Policy nous: the superpower you use to harness your science to “the benefit of life.”

“Lastly, I would address one general admonition to all — that they consider what are the true ends of knowledge, and that they seek it not either for pleasure of the mind, or for contention, or for superiority to others, or for profit, or fame, or power, or any of these inferior things, but for the benefit and use of life, and that they perfect and govern it in charity. For it was from lust of power that the angels fell, from lust of knowledge that man fell; but of charity there can be no excess, neither did angel or man ever come in danger by it.”Francis Bacon.

AMS Summer Policy Colloquium participants standing in front of the U.S. Capitol Building
2019 AMS Summer Policy Colloquium participants

The 21st AMS Summer Policy Colloquium gets underway today. Some thirty early-career scientists and government meteorologists will gather (virtually, this year as last, thanks to the pandemic) for fourteen  zoom sessions from June 7-15. They’re following in the footsteps of more than 600 scientists who’ve participated in the program over the years.

Why have so many of our colleagues made this investment? Actually, the cost in time and attention is only the tip of the iceberg. The Colloquium is really no more than the portal, an invitation to a lifetime of risk and challenge calling for the utmost science talent; stupefying levels of effort sustained not for months but years; yes, and raw courage and even sacrificial love.

Participants come because they want to see their science benefit life (in Bacon’s words), and because they understand that the key to that outcome, at scale, is to align institutional and governmental  policies with reality – with physical realities, with social realities, and as Bacon noted, spiritual realities and values. They recognize they can play their part to the fullest only by becoming as disciplined in their approach to policy as they are to their science.

The Colloquium model is a simple one: it consists of conversation and invitation. The early-career participants meet with a roughly equal number of speakers over the period – speakers at different career stages, but who are generally a bit further down the road. Speakers share an appreciation for what policy is, how it can put science to work, what it’s like to labor in the policy world, and what that work can achieve. Participants are challenged and inspired. At the same time, participants are so full of potential and positive energy that speakers are renewed and refreshed by the encounter. They return to their labors with rekindled vigor. And they willingly return to meet with Colloquium participants year after year. Relationships are sown. Career trajectories and lives are changed. Science more effectively benefits life.

Somer Francis Bacon.jpg

Francis Bacon, though a flawed individual like the rest of us, embodied these ideals. He played a role in transforming science from the mere introspections of Empedocles, Aristotle, Galen, and the rest to the evidence-based, theoretically-sound work we know today. And politically he worked at the highest levels, serving as attorney general and Lord Chancellor of England. Read the Wikipedia biography, and you’ll find that in the end he may well have given his life in pursuit of his science.

And he understood that love, sacrificial love (captured in the Elizabethan word “charity”) was and remains at the root of it all.

He knew that love makes the world go round[1].


[1] Perhaps you might want to end your time with this post by hearing and seeing the Devon Jackson video of the popular song by the same name. Or maybe you would prefer a Jennifer-Lopez-Lin-Manuel lyric video on the same theme. Go for it!

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(Additional) reflections on geoengineering.

The recent NASEM report on geoengineering prompted some discussion yesterday on our daily AMS Policy Program call. One of my office mates made a couple of observations:

  1. Re “geo-engineering-has-always-been-with-us:” Bill, if that’s true, then in addition to looking at solar radiation engineering, we ought to focus on doing a better job of the geoengineering we’re already doing, rather than simply embarking on something new.

Well said! Start with energy.Worldwide, economies have invested trillions of dollars worldwide in fossil-fuel infrastructure, in the process modifying not just Earth’s atmosphere but also landscapes and ecosystems globally. We need to unwind that geo-engineering as we geo-engineer a renewable-energy planet to replace it. Then there’s food. As much as one-third of global agricultural output is wasted. In the developed world, this occurs at the consumer end; we prepare and serve too generously, and throw away a large amounts at meal’s end. In the developing world, fragile infrastructure too often fails to capture food production; as much as a third rots in farmer’s fields. Then there’s water; only a small fraction is consumed to meet direct human needs. Virtually all the water used worldwide supports agriculture, energy production, and the economy more broadly. We urbanize land that would have been ideal for agriculture – and compensate for that loss by irrigating desert. The list goes on…

Ideas for improvement abound; action is the bottleneck. Governments, institutions, and peoples would do well to be pursuing suc.h re-engineering with greater vigor.

Re “augment-funding-for-geo-engineering-research-without-reducing-the-funds-available-for-related-environmental-R&D:” Bill, we don’t have a good track record here. The incremental funding for new starts almost always comes at the expense of closely related work.

Again, spot-on. We can decry the reasons for this, starting here in the United States with the fragmented appropriations process in federal budgeting. Oversight/jurisdiction for budgets is parceled out; each focus are has its own set of priorities, and little enthusiasm or incentive to shift any of its resources to another portfolio, thereby signaling “we really didn’t need the money.” The only real hope in this case stems from the possibility of a multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure bill, potentially “the tide that will raise all boats.” The infrastructure legislation faces an uncertain future at best. Chances for truly new funding, even for amounts of $100-200M, are fragile.

A final reflection, this coming from another direction. The American Meteorological Society has a long-established process for community-development of informational and position statements on salient scientific, technological, and policy issues. Its statement on geoengineering was well-received and actually adopted by other scientific societies when first developed; as these things go, it’s also stood the test of time rather well, being readopted in 2013. But the world and geoengineering have moved on. Look for a new AMS statement on this subject a few months down the road.

