future:

  • Providing (and continually improving!) the best journals – to better inspire you by your colleagues’ accomplishments, and to better aid you in promulgating your own insights and ideas.
  • Holding (ever-more) productive meetings – enabling you to incubate ideas and spark creativity in a few days – progress that would take months to accomplish without the accelerated cycle of structured and serendipitous face-to-face communication.
  • Mounting new Centennial initiatives that will help you year-round to advance your career, to collaborate at local levels, to volunteer, and much more.   

Take advantage of these emerging AMS opportunities. Even better, help build them – volunteer/plug in! Better yet, lead.

Tomorrow’s Earth needs all the help it can get.

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EPIC and its epoch.

Across the world, societies and their governments are straining to provide essential food, water and energy resources. They’re working at the margins of capacity. These efforts are hindered by hazards ranging from drought and wildfire to hurricanes. They’re compromised as well by other environmental threats such as the loss of biodiversity and changing patterns of habitat and land use (including the burning of large swatches of rainforest).

Disparities between haves and have-nots, internationally as well as in-country, are growing. So is awareness of these disparities on all sides, thanks to social media. As a result, populations are polarized, bad-tempered and irritable. Tensions are smouldering worldwide, from Hong Kong to Kashmir to the Ukraine to Turkey to Gaza, from Zimbabwe to Libya; from Venezuela to Central America. Violent local flareups are commonplace. In consequence, refugee populations are rising and today stand at 70 million – one in every one hundred people worldwide. Even across the nominally calm developed world tension is in the air as leaders sunder the restraining chains of their legislatures.  

 (“Thanks for the encouragement, Bill – as if anyone needed additional reminder of all that.”)

Please bear with me. That’s one depiction of the current epoch – the age in which we live.

But here’s another, from the more positive side.

New tools, new capabilities are coming online, at the very moment when they’re most needed to help institutions navigate an increasingly problematic world. The big one? Information technology, in all its guises. Computing power, to digest and store the staggering amounts of information that people and sensors are accumulating. Communications, the better to share data, news, facts, and opinion. Artificial intelligence, to leverage IQ of the human sort, draw inferences, detect and distinguish success and failure early, and much more.  More generally, IT holds potential to rebalance the role of institutions in favor of restoring individual-level agency – humans’ capacity to act independently and make their own free choices. IT is increasing the productivity and worth of virtually every human endeavor. That starts with public health and health care, education, and all manner of manufacture and services. Even better,  it extends as well to all those resource-, hazard-, and environmental concerns mentioned earlier.

Enter EPIC. In the midst of all this, America’s Weather, Water, and Climate Enterprise – that amalgam of individuals, corporations, universities, and government agencies working to advance Earth observations, science, and services –  is preoccupied with EPIC,  the new Earth Prediction Innovation Center being stood up by NOAA and its partners/stakeholders. A child of the Weather Research and Forecasting Improvement Act (enacted in 2017; reauthorized in 2019), EPIC was the subject of a 200-person workshop held August 6-8 in Boulder, Colorado. Participants developed a consensus:

Vision: Creating the world’s best community modeling system of which a subset of components will create the world’s best operational forecast model , and

Mission: Advance Earth system modeling skill, reclaim and maintain international leadership in Earth system prediction and its science, and improve the transition of research into operations.

Sample media coverage of the workshop can be found here and here.

A few closing observations[1].  First (and unsurprisingly) the EPIC initiative has been widely welcomed by all sides, including both those individuals and institutions directly party to it, and those in the larger community indirectly impacted by it.

Second, forecast skill as measured merely against the forecast skill of others is not the comparison that ultimately matters.  The real question is: how good is that forecast skill compared with societal needs: the needs of emergency managers? Agribusiness? The energy sector? Water resource managers? Transportation? Those requirements are essentially insatiable, and growing. Forecasting, like science more broadly, confronts Vannevar Bush’s Endless Frontier; there’s no end to the work to be done.

There’s an analogy here to the U.S. goal to put a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960’s, an achievement that enjoyed its fifty-year anniversary just last month. The United States wanted to finish first in this race, but the real goal was to demonstrate a broader U.S. technological capability that the free world knew it could count on for protection during the Cold War.

Third, in many respects, the challenges confronting forecast improvement exceed those of the Moon race – they’re more complex, intertwined, require more concerted and coordinated effort across a larger range of natural and social sciences and associated technologies, and broader societal involvement and participation.

Fourth, and finally, as improvements in forecast skill contribute directly and powerfully to worldwide goals of human safety, resource provision, and environmental protection, the greatest benefit will result not from any one of these, but rather from the associated lessening of current geopolitical tensions. Headway here can pave the way for progress across the whole of the global agenda.


