Flocking behavior: implications for communicating with one voice

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


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

Separation – avoid crowding neighbors (short range repulsion)

Alignment – steer towards average heading of neighbors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One Response to Flocking behavior: implications for communicating with one voice

  1. Birds (some would say butterflies) flapping wings and ensemble forecasting are a great analogy for a large organization with different directions and opinions. One single future outcome is represented by the path of a single bird or by an individual model “member.” (see 1) However, the *signal* lies in knowing the ensemble average and spread of the flock (is it tightly packed together or diffusive?).

    So, if I had any advice for an organization like AMS, it would be to focus on and to highlight the ensemble average (average of the bird paths). It is possible that on many issues the average is equal to zero, or that the noise is much larger than the signal, but knowing which issues fall into this category can be useful information as well.

    (1) http://www.climate.gov/news-features/blogs/enso/enso-signal-and-noise
    (a post from our new ENSO blog– shameless promotion alert!)

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