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Reflection (and reflecting sunlight): part and parcel of humanity’s critical infrastructure.

Perhaps calling for reflection? (the Pinatubo eruption of 1991)

“The U.S. solar geoengineering research program should be all about helping society make more informed decisions.” – Christopher Field

Reflection is a uniquely human trait, or nearly so; some might say it is one of our species’ best and most endearing features. That said, our increasingly frenetic and networked 21st-century world has eroded opportunity for reflection and its close relative, contemplation. Take knowledge work of all kinds; today it seems somehow less thoughtful, even as the accelerating, relentless pace of tweeting, meeting, teaching, publishing have made the experience more athletic.

Our current season of pandemic and its enforced isolation has provided eight billion people time and incentive for a bit more reflection than usual. Unsurprisingly, given our dilemma, not all that reflection has been of the most positive sort. It’s been more focused on problems than opportunity.

We tend to see reflection as an individual matter, but groups and institutions can also be reflective. One such was in fact created for that very purpose: the National Academies for Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM).  Chartered by Congress in 1863, initially to advise the nation on urgent scientific matters arising during the Civil War, NASEM has convened groups of scientists throughout the decades since for structured thought on opportunities for science, the implications of science for society, and the policies needed to foster innovation and its beneficial, responsible use.  

One of NASEM’s most recent studies lives up to this tradition: Reflecting Sunlight: Recommendations for Solar Geoengineering Research and Research Governance (2021).Even by the Academies’ high standards and historical record, the report marks an extraordinary accomplishment.

A bit of backstory. In 2015, NASEM produced two landmark studies on geoengineering: Climate Intervention: Carbon Dioxide Removal and Reliable Sequestration, and a companion, Climate Intervention: Reflecting Sunlight to Cool Earth. At the time, committee members did a thorough job of explaining the science behind these two interventions. They called attention to the unique global stakes associated with such research and its application, emphasizing throughout the need for wise governance at individual, national, and international levels. But they stopped short of recommending specifics in this latter regard, citing its complexity and existential importance. They suggested their committees had not been adequately constituted to address such issues. They hinted at a sequel.

Reflecting Sunlight is the result, and looks to be well worth the wait. A strong group under the leadership of Chris Field details and updates current views of the needed research and development, but goes further, to develop and lay out thoughtfully and in a structured way the principles for governance of such work, at scientific, national, and international levels.

Attempting to reproduce any of the report’s findings here would fail to give the quality and sweep of the effort its due. But whether we are scientists, or policymakers, or concerned laity, Reflecting Sunlight deserves our reflection of the fuller sort, along several lines:

Geoengineering is not new. Solar geoengineering may be only recently arrived on the scene, but from the moment the first reflective species arrived on the planet, Earth could no longer remain “natural” in the sense it had been before. Geoengineering was a foregone conclusion. Agriculture, urbanization, and other altered landscapes and land use; irrigation, and other forms of water redistribution; extraction of ores and fossil fuels from the Earth’s surface and below – all this and more is in the realm of geoengineering. We live on a managed planet; the only choice available ahead is somewhere on the spectrum between effective and dysfunctional engineering.

Existential stakes. The difference is that geoengineering’s origins made a difference only locally or regionally. Today the scale is global. Eight billion of us, and the world’s natural ecosystems, share just one planet. The effects of climate change, already being felt, promise to be dire. Mitigation and adaptation measures are and ought to remain our primary means of coping, but evidence suggests their implementation may prove too little, too late. We urgently need a fuller characterization of the possibilities and limitations of solar geoengineering that might be applied as an emergency, stopgap measure to maintain the planet’s livability until mitigation and adaptation can fully kick in (in much the same way as, say, ICU staff use steroid therapies to stabilize seriously ill covid-19 patients until their own immune systems can take over).

Unique opportunity. The current administration and the Congress are mounting an ambitious critical infrastructure initiative. Encouragingly, this gives significant emphasis to coping with climate change, and to innovation. Hopefully, within the large budget numbers contemplated for science and technology, there will be room to accommodate the $100-200M over five years directed along the lines suggested in this report, while at the same time maintaining and even accelerating mainline climate-change mitigation and adaptation research. An ability to modulate solar reflection is in itself a form of critical infrastructure for the world of the future.

Hope.  The NASEM report doesn’t dwell on this, but hope is implicit throughout. The findings and recommendations lay out pathways to positive outcomes; at no point did the committee find an intractable barrier.

That leaves us with the governance challenge. The report explores in some detail the need for good governance. Lurking behind subjects such as registries, codes of conduct, data sharing, assessment, permitting, international collaboration, etc., etc., are lofty principles, including but by no means limited to notions such as: transparency, broad public and stakeholder participation, fairness, equity, trust, justice. As a species, we have a disappointing track record here. (Fact is, a critic could argue humans have displayed little more mastery of good governance than we have with respect to geoengineering itself.) To succeed, we have to embrace, to an extent we’ve been reluctant to do in the past, the idea that our futures are interdependent, that our self-interest is best realized – only realized – by giving primacy to the public good, the benefit of others.