[1] Full disclosure, and a disclaimer. The author is a member of the EISWG, the Environmental Information Services Working Group of NOAA’s Science Advisory Board, a FACA committee. The EISWG has been asked to make a letter report on EPIC to the parent SAB. By contrast, the observations here are personal views of the author alone, and should in no way be construed as reflecting the views of other EISWG members, or the EISWG as a whole, or the parent SAB.

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Ed Lorenz chats up three caterpillars.

(Exercising a smidgen of creative license) In 1961, Ed Lorenz went for a brief walk on the MIT campus while waiting for the computer to run a recalculation. He happened to spot three caterpillars making their way across the quad. He stooped over for a closer look, wondering where they were headed, curious about what such small, insignificant creatures might be thinking. Suddenly:

“Hey, Big Guy, who ya staring at?”

Whoa! Straight out of Horton Hears a Who! Could it be my imagination, or is one of the caterpillars looking up at me? Now they all are!

Lorenz took a chance. “Hi, little fellas. What’s happening?”

Again, the inner voice. “Well, we’re not exactly sure. You’ve heard of The Big Reset?”

Lorenz. “The Big Reset? What’s that?”

Caterpillar 1. “All caterpillars talk about it. A lot are atheistic – they just scoff/don’t believe. But there’s the word afoot that all we caterpillars, whatever our journey, are headed for a period of time of inactivity and reformation… and after that, we’re reborn! Life becomes something more than moseying through vegetation and munching on the leaves – The Big Reset. After that, we’re something different.”

Lorenz. “Different? How so?”

Caterpillar 1. “”Opinions vary. Most caterpillars figure after that we’re incrementally bigger and better – but I have a larger vision. After The Big Reset, I won’t just be ten percent bigger and slightly more mobile – I’ll be twice as big – and truly zip around, blaze a bigger trail through the brush.”

Lorenz. “What about your buddies?”

Caterpillar 1. “Tsk! They’ve got some crazy ideas. I’ll let ’em speak for themselves.”

Caterpillar 2 (snapping out of a reverie). “Yeah, The Big Reset? I’m going to use the occasion to reinvent myself. I won’t wind up like my timid buddy here, just being more of the same. I’m gettin’ out of this grass. I’ll be able to fly! I’m going to fly hundreds of miles! I’m gonna to see the world!”

Lorenz (turning to the last of the trio) “and how about you?”

Caterpillar 3 (turning toward Caterpillar 2). “Like him. I’ll be able to fly. But for me, it won’t stop there. I’m gonna  make a difference, have an actual impact! I’ll flap my wings one way, and set in motion a tornado or a hurricane someplace far away – a place I’ve never even been! And I’ll flap my wings another time and in another way, and cut off a hurricane that might have developed in my absence. I’m not just gonna see the world. I’m gonna change the world! People will know I was here – that my life mattered.”

Lorenz. “I was tracking with your friends, but wow! I did not see that coming. A whole new perspective, definitely food for thought. Great talking to you guys, but I have to get back to the lab, see how that recalculation turned out.”

He rises to leave; if you’ve read this far, you probably know the rest of the story, but ICYMI, you can learn what happened next here.


Why this vignette in LOTRW?

Well, it happens that the American Meteorological Society is experiencing its own version of The Big Reset; collectively thinking through the history of its first 100 years and looking toward the future. Early in 2019, as part of this process, the AMS developed/refreshed its Strategic Goals. These made minimal splash at the time. However, all of us should give them a bit more study  – whether we are AMS members, or members of the larger Weather, Water, and Climate Enterprise, or members of the larger global society.

Each of us has looked at these goals, or will look at and interpret them, through a different individual lens. Some may look and see only incremental change (and react differently, ranging from disappointment [wish they’d been more electrifying] or take false comfort [whew! Had feared they’d be disruptive/lie outside my comfort zone]. Others may see something more transformative. And hopefully, there’ll be a large group that see them calling us to existential future impact – pivotal to the 21st-century aspirations of eight billion people for ample food, energy, and water resources; resilience to hazards, and protection of vital ecosystem services.

My plan is to use future posts to unpack the individual AMS Strategic Goals from these three distinct perspectives. But don’t wait for me, or leave it to my limited, individual perception. Start (or continue) to sharpen your own thinking along these lines now. Chat with your friends. Don’t just prepare to be part of a world that’s substantially different. Position yourself to make an impact, to shape those differences.  

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Surviving the Plastocene.

Megatherium – the giant sloth – failed to survive the Pleistocene. Can we do a better job navigating the Plastocene?

