More inaugural augury. The outlook for ethics, (and the 2017 AMS Annual Meeting).

Ethics: that branch of philosophy dealing with values relating to human conduct, with respect to the rightness and wrongness of certain actions and to the goodness and badness of the motives and ends of such actions.

“Most people, when they consider the boundary between right and wrong, try to stay on the right side, as far away from the line as possible. Beware of those who promise to get you closer to that boundary than anyone has gone without crossing it.” – Robert Hooke (1918-2003).

On the occasion of today’s inauguration, yesterday’s LOTRW predictions continue: ethics will be a huge focus of the national discussion.

Really, Bill? Tell us something we don’t know.

Okay, okay. Given the headlines of the past year, and especially the past two months, this seems to belabor the obvious. Whether it’s the ethics of political leadership amidst financial entanglements, or dragging reluctant publics into a post-fact world, or using executive actions to circumvent Congressional will, or broad application of the presidential pardons, or falsifying auto emissions data, or the lead content of public water supplies, or hovering up the personal data of smartphone users, our political and business leaders are preoccupied with ethical issues and beset with critics.

But ethics begins at home, doesn’t it? Literally. That’s where you and I learn about ethics and see it in the behavior of our parents and neighbors and friends, whether in the observance or the breach. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t think of my mathematician dad’s advice, quoted above. And he lived by that code.

For most of us, the ethics discussion starts early but feels peripheral. There’s the matter of grabbing our younger sibling’s toys. Sorry, bro – but then again, my memory is that you gave as good as you got.

But thereafter, it ratchets up, usually discontinuously. That first time someone asks you to cheat on a school exam. The day you get a driver’s license, and are suddenly responsible for the lives of others on a daily basis. When you land a government job, and take essentially the same oath that presidents take today and every four years. When you get a security clearance. When you transition from private business to public official – maybe even president. On all these occasions, your technical abilities and life skills matter, but the one that’s paramount is your integrity – and your ability to be fair and just and open despite higher pressures and stakes of your new role.

Bring it home, Bill.

Just this kind of seismic shift is underway in Earth sciences, observations, and science-based services. Think about it. Ethics don’t matter so much when the stakes are low (those kid’s toys; they matter only because those are formative years; you and I are deciding what kind of adults we’ll become). They also don’t much matter when any scope for action is trivial. But as the stakes rise, and our actions become more consequential, then ethics move to center stage. Time was, when nature’s bounty seemed limitless, when sources of food and water and energy were abundant and cheap, and where populations were scattered and rural, ethics mattered less. Today we live in a zero-margin world, where all of us are interconnected and interdependent. Living on today’s real world feels more zero-sum. The rights of the poor and otherwise marginalized are in visible jeopardy.

Also, back in the day, our meteorological and climatological predictions weren’t of much value. They were uncertain, laughably so. An example: in every sector, farmers and fishermen and business owners assumed personal responsibility for their weather awareness. They were skeptical of forecasts and relied more on their own sense of the sky and its implications for their work. Today, by contrast, our outlooks and predictions are far superior to those of the past, and are getting more reliable year-on-year. At the same time, agribusiness and energy and transportation sectors and many others have come to depend upon forecasts extending out several days. They are adept in use of probabilistic information and insist on specification of uncertainty.

In this high-stakes environment where the products and services we provide are the basis for action, ethics matter. When can and should a NWS field forecaster begin to act when numerical guidance appears to diverge from on-the-ground reality? What observations, products and services should be considered public goods? What can and should be privatized? What’s at stake with warn-on-forecast? To list these few examples doesn’t do justice to the dozens of ethical dimensions to the daily work of everyone in every corner of today’s Earth observations, science, and services community.

So expect ethics to become a greater part of our dialog over the next four years – and for decades after that. And expect professional societies such as the AMS to pay more attention to these in each Annual Meeting and other venues. Here in Seattle in 2017, there’ll be a Sunday afternoon session in Room 613 of the Convention Center, from 1:30-3:30. Tom Ackerman (meteorologist and climatologist) and Steve Gardiner (philosopher and ethicist) of the University of Washington will lead the discussion.

Later in the week, a panel of the 12th Symposium on Societal Applications: Policy, Research, and Practice, entitled Shades of Gray: A Panel Discussion on Ethics, Law and Uncertainty in the Weather, Water, Climate Community, will be held in the same room, 613. Jay Austin will moderate the panel, which will include:Paul Higgins, Director, AMS Policy Program, Gina Eosco, Risk Communication Expert, Eastern Research Group, Harold Brooks, Senior Research Scientist, National Severe Storms Laboratory, and Jason Samenow, Chief Meteorologist, Washington Post Capital Weather Gang.

Drop by both these sessions if you can. Participate!

See you there.

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One Response to More inaugural augury. The outlook for ethics, (and the 2017 AMS Annual Meeting).

  1. Bill:-

    As usual, thought-provoking essay. A coupla thoughts…

    • Ethics have always mattered. When our worlds were more bounded (or even now in more isolated rural communities) the “mattering” was more personal – unethical acts made ripples on our local pond but were invisible on the wider river beyond. The stakes are higher now – in our more connected world it seems like almost everything matters. The flap of a butterfly’s wings…

    • In science (esp. climate science), I’m sad to say, we’re seeing way too many unethical actions. Smearing those on “the other side” (both sides do it); preventing publication of papers that don’t support our views; appealing to consensus as if science was about opinion instead of facts (Galileo, quantum theory, relativity all were attacked because they weren’t the “consensus view); throttling free speech with “the science is settled” when the uncertainties are far from settled and abound.

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