__________

A closing reflection. Maybe it’s the timing (this is a year that has seen a renaissance of awareness of systemic racism and other forms of inequity) but when it comes to basic human values, the equations of physical science and the findings of social science seem at best muted, if not entirely silent. We just might need to think outside that particular box. Something to ponder at the end to this Easter-Passover week. So start digging into Reflecting Sunlight. Lift a glass in the direction of Chris Field and his committee, thanking them for their hard work and clear-headed thinking. Reflect on the contribution you can make to the needed good governance as well as the science. In that reflection, you’ll be doing your bit to rebuild society’s most critical infrastructure. You’ll be building back better.

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The right kind of national conversation.

“Leaders spend 80% of their time on problems, and 20% of their time on opportunities. They should reverse that ratio.” [1]

The Pareto principle (or more informally, “the 80-20 rule”) has been around for a long time, though not always by that name. The theoretical foundation may be a bit thin (“80” and “20” hardly have the status of, say, Planck’s constant), but as a metaphor “the 80-20 rule” is easily remembered, intuitively understood, and sharpens thought. It therefore finds itself widely invoked in many contexts.

Which calls to mind current national concerns and discourse.

Systemic racism, inequality, and injustice. Election rules and the future of our democracy. Covid and its cost in devastated lives and economic disruption. Guns. Immigration. Climate change. The list is long…

Each test, by itself, challenges our ingenuity and energy, and frustrates efforts to develop consensus and work together. In aggregate, they seem overwhelming. Worse still, none can be ignored, put off until tomorrow. They all must be addressed – and simultaneously, and now. They also share a common property: they are problems.

Yet each contains seeds of opportunity (motivating the slight extension here to Pareto’s initially non-prescriptive observation).

Here’s an example, close to home. For years now, scientists have detected and decried signs of an apparent decline in the popular standing of science. In the United States, political leaders have called for draconian cuts in budgets for certain disciplines. Government scientists have seen their efforts to publish research stymied. Federal science advisory groups have been politicized. Court cases have attempted to walk back science-based regulation. Most egregiously, here in the United States, politics trumped science during much of the early approach to the pandemic. Reality, once considered the foundation of any kind of public dialog, today is all too often tossed aside. All this has been characterized by some scientists as active attack. Definitely a problem.

However, at the very same time, Americans are realizing that the country owes its unique standing in the world to more than its large geographic extent, wealth of natural resources, and the geopolitical protection provided by two oceans. What matters are the people: Americans have built a culture of innovation, advancing science and technology and their application to human benefit to a degree that has been the envy of the world.

Unsurprisingly, the rest of that world – that is, the remaining 96% of the world’s population – have taken note. Given their greater numbers, other nations are catching up. Sad to say, here in the United States, this has often been seen as yet another problem, meriting alarm. Some are calling for protectionist measures.

 Scientists, and most laypeople, see this as a losing strategy in the long run. Instead, they see in this global imitation an opportunity – to double down on investments in an institution that has been a powerful driver of U.S. innovation since World War II – the National Science Foundation.

In fact, not one but two proposals for strengthening NSF are currently on the table. The first dates back to the spring of 2020. Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) introduced the so-called Endless Frontiers Act, which proposed renaming NSF the National Science and Technology Foundation, creating a new Technology Directorate within the agency, and providing additional funding totaling $100B over five years. (Details, worth the read, can be found here.) More recently, the House Science Committee has introduced a (similarly bipartisan) NSF-for-the-Future Act, adding a Directorate for Science and Engineering Solutions to the agency with a recommended annual budget starting at $1 billion in fiscal year 2022 and growing to $5 billion over five years. The House bill recommends a doubling of NSF’s overall budget over five years. Significantly, it also shifts the focus from technology per se to societal challenges more broadly, including

  • Climate change and environmental sustainability
  • Global competitiveness in critical technologies
  • Cybersecurity
  • National security
  • STEM education and workforce
  • Social and economic inequality.

(More details, again worth the read, can be found here.)

Bipartisan. Creating opportunities, not just reacting to problems. Looking ahead, not into the rear-view mirror. Balancing technological facts and societal needs. What’s not to like?

Truly a national conversation worth having.

___________________________________

A closing note. The conversations, and fine tuning, and the hoped-for actual plus-ups in R&D investments are needed urgently. The United States contemplates trillion-dollar investments in U.S. infrastructure. Made strategically, accounting accurately for the impacts of environmental and societal trends underway throughout the infrastructure lifetime, such investments will provide Americans a rich return far exceeding the investment. But to fail to account for such factors, or to misjudge where climate and social trends are taking us because of inadequate environmental intelligence, will lead to waste and lower economic returns – losses we can ill afford. The sooner we answer some of the pressing questions embedded in the itemized list above, the better.


[1]I recall the quoted management principle as coming from the inimitable Peter Drucker, but couldn’t find Google support for that view just now, so have left it unattributed here.

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It takes a village.

Omwana takulila nju emoi – Lunyoro/Bunyoro proverb[1]

The February 27th edition of The Economist carried a short article entitled “Covid-19: How British science came to the rescue.” The piece acknowledges Britain’s belated scientific and political response at the pandemic’s onset, but then goes on to praise what followed: the world-leading clinical trials, genetic sequencing, the development and rapid rollout of covid therapies such as dexamethasone and toxicilizumab, and, ultimately, an efficacious vaccine.