The bar might seem low – but the stakes are high, and, fact is, only time will tell.

Some of us can remember a time when one of the arguments for weaning ourselves from fossil fuels was the precious hydrocarbons involved might be more needed and put to better use in the manufacture of plastics.

Today, however, those plastics have joined fossil-fuel use at center stage of the environmental discussion. A quick summary of where this stands:

Oceans. Recent plastics headlines have focused on the oceans. Read some of the media coverage, happen across reference to The Great Pacific Garbage Patch or one of the other major ocean gyres that trap such waste, and see some of the images that have been attached to that coverage, and you might be forgiven for getting the impression that a giant, visible mass of plastic debris is out there in the Pacific, a kind of Bayway-by-the-sea. The reality is less visibly dramatic, but cause nevertheless for concern. NOAA’s National Ocean Service provides this primer material:

While it’s tough to say exactly how much plastic is in the ocean, scientists think about 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean every year. That’s the weight of nearly 90 aircraft carriers[1].

These plastics come in many different forms. Just think about all the plastic items you use daily: the toothbrush you grab first thing in the morning, the container your lunch comes in, or the bottle you drink water from after your workout.

All these things get used and, eventually, thrown out. Many plastic products are single-use items that are designed to be thrown out, like water bottles or take out containers. These are used and discarded quickly. If this waste isn’t properly disposed of or managed, it can end up in the ocean.

Unlike some other kinds of waste, plastic doesn’t decompose. That means plastic can stick around indefinitely, wreaking havoc on marine ecosystems. Some plastics float once they enter the ocean, though not all do. As the plastic is tossed around, much of it breaks into tiny pieces, called microplastics.

The first thing that comes to mind for many people when they think of microplastics are the small beads found in some soaps and other personal care products. But microplastics also include bits of what were once larger items.

Microfibers, shed from synthetic clothing or fishing nets, are another problematic form of microplastic. These fibers, beads, and microplastic fragments can all absorb harmful pollutants like pesticides, dyes, and flame retardants, only to later release them in the ocean.

Airborne plastic. Researchers sampling the Pyrenees in southwestern France, 100 km from any nearby city, captured particles falling in dust, rain, and snow in numbers averaging some 300-400/day/m2, leading them to estimate that if the figure were representative, perhaps 2000 tons of such airborne plastic particulates might blanket France every year.

Plastic in humans. These figures hint that humans may be ingesting quite a bit of plastic; and some evidence is beginning to emerge showing that is so: new estimates put this in the range of some 40,000-50,000 microparticles per person per year. But to date, only a fraction of the foods we eat have been investigated. Scientists point a finger at seafood as a possible pathway; but environmental dust may be a comparable source for many of us. And that’s before we look into the plastic wrap protecting so much of today’s food in stores. So the actual figure might be substantially larger.

How you take your water also makes a difference. Tap water? Add another 4,000 plastic microparticles/year. Bottled water? Add another 90,000.

Thresholds for detectable effects on human health, and the nature of those effects, remain to be investigated.

The plastocene as a thing. Years ago geologists identified a K-T meteor impact some 65MY before present as likely responsible for a massive extinction of the dinosaurs at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary. That inference was based in part on discovery of a thin layer rich in iridium (an element common in asteroids, but rare in the Earth’s crust) found worldwide in sedimentary rocks of the period. In a similar way today, geologists have found layers of plastic waste marking flooding events, and have suggested such layers may oneday be evident in sedimentary records of the future. They’ve coined the term Plastocene.

There’s little joy in this (still fragmentary, but developing) picture. It seems unlikely that a touch of microplastics in our diet will be found to be the missing micro-nutrient that will now start to unlock massive, previously unrealized human potential.

Instead, our pervasive and growing dependence on plastics, the rapid emergence of the problem, prior experience with other environmental pollutants – the whole of our human experience – should encourage caution.

The problem is in these respects reminiscent of the CO2 issue.

Which brings us back to our Pleistocene icon, the Megatherium. Weighing in at 9000 pounds and some 20 feet long, it was hardly nimble, but apparently was a rousing ecological success for a few million years, presumably because it didn’t have to fear predation. Ultimately, however, it was done in, possibly hunted to extinction by early humans, during the Pleistocene.

Megatherium probably didn’t see extinction coming.

21st-century humankind, of course, is increasingly a Mega-creature of sorts: mega- in our impacts, even to the point of residing in one or another Megalopolis. When it comes to contemplating our circumstance, we are individually and in aggregate certainly far more aware than Megatherium. However, that situational awareness aside, we have yet to prove that when it comes to corrective action we are any less ponderous, or, for that matter, any less, well – slothful than this critter. (Perhaps we’re paralyzed not by lethargy so much as our disputatious nature, but the end result is the same.)

