What meteorologists might stand to learn from Taylor Swift.

This morning’s Washington Post ran an article on Taylor Swift and her 2017. Some excerpts.

Two weeks ago, on her 28th birthday, Taylor Swift posted a picture to Instagram that her guitarist took during a recent show at an arena in London. The photo shows Swift center stage, spotlight shining down as she plays her new music in front of thousands of fans.

 “I couldn’t have asked for a better year, all thanks to you,” Swift wrote in the caption…

  But Swift herself is constantly criticized for not taking a political stance, as she didn’t endorse a candidate in the presidential election. Many were disappointed that she simply tweeted about the Women’s March in January instead of attending, despite using feminism to fuel her brand over the years. The American Civil Liberties Union sent her a harsh letter after her legal team threatened to sue a blogger who wrote a convoluted post about Swift not publicly denouncing the white supremacists who continue to support her.

 So Swift’s “tone-deaf” Instagram was apparently the tipping point for some. The caption could have just been a few quick sentences that she fired off on her birthday — but Swift is nothing if not strategic…

…all of which, of course, brings to mind the parallel case of meteorology and meteorologists.

For several years now, when the conversation has turned to climate change, we meteorologists have come across as scolds[1]. Arguably, this hasn’t worked that well for us. We’ve swayed few minds. The social science of it all says that sad outcome shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Turns out you and I (and all other mentally-healthy people) respond better to praise than criticism. Who knew?

2017: the year of the scold.

But 2017 has brought (good?) news. We meteorologists are no longer alone. Seems Gandhi was right in suggesting we “be the change you want to see in the world.” (Perhaps as he foresaw?), seems the entire world has come our way.

As in, today, we are all scolds. Start with over 320 million Americans. Democrats have been scolds since the 2016 election. Republicans have scolded in return. Women have spoken up. (Right on! See below.) Under-represented groups, including immigrants legal and otherwise, have taken to the streets. Corporate CEO’s and others have turned to op-eds on the editorial pages with the same mindset. The president – the leader of the free world – can add the title of “Scolder-in-Chief.” Many of his Cabinet leaders follow suit. Former presidents of both parties (realizing they’d missed an opportunity during their respective White House stints?) have joined in the general scolding.

And finally, not just meteorologists but all scientists have become scolds.

The scolding hasn’t been confined to the United States. It’s also pervasive across the rest of the Americas. Reproach and rebuke are rampant as well across Europe – country-by-country – and in the EU. The Middle East has once again become the Fertile Crescent – of admonishment, this time around. China has thus far limited the scolding – by using the pressure-cooker approach – that is, keeping a lid on it. But it’s only a matter of time until the lid blows there as well.

One bit – sobering, but very important to embrace – is that all this scolding is justified. Women’s scolding? Definitely overdue. Can’t emphasize this enough. Women have borne unconscionable abuse and unfairness in too many ways throughout history. Time to speak out. African Americans can make a similar strong case. The case may weaken a bit as you go through the list (CEO’s and scientists? Not so much to complain about, relatively speaking), but there’s at least a kernel of truth to all the accusations and blame, extending even to all the counterarguments. None of us is perfect – far from it[2].

Signal versus the noise.

But how are we liking the result? The noise of criticism is deafening, to the point it’s hard to hear oneself think. And each criticism we launch today may feel good momentarily but seems to spawn two new reasons to be appalled tomorrow.

We struggle with this as individuals – how can we not stand up against the evil in the world? How can we fail to push back? Those around us constantly urge us to take sides, join in the melee, choose “we” versus “them,” define our “we” in terms of “not-them” and so on. Even the humblest of us share Taylor Swift’s dilemma.

We also struggle as institutions. Close to home, the American Meteorological Society, much like Taylor Swift, takes a lot of flak for our reluctance to join in the fighting. We take flak from other science and professional societies. Why aren’t we co-signing this or that letter of complaint? The cause is so obviously just! We take flak from some of our own members. Why aren’t we more actively and comprehensively pushing back against every budget cut, every agency downsizing, every advisory group lost?

The answer lies not just in the lack of human and financial resources to play whack-a-mole at the necessary speed and scale. Fact is, there are better uses for those resources, which it turns out, are inadequate even to pursue the large number of positive opportunities out there. And in history, the direction of positive opportunity – a better world – is the signal. The criticism is the noise. If we don’t like today’s state of the world, the way out, the way forward, is as Gandhi advised, to be the change we want to see, not decry the current reality we hate.

And we meteorologists can contribute so much to build that “more just, verdant, and peaceful world” that the MacArthur Foundation speaks about and that all foundations, and for that matter, faiths, governments, and peoples seek. We advance science through journals and face-to-face meetings. (The next one is coming up fast, on January 7-11, 2018 in Austin, TX.) We provide venues for public-, private- and academic sectors, both nationally and internationally, to dialog, build trust, and by those means accelerate the translation of scientific advance into societal benefit. Through improved climatologies, climate outlooks, and weather forecasts, we lay the foundation for a future world that is safer in the face of hazard risks, more sustainable in its food, water, and energy development and use, and a better steward of habitats, biome, and the environment. We provide resources for school systems and teachers to incorporate Earth science in their K-12 STEM education. By seeking to learn as much from Congress and the public as to teach them, by taking as a given that our diverse perspectives are united around these common better-world goals, we have cultivated a mutual respect that allows us to be non-partisan and keep communication open with all sides.

We can focus on that narrative… and sooner or later the larger world will come along.

In her own way, Taylor Swift seems to have figured all this out in her entertainment universe. She makes commentary, but not through tweets so much as through substance – through the lyrics of her music. Many examples to choose from, but here’s one: Mean – speaking out against bullying. You can find the lyrics here; watch a video here. Perhaps not your favorite, but you get the idea.

So we can learn from Taylor Swift’s example that it’s okay to dial back the scolding. Fact is, we could probably learn a few things from her about marketing more broadly…


[1] For two additional links, you might go back and take a second look at the LOTRW entry from October 24, 2015, or this from July 15, 2014.

[2] The idea behind ideas such as “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” and “Let he who is without guilt cast the first stone.”

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2 Responses to What meteorologists might stand to learn from Taylor Swift.

  1. Bill:-

    Last two posts make fine bookends. As this post says, we must be the change we want. We should quit arguing about the path and make sure we are aiming at the same destination – and that it’s really where we all want to go.

    In a sense, this is simpler for the “blue collars” – they are too busy trying to make ends meet to have time to waste fretting about climate change or other things they can’t control. Their concern is about keeping their families fed and sheltered and safe. The rest of us need to recognize – and respect – the nobility in that. When “they” don’t vote the way “we” think “they” should, when “they” don’t think the way that “we” do, maybe “our” first instinct should be to ask “Why?” And not sneer at their ignorance.

    Maybe “their” focus is different than “ours.” Maybe “their” life experiences lead them to different conclusions than “ours” about LOTRW. Maybe if we and they stop shouting and start listening all of us can find values we have in common. And maybe we can then begin to build the better world we all want – together.

    Have a great New Year, my friend.

  2. Thanks, John, for this peace-making, synthesizing insight… and all the others you’ve generously provided throughout 2017. May 2018 bring you and yours many blessings!

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