The writers attribute this success to three pillars: elite institutions, streamlined regulation, and big datasets – and, across the whole, close links connecting business, academia, and government. In the detailing, they note that while Britain spends relatively little in R&D, the investment is concentrated in health. They cite the pivotal role played by world-class organizations clustered around just three locations: Oxford, Cambridge, and London. They point to engagement by hospitals across the whole of Great Britain, and the broader public’s willing participation in large clinical trials. (The article also makes clear that much of this broad involvement was made possible by an undesirably large number of patients, occasioned by that policy bumbling at the beginning and other missteps along the way.) Throughout, they stress the good communication and collaborative links tying together individual scientists, corporate executives, and government-agency leaders.

Here on this side of the Pond, we might find cause for both cheer and concern. First the happy bit; the Brits attribute much of their achievement to imitation of America’s example over a period of years. They cite, with admiration, American success at translating scientific and technological advance into good jobs and other societal benefit. They also point to America’s culture of shuttling people in and out of government from academia and industry. They note that in Britain, the relevant government leadership deferred to the science, and did so nimbly, cutting through lots of red tape where indicated. To reemphasize: much of this, the Brits say, they got from us.

Hmm. Nice to hear, but to read and reflect on this list is to see respects in which America and Americans could and should be doing better, and to discern trends here that are taking us in the opposite direction. The gap is widening between scientific advance and societal benefit (especially broad societal benefit, advantaging the full society generally, versus a privileged few). The public often sees easy back-and forth movements of high-profile personalities across sector boundaries as motivated by and at the same time creating conflicts of interest, versus benefiting the larger public. And that larger public for its part often seems to be growing alienated from, or even actively distrustful of science. For example, large U.S. demographics are skeptical of the well-documented importance of social distancing, masks, and even the vaccines – to say nothing of scientists themselves. As for our elite institutions, they seem to be losing a bit of their global competitive edge in the face of a less-welcoming U.S. policy towards international students and fierce competition from abroad.

And then there’s whole nimble thing – which here at home is falling casualty to rancorous partisanship. Today, American policies and regulatory frameworks seem to have achieved the impossible – on the one hand, assuming the character of quicksand, immobilizing and sinking all legislative efforts at improvement; while at the same time, whipsawing institutions and the public through head-snapping reversals of policy resulting from presidential directives.

We have work to do – but not in these areas per se. If we make elite institutions, streamlined regulation, big datasets – and that collaboration across government, business, and academia – our goals, we will fail. These are mere attributes – they only emerge as the incidental result of focusing on challenges that really matter.

Those living-on-the-real-world existential challenges? They are these. Simultaneously:

  • sustaining supply of food, water, energy and other resources to a needy planet;
  • building resiliency to hazards on a jittery planet, one that accomplishes its business through extreme events; and
  • maintaining vital ecosystem function and services of a life-giving planet, in the face of threats to habitat, environment, biomass and biodiversity, all while
  • fostering innovation, because these problems cannot be solved but so much as temporarily held at bay; and
  • ratcheting-up toward a more broadly-based culture of equity and inclusion (with respect both to participation in this work and access to its fruits) at every stage.

Perhaps we could start with embrace of our fellow villagers. We need each other.


[1] Literally, “A child does not grow up only in a single home.” Variations of this existential insight are common to several African cultures. We owe them.

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Remedial reading, and (noting the season), a regifting of the same: Beyond Persuasion: A Proposal for Invitational Rhetoric.

A week or so ago, had the pleasure to be interviewed as part of a survey conducted by Ioanna Cionea, an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma. At the session’s end, when I discovered that professor Cionea did research on rhetoric (among many other topics), it was natural to ask if she could recommend some remedial reading.

She was kind enough to oblige. One piece on her list was Beyond Persuasion: A Proposal for Invitational Rhetoric, a 1995 essay by Sonja Foss and Cindy Griffin. What a treasure! Still a few days until Christmas, good gifts could still roll in; but Beyond Persuasion will likely prove to be one of the best of the gifts under my tree this year. Access to the pdf link is nonrivalrous; hence it’s painless (as well as seasonally appropriate) to regift it to all of you.

Perhaps you’re already familiar with this work; good for you! But if it’s new, you’ll find it timely, for two reasons.

First, the government of the United States is undergoing a sea change in the executive branch – one that’s bringing back a positive White House stance on climate change, dating back to George Herbert Walker Bush and the Rio Summit of 1992, but has been absent for a while. Within a few weeks, we’re likely to be back on board with the rest of the world as signatories to the 2016 Paris agreement. We’ll have John Kerry serving as President Biden’s special climate envoy, Gina McCarty as a climate czar, and Jennifer Grantholm as Energy Secretary. That kind of leadership should see agencies such as EPA and NOAA  prosper.  More significantly, it will allow the United States to recover lost ground on the savings and the international market opportunities opening up as the world shifts to cheaper, cleaner renewable energy sources. But U.S. progress will deepen and accelerate to the extent that the current polarized, heated climate change dialog cools a bit. And in this respect, the essay’s title sounds, well… inviting.

Second, the nation and the world are currently experiencing a season of lament. We’re confronting, once again, but with particular force, the reality that our (two-million-year) human history has been one of brokenness and dysfunction, ever bordering on and too often entering deep into the realm of evil. All too frequently and habitually – and systemically – humans have been quick to distrust and dislike people who are different, by whatever measure – gender, skin color, ethnicity, income level, and more. We’ve acted on these base instincts. We’ve treated “the other” inequitably, unfairly. We’ve excluded them, sometimes unintentionally, sometimes deliberately, across the spectrum of human activity and down through the years. We haven’t let “them” belong. We’ve treated what we “have” as zero-sum, and out of fear and selfishness denied “others” access to the benefits and opportunities of what we consider “ours.”