Cleanup doesn’t seem to be a useful option. We need a multi-media monitoring and study – coordinated development of understanding of plastic and its pathways and fates – from production to use to dispersal and fragmentation – spanning the meteorological, oceanographic, and public-health communities. In parallel, we need a vigorous, soundly based, internationally-coordinated action-oriented plan for reducing plastic use at its source, and capturing plastic materials at the end of their useful lives.

Sound familiar? Yes. Sound particularly tractable? Some think so; in fact, see it as a distraction from the main CO2 challenge. But others are less sanguine, particularly when it comes to developing the needed sense of common purpose.


[1] (footnote added). To size the problem, this is about 3% of global annual production/consumption.

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Teaching global warming? Here’s help.

“In a completely rational society, the best of us would be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something else.” ― Lee Iacocca

“Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition.” ― Jacques Barzun

Lee Iacocca, the former chair of Chrysler who famously saved the company from bankruptcy, and who passed away just days ago, had it right: teachers – those who teach not merely facts but critical thinking, enthusiasm for learning and for the truth – are pivotally important members of society. And though the rest of us may not formally identify ourselves with this group, we can’t escape that existential responsibility. We are constantly teaching our kids, our parents (!), our family and friends, not just by word but by action and example. In equal measure, we’re continually learning from others. Every minute of every day, in every conversation, in every human encounter, school is in session.

It’s easy for most of us to lose sight of this (hence the Barzun quote) – but teachers themselves retain that regard – and often feel weighed down by the responsibility.

All of which brings us to the teaching of climate science – and to a sliver of that subject especially timely and relevant for today’s young people: global warming.

As reported in Monday morning’s Washington Post, global warming isn’t exactly the most comfortable  educational terrain for teachers. An (extended) excerpt:

Schools across the United States are wrestling with how to incorporate the study of climate change into the classroom as its proximity and perils grow ever more apparent. According to a recent NPR/Ipsos poll, 86 percent of teachers and more than 80 percent of parents say the subject should be taught in school. But survey results in 2016 showed that while three-quarters of science teachers said they included lessons about climate change, they devoted little time to it and faced an array of obstacles.

The science behind climate change is complicated and evolving, and most teachers aren’t prepared to teach it well. Many textbooks don’t touch the topic, according to science educators.

“Climate and earth sciences more generally have been historically neglected in American science education,” said Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, which tracks anti-science education legislation and develops curriculums like the one Lau was teaching. “Lots of teachers feel they don’t have the content knowledge or pedagogical know-how to teach climate change effectively.”

Then there are the politics…

The article goes on to mention teachers are turning to online materials for help.

Are you among that number? Chances are you’re looking for material that is accessible and authoritative. You want material that you can not just read, but fully digest – material that is so clear and compelling that you can own it. That’s the level of comprehension you need if you’re too pass along enthusiasm and insight for the topic to your students. You want material that distinguishes clearly between (1) climate science and (2) the societal implications and options for response, which are inherently more sensitive, even contentious.

In that case you might give this material developed by the American Meteorological Society’s Education Program a look: DataStreme Earth’s Climate System[1].

From the website (there’s more, much more, but this gets you started, hints at the flavor):

DataStreme Earth’s Climate System is a 13-week course offered twice a year to selected participants nationwide. Directed toward middle-school teachers, but open to all K–12 teachers, you will…

  • Investigate the relationships between global climate, the Earth’s atmosphere, and the world’s ocean
  • Discover causes of both natural and anthropogenic climate change
  • Utilize real-time data from NOAA, NASA, and other reputable sources
  • Investigate data and results from the most recent National Climate Assessment
  • Learn about climate models, climate variability, and predicting and adapting to the future

Check out the public, real-time data portal for DataStreme Earth’s Climate System.

Funded by the American Meteorological Society, the DataStreme Earth’s Climate System course has a strong leadership component where participants become a climate science leader and a part of a national community facilitated by the American Meteorological Society.

These resources haven’t been simply hastily thrown together. Instead they’ve been painstakingly crafted by experts in the field and honed by experience and use with teachers nationwide for years. DataStreme is constantly being refreshed. And the climate module isn’t a stand-alone, but part of a broader ecosystem of similar resources including DataStreme Atmosphere and DataStreme Oceans.

Materials you can build on, to bring subject matter that counts to students who will change the world.


[1] Full disclosure: I work at the AMS DC Office, right down the hall from the dedicated folks who produce these and related educational resources. Proud to say it.

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