Thursday, July 2, 2015

Watch and Warning: errant communication?

During an interview for Wx Geeks, the subject of the confusion caused by the terminology of messages - namely watch and warning - came up as a topic.  Given the short time available during the show, I want to offer some more comments about that topic.  The claim is made by some that the similarity between the two words (what I refer to as the "wa-wa" problem) is the source of the confusion.  I don't pretend to understand how and why this confusion arises; after all, I'm a meteorologist, not a communications expert.  However, I find this premise to be pretty much ridiculous.  To my knowledge, no one has done any work to validate that the public's inability to distinguish between a watch and a warning lies exclusively or even primarily in the "wa-wa" arena.

Imagine we decided to coin new terms for the content of watches and warnings, calling them instead kenutenaries and chinkaderas, respectively.  Does anyone honestly believe that calling them tornado kenutenaries or severe thunderstorm chinkaderas would clear up the underlying problem?  I seriously doubt it.  So what do I attribute this problem of distinguishing watches from warnings?  Anything I'm about to say is pure speculation, of course;  I've done no studies and have no scientific basis for my ideas, but I do have decades of experience with the meteorology and our attempts to communicate its hazards.  What seems plausible to me is that many people in that great, faceless mass called "the public" are basically not interested in the weather very much, unless it's going to affect them directly and personally.  I understand that.  I appreciate that not everyone shares the passion of weather geeks when it comes to the atmosphere.  Not everyone is passionate about hockey, or pole dancing, or scrapbooking, or mathematics, either.  I get that.  Most of the topics limited numbers of people are passionate about don't involve events that can prove fatal to the general public. 

Here's the kicker regarding this widespread lack of interest in the weather (and geophysical hazards, in general):  it can rise up on occasion and kill you!  One would expect, naively, that knowing that risk would get most everyone's attention.  It seems clear this isn't the case.  If you're uninterested in the atmosphere, that doesn't protect you from its threats.  There's one very effective way to protect yourself from atmospheric hazards:  being prepared for them.  If the distinction between watch and warning is an important thing for you to recognize in order to take appropriate action (and it is!), whose responsibility is it to know that distinction beyond any doubt?  Yours!  Everyone's!!  We meteorologists can turn ourselves inside out and backwards trying to figure out how to wordsmith this difference so that no one could possibly misunderstand it, and still, there inevitably will be those who will, by personal choice, not make any effort, and so will remain confused and unable to articulate the difference.  After all, it could never be of concern to them, right?  Until it is.  Then those very same ignoramuses are quoted in the media after a weather disaster "We had no warning!" even when they did have a warning!

If I've learned anything in 40+ years as a meteorologist, it's that you can lead horses to water, but they won't necessarily drink it.  There will always be those whose lack of a sense of responsibility for their own safety will mean they have no clue about things, and certainly won't be sensible enough to plan for what is, after all, a rare event.  Yes, it's "normal" not to be hit by a tornado, so the so-called normalcy bias means people are reluctant to accept that something rare might actually affect them directly and personally.  That normalcy bias is reflected in their behavior when a tornado is in their vicinity:  They want to confirm that it's actually about to happen to them.  But when this complacent, it-will-never-happen-to-me attitude is confronted by an approaching tornado, the odds are good that such people will be ill-prepared and therefore only luck enables them to survive.  They'll be ready to blame anyone but themselves for their misfortune.

Yes, a significant fraction of folks, even in Oklahoma, don't know the difference between a watch and a warning, despite decades of attempts to educate them for their own safety.  Some horses always will refuse to drink, no matter what name by which we refer to the water. 

Yes, we should do the social science studies to learn in more detail why people choose to be ignorant and perhaps there is some verbiage we can use to make ourselves more clear to the public.  At some point, however, we must also recognize that there will never be a time when 100 percent of the public understands perfectly those weather hazard messages we're attempting to convey.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Speaking of the war on equal rights ...

My last blog was focused on my struggle to understand