We’re daily confronting the downside of all this. In a spurt of global reflection and self-examination, resolution, and commitment to action, we’re trying to unwind this two million years of brokenness – all in a single generation. The label applied to this work is DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), with sometimes the additional BA (belonging and accessibility) thrown in. It’s arguably (there’s that emotion-labeled word) the most important work of the human race right now. As it happens, Sonja Foss and Cindy Griffin have developed the concept of invitational rhetoric from a feminist perspective, using language and framing that feels particularly fresh and relevant today.

(Okay, Bill, enough dancing around the subject. Just what is invitational rhetoric, and why should I care?)

Glad you asked. The authors summarize it very nicely in their opening:

“Most traditional rhetorical theories reflect a patriarchal bias in the positive value they accord to changing and thus dominating others. In this essay, an alternative rhetoric – invitational rhetoric – is proposed, one grounded in the feminist principles of equality, immanent value, and self-determination. Its purpose is to offer an invitation to understanding, and its communicative modes are the offering of perspectives and the creation of the external conditions of safety, value, and freedom.

They note early on that “Rhetorical scholars ‘have taken as given that it is a proper and even necessary human function to attempt to change others.’” They go on to say “Embedded in efforts to change others is a desire for control and domination, for the act of changing another establishes the power of that change agent over that other… The act of changing others not only establishes the power of the rhetor over others but also devalues the lives and perspectives of those others… This is the rhetoric of patriarchy, reflecting its values of change, competition, and domination… Although definitions of feminism vary, feminists generally are united by a set of basic principles. We have chosen to focus on three of these principles – equality, immanent value, and self-determination – to serve as the starting place for a new rhetoric. These principles are ones that explicitly challenge the positive value the patriarchy accords to changing and thus dominating others.”

Whew! A lot to absorb… particularly for those of us in the crowd who’ve enjoyed the privileges of patriarchs. Might at first blush seem easier, more natural to push back than take this message to heart. But please make the effort to do the latter. Please also read this from the lens of climate science – we’re attempting to warn and change people’s minds about truly existential matters, but it’s not coming across that way. Instead, many people see an effort by elitist, comfortably well-off scientists to put long-term, abstract, ephemeral issues ahead of more immediate, more universal concerns: jobs, health care, education, racial divides, unsafe streets at home and terrorist threats abroad. These challenges have long been chronic and pervasive; the pandemic has brought them all to a crisis point. But the hearers can be forgiven for seeing the messages as patriarchal efforts at domination. We need to take a new tack, and frankly have little to lose in any such attempt.

There’s eighteen pages of expansion on these ideas and illustrative examples. Rather than go into more depth, I’ll adhere to the spirit of the paper and invite you to read it.

As mentioned earlier, the paper has been around awhile; a benefit is that elapsed time has allowed critiques of the approach to surface. A developing Wikipedia article on the subject provides a summary and can point you to more material.

Happy holidays!

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Remedial Reading: Mike Hulme’s 2009 book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change

Want to make any scientist you know feel shame and guilt? Ask them about some journal publication or book bearing on their research that they should have read, but haven’t. Scientists are brought up from their earliest experience to know thoroughly and acknowledge completely results from prior work. Might not be rule #1, but is certainly in the Ten Commandments for what we do.

Knowing the literature – keeping current – has never been easy. In the old days, there was a lot less published research to track. But scientists were few and far between, and communications were slow, especially across country- and language barriers. There were few journals, but these were not widely reproduced. Not every library subscribed to every journal. Hard to know who was doing what.

Fast forward to today. Journals are available online, increasingly open access, communications are rapid, but the pace of progress is dizzying. Information overload is the reality and the signal is drowned out by the noise. Artificial intelligence to the rescue! An example: google search of Watson goes to medical school offers a rich variety of links. Take your pick. You can learn how IBM’s artificial intelligence, starting a few years back, has begun helping oncologists stay up to date on diagnosis and treatment, in large part by tracking the thousands of contributions that are entering the relevant literature each day. The future looks bright. We’re told that IBM’s Big Blue filled a room; that Watson fits in the equivalent of a few pizza boxes; that within the decade the equivalent capability will reside in each and every smartphone. Each of us will be able to tailor that capability to our particular needs, including helping us stay current.

But think about it. Does that mean we’ll be free of shame and guilt? Hardly. Eight billion people are churning out mountains of new knowledge while our backs are turned. We’ll be forced to do serious triage: reading a paper or two each day or week. We’ll note a paper or two to look at later if time permits (which it won’t). All the while consigning orders of magnitude more material to some virtual dustbin in the cloud.

Shame and guilt could hit new levels.

That’s why remedial reading is a recurrent theme on LOTRW. (Oh… you haven’t kept up with this particular literature? You can start your search of prior LOTRW posts on remedial reading here.)

But you’ll have a happier experience if instead you acquire and dive into Mike Hulme’s Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction, and Opportunity (Cambridge University Press, 2009.

As for me, I saw a review somewhere when the book first came out, and was immediately intrigued. When my copy arrived, took it home, in order to tackle it evenings and weekends. But one thing led to another. First it was on top of a stack of books; then a kind of sedimentation saw it buried under a layering of other books meeting a similar fate. Only after a recent move did it resurface, and even then it took covid-19’s stay-put-at-home regime to provide opportunity to pick up the book again and this time read it through from beginning to end.

