S/N

“Preach the gospel, and, if necessary, use words.” – often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.

Engineers tell us that communication is all about the signal-to-noise ratio. The higher the S/N ratio, the better we’re communicating. Are you old enough to have seen the transition from analog to digital communication? Then you have seen a huge improvement in this ratio during your lifetimes. So young that you were born into the digital age? Any change you’ve seen has been more subtle.

With communication the theme of our American Meteorological Society (AMS) Annual Meeting, now fully underway, perhaps this is a good time to assess our S/N ratio, by asking a series of questions.

What do we mean by “signal,” in our context? Many definitions might come to mind. How about this one, to get things rolling: Information about the real world – the world as resource, victim, and threat. Information on what the real world will do next. Is a storm coming? Will the Red River of the north flood again this March? Is an El Nino event in our future? Is the planet warming? Information on how the planet will respond to our activities. Will the air quality index over Seattle rise or degrade over the next twelve hours? Will fertilizer in the rain runoff from Midwest farmlands create a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico months from now? Will acid rain from China reach the Pacific Northwest?

That’s the big picture – our community-wide signal to the larger society we serve. What about at the personal level? “Signal” might be: here are the results of my latest research. Here are my agency’s near-term plans. I’m looking for a new job. Hire me! My graduate student is just finishing up. Hire her! My products and services are the best on the exhibits floor. Work with our company.

What, then, constitutes “noise?” That’s what’s left – anything that doesn’t contribute to the message. Much of that is somebody else’s signal, isn’t it? So it’s the story on who won yesterday’s NFL playoffs, the movie box office returns over the weekend, speculation about what will be in the upcoming State of the Union address, the latest U.S. economic figures, economic and political news from around the world, the latest bit of astronomical science or new breakthrough in biotechnology, a retrospective on an artist’s work, etc.

But noise also comprises – and this is more pernicious – the bigotry, hatred, vituperation, suspicion, slander, lust, intimidation, divisiveness, covetousness, lies, misrepresentations (insert your own ideas here) that’s out there. [Noise comes in many forms, doesn’t it?]

An aside: some people might be tempted to put disagreement, or debate, or uncertainty in the category of noise. It would be possible to have a discussion about this, but for now, let’s put this in the category of signal. In essence, our community is saying, “the Earth is restless and stirring, both on its own initiative and in response to things seven billion of us are doing. We know enough to say this matters – a great deal – but not enough to say just what the Earth is going to do next.”

How good is our S/N? It’s actually pretty good, if you think about the utility of our forecasts and outlooks. Certainly a lot better than it used to be. Our knowledge and understanding, and our service to society, are improving. And within our community, and on a personal level, also pretty good. If you’re at the Seattle meetings, listen to the discourse. The babble of voices is a happy babble. There’s discussion, not argument. There’s a positive attitude, not a negative one. Back in your office? Probably you’re seeing the same thing.

Can we do better, as a community, and as individuals? How? Of course we can raise the S/N ratio – and in two ways. First, we can reduce the noise, starting at the individual level. We can examine our words and check to make sure they’re edifying, on point. And that means examining our thoughts (the precursor of those words). “Out of the heart, the mouth speaks.”

And to complement, lowering the noise, we can enhance the signal. How? By matching speech with action.

“Your actions speak so loudly, I can’t hear what you’re saying.”

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