Want to read a proper review? There are many to choose from; you can start your search here. But, in a nutshell: Hulme looks at climate change from several perspectives: physical/natural science; economics; philosophy; social psychology; politics; faith. He suggests it inappropriately trivializes climate change to see it as a big, complicated challenge but nonetheless merely a problem society must “solve.” Through this variety of disciplinary viewpoints he argues that climate change exposes deeply-held but diverse individual and community values and beliefs about what it means to “live on the real world” (my phrase, not his). Mike Hulme is a self-identified evangelical Christian; he closes the book by suggesting that much climate-change literature falls into one of four categories, to which he applies Biblical labels:

  • Lamenting Eden (mourning the loss of nature as it existed before the Anthropocene)
  • Armageddon (looking at catastrophe to come)
  • Babel (a kind of chest-thumping belief in the power of human technology)
  • Jubilee (framing in terms of social equity and environmental justice)

What a great taxonomy! But there’s much that makes this book special. For instance, other authors treating such a range of disciplines might have been forced (or chosen) to be a bit superficial. By contrast, Mike Hulme has taken the time over a span of decades to immerse himself deeply and professionally into these separate realms. He’s made the effort to thoughtfully synthesize those diverse experiences as he’s gone along. This shows. He’s been able to distill down a staggering amount of material into something more manageable and digestible, without any shortcuts or loss of saliency and credibility along the way. He doesn’t bury the reader in references. But those that survive are carefully selected and thoroughly annotated. What’s more, his writing style is crisp, flows well – in short, highly readable.

Scientists or professionals of any stripe have little excuse for reading germane material tardily. But it sometimes does confer benefits. From the standpoint of 2020 it’s easy to see that Why We Disagree About Climate Change has aged well over the past decade. The material still feels fresh, the conclusions remain on point. What’s more, the 2020 moment is a timely one, as the world is going through another cycle of pondering what to do and how to go about it, and as the United States looks poised to rejoin the global conversation after a four-year hiatus.

In sum, get yourself a copy and dig in! Read it when it first came out? You might consider a reread. Either way, if you’re reading this column, and have gotten this far, chances are good that having this book’s contents fresh in your head will make you more effective in your day job. Also, it’s likely you have your own stack of unread material you’ve been planning to tackle when you get the chance. Choose something from that store and dig in. You’ll be glad you did.

As for me, I’ll be reaching for the next unread book in my own continually growing pile, rising like a stalagmite from the floor of my man cave…

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Dawn in America

Got up early enough this morning (at that time those in the military refer to as “oh-dark hundred”) to collect a daily bit of meteorological data. Here to report:

The sun rose in the east.

Looks as if we’re headed for another one of those days where that sun ratchets up the global average temperature of Earth’s atmosphere by some 10-4 0C, in the process melting enough ice on net to raise sea-level a little less than a tenth of a millimeter, meanwhile reducing ocean acidity/pH by 10-5 units. (Almost as an afterthought, that sun is fueling tropical depression ETA ashore in central America.)

Same old, same old? Or a New Day in America?

Depends on where your focus lies. Fact is, we’re all in the business, each and every day, of capturing a bit of both spirits. It’s useful to maintain a steady sense of “where we are, and whither we are tending,”  to borrow Lincoln’s phrase, but it’s equally important to take advantage of special days and seasons in our lives to take stock, reaffirm commitment to our basic values, the people we love, and more.  

This truth holds for us as individuals, but equally so for institutions. Here at the American Meteorological Society, our members have a quadrennial ritual – producing a priorities statement: this year, Priorities for a New Decade: Weather, Water, and Climate A Policy Statement of the American Meteorological Society (adopted by the AMS Council on Council 28 September 2020). What other NGO’s sometimes refer to as a transition document, and timed to coincide with the election cycle, it lays out a set of goals for our professional and scientific community. But these goals have a special wrinkle. They can’t be achieved unless they’re goals shared by the American people and the government at the people’s service. This is an appeal to a new administration coming in, or version 2.0 of the present one – an appeal for partnership to what we believe should be common aspirations for both scientists and the larger public, for both Democrats and Republicans, young and old, of every background and persuasion.

A quick look at the bottom line (the link provides more detail):

To ensure economic and societal well-being over the next decade (this particular quadrennial happens at a decade’s start), AMS recommends that the nation:

• develop the next generation of WWC experts

• invest in research critical to innovation and advanced services

• invest in observations and computing infrastructure

• create services that harness scientific advances for societal benefit

• prepare informed WWC information users

• build strong partnerships throughout the WWC enterprise

• implement effective leadership and management

Looking at these, some readers might see a fistful of generic nouns and adjectives, a number of bullets that might look vaguely similar to what they remember from four years ago, and jump a “same old, same old” conclusion. But with just a little further thought, it’s easy to see that while each could have been worded similarly in 2016, each means something different in 2020.

An example from the political world so much on our mind these days illustrates this. For years, perhaps decades, “climate change” has been considered a third rail of American politics. Politicians of both stripes avoided the subject. But this year, one of the candidates could make less-than-the-most-artful comments about a particular aspect of the national and global climate-change conversation – namely fracking—and incur little political damage. It appears that country and the world see the handwriting on the wall and have moved on.

A second example: innovation; investments in workforce development; harnessing scientific advancement for societal benefit resonate quite differently in the 2020’s, with economic competition with other nations (particularly but not only China) and concerns about the pandemic’s impact on US K-12 and higher education focusing minds.

Readers might try going through the entire list with new eyes – with a 2020 vision as it were.

This season of America’s political life is a good time for each of us to consider the bulleted goals of the priorities statement, reflect on where we best fit in, assess where we can contribute, and contemplate what help we will need from others if we’re to accomplish what’s necessary. As we reflect on that last point, we might do well to consider those “others” not as strangers, or “them,” but rather as valued, respected partners that we’re inclined to trust (yes, trust), that we’d like to get to know better, listen to more seriously, collaborate with through thick and thin. That goes especially, regardless of where we stand politically, for the other half of the country who clearly saw things differently than we did.

It’s the same-old, same-old, and at the same time a New Day in America.

Whatever we call it, let’s seize it: carpe diem.

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Scientists’ kith and kin.

What on earth, or who on earth, are kith?

Merriam Webster’s website tells us this: Kith has had many meanings over the years. In its earliest uses it referred to knowledge of something, but that meaning died out in the 1400s. Another sense, “one’s native land,” had come and gone by the early 1500s. The sense “friends, fellow countrymen, or neighbors” developed before the 12th century and was sometimes used as a synonym of kinsfolk. That last sense got kith into hot water after people began using the word in the alliterative phrase “kith and kin.” Over the years, usage commentators have complained that kith means the same thing as kin, so “kith and kin” is redundant. Clearly, they have overlooked some other historical definitions, but if you want to avoid redundancy charges, be sure to include friends as well as relatives among your “kith and kin.”

We scientists hold objectivity, critical thinking, and evidence-based work in high regard, and tend to make much of our special gifts, abilities and self-discipline along these lines. But social psychologists – fellow members of our scientist tribe – tell us that most human beings are prone to a particularly pernicious form of cognitive bias, inflated self-assessments of their abilities in virtually every realm – intellect, physical prowess, etc. Scientists aren’t immune to such illusory superiority. We overrate our ability to be objective, the quality of our insights, our uniqueness.

What’s worse, “science” and “scientists” are words that divide our society. Most people know immediately whether they are scientists or are not, and thus whether they fall within some inner circle or not – and some outside that circle then start to see scientists as elitist, and exclusive by nature and intent. Resentment and distrust can and do start to build.

If you and I are honest with ourselves, we see some merit in that claim. By contrast, at least for the present, the word “realist” is far more inclusive (an important attribute in this era of DEI). Few of us regard ourselves as delusional. In fact, it takes effort on our part to brand ourselves as belonging to that small group, whereas membership in the “realist” crowd is conferred on almost all of us from birth, and rarely revoked thereafter.

[Hence the title choice for this blog, which celebrated its tenth anniversary back at the beginning of August. In setting things up in 2010, the thought was, and remains, that we’re all realists, we all “live in the real world” as the familiar saying goes; LOTRW simply acknowledges a reality that we’re pretty much confined to the Earth’s surface; we live on the real world as much as in it. But back to the main thread.]

On this quadrennial day of all days, when 320 million Americans and a watching world breathlessly await the last handful of yesterday’s election results, we should acknowledge, give a shout-out, say thanks, to one subgroup of our realist-kith:

Election boards, poll watchers, and vote-counters.

Here in this country, this group, numbering in the many tens, hundreds of thousands, has been and continues to be busily and objectively totaling up our votes. It’s early hours yet; we’re going to hear controversy in this arena as the days go on, but what a remarkably objective, high-minded group. We owe so much to their integrity, their endurance and persistence, and, yes, their skill. It’s a big step scaling up from counting on our fingers to counting in the millions without losing focus, while catching redundancies, seeing what’s missing, divining intent. The folks who do this, both paid and volunteer, senior and early career, men and women, whites and people of color, LGBTQ, etc., people of every background, both indigenous and of every national heritage, deserve our respect, admiration, and gratitude.

We’re blessed. In many countries around the world, despite the best efforts of election commissions, observers coming in from foreign NGO’s, etc. the same cannot be said. Corruption is rampant, and calling attention to it, let alone attempting to correct it, is dangerous. Let’s not take for granted what this group and this tradition and this legal and constitutional framework have given us.

More than 136 million votes counted so far. Realists all, of every flavor and persuasion, distilling knowledge and circumstances and trust and hope down to a single person or party. And each and every one counted, faithfully, dispassionately (or maybe not, but nonetheless fairly). Any evidence of outside hacking or tampering or intimidation confined to the fringes. Before it’s over, it may wind up in the hands of spectators and stakeholders who will litigate this or that. But the basic process of counting is robust.

For those from our geosciences tribe… all this is reminiscent of IPCC assessments – and the subsequent policymaker summaries and tweaks. It’s not that different in spirit, though much less hazardous and emotionally draining, than the healthcare culture, especially in this covid-19 era. The world is populated primarily by thousands, millions, of overlapping, reality-founded, evidence-based communities of every sort and description, all, in diverse ways, making the world a better place, and improving human prospects. As scientists we’re not doing anything that unusual; we are merely holding up our end. Let’s keep it up!

And once again, on this day, special thanks to all those doing the elections counts.

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E pluribus unum.

“The economy, stupid.” – James Carville.

In 1992, James Carville, then a strategist in Bill Clinton’s successful run for the White House that year, coined a pithy catechism for the campaign, to keep the candidate and the workers on message. It consisted of three parts:

  • Change vs. more of the same
  • The economy, stupid
  • Don’t forget healthcare

The second of these penetrated the national conversation then and since to such an extent that it has been deemed a snowclone.

Fast forward to the present day. Let’s say you’re one of an apparent minority of Americans who hasn’t voted early (90 million have so far; two-thirds of the total tally for 2016). You’re going to vote today; or perhaps you’re old school and planning to vote, in person, on the day, November 3rd. Channeling your inner Carville, what would might be the metric you could use to make your choices? Here’s a candidate, appropriately old school:

e pluribus unum, (stupid).

(you’re free to retain or drop “stupid,” to taste; it was of course, idiosyncratic to Mr. Carville, who spoke that way in order to burnish his brand as someone not merely of Arcadian-heritage but as “the Ragin’ Cajun.”).

E pluribus unum is Latin, but most LOTRW readers will remember having learned at some point in their upbringing that its meaning, though open to interpretation, generally speaking connotes “out of many, one,” or “one out of many,” or “one from many.” Chances are good your exposure to the phrase came not from a Latin class (you’re not that old school) but from American History. Once the quasi-official motto of the United States, E pluribus unum has been supplanted in that role by “In God we trust,” but it still appears on the Great Seal of the United States:

The Great Seal of the United States

Why should this motto be especially apropos, or in any way helpful as a voting guide, in this particular voting round? At first inspection, the phrase might seem too vague – inadequate to the complexity and variety of the issues that count.

Start with the four biggest concerns: the pandemic (and related concerns about healthcare and the education of our young people); the economy (for most, this is about jobs, not just the financial markets); systemic racism (that has dogged our country since its founding); and, finally, America’s (declining) standing in the world.

These are urgent, weighty matters. And there are others. The country and the world face resource needs; in particular we have to keep the food, water, and energy coming. The recent spate of natural disasters – the horrific wildfires and the seemingly endless train of hurricanes, the Iowa derecho, and more – is worrisome whether or not the disasters stem from or were aggravated by climate change. Meantime, environment and ecosystems services are being continually degraded.

By themselves, any of these poses a big national lift – each stupefyingly complex, and each of a different nature, unyielding to any “silver bullet.” So how can they possibly be distilled into a single catchphrase that has any utility?

Well, here’s the reality. Increasingly, Americans are coming to recognize that the biggest challenge we face is cross-cutting: the breakdown of trust and the growing polarization of our society (apologies; this single link is only one of the multitude out there – but then, this is not a new reality, merely an affirmation of an older one. Chances are good you’ve been reading and listening to material along these lines for months or years now)

Enter e pluribus unum. There are reasons for the long-standing popularity of this phrase across the span of US history. To mention just two: it has served to remind everyone of our different geographic origins. It captured the idea that the people of the thirteen colonies, and ultimately fifty states and territories are indeed united. Historically, whenever we’ve faced challenges (the World War II pipeline from the previous LOTRW post provides just a single example) we’ve pulled together. We can and will do so again.

Behind this is an idea which is mere conjecture (per the Darwin quote on the LOTRW masthead) but perhaps contains seeds of a law of social science, with something of the same status accorded Newton’s laws of motion:

  • if we take up societal challenges separately; and attempt to force political solutions on each other, postponing much needed reconciliation until after we’ve won our political victory, we’ll fail in each and every effort, all while ratcheting up the bitter polarization and animus dividing our people.
  • If instead, we make building relationships, trust, equity, and inclusion our primary aim (while maintaining rather than assimilating diversity), there will be no challenge we cannot overcome.  

A bit wordy – not that catchy – but e pluribus unum isn’t a bad distillation. And we all have the sense that if we could through some miracle come together after the election, then we’d have taken a big first step towards solving the problems that face us.

Note well! Some reading this post might say it shows a particular political bias. That’s not the intent. The desire for unity is not confined to either major party, Democratic or Republican, left or right, red or blue. Members of either would tell you that’s not only a desired goal but a necessary one. The disagreement comes in how such unity might be achieved. So you and I, in making our choices, have to dig a bit deeper, look at the candidates, at every level of the ticket, from top to bottom, and ask how much attention each candidate is devoting to this goal in his/her rhetoric, whether the rhetoric matches action, whether the commitment if newfound or lifelong.

If we do that, a miracle will indeed occur!  But it doesn’t lie in the direction you might think. It’s the effect on us. It’s not so much that if we all think like this we’ll elect a certain right set of candidates. Rather it is that if a hundred-some million of us think like this that shared mindset will empower us to transform America.

An important final amendment and rephrasing. One serious shortcoming to e pluribus unum is that throughout much of the American experience, the “many” embedded in pluribus falls short of being the necessary big tent including everyone, on an equal footing. Originally, “many” embraced a variety – but only of white male property owners. It excluded males who owned no real property. It excluded women. It excluded slaves. It excluded LGBTQ. These exclusions have at best been painfully and only partially removed one by one over the years. Indelible stains of age-old inequities remain.

Perhaps a better phrase might be

Ex omnibus, unum: out of them all, one.


If you haven’t already done so, please vote, and let democracy’s miracle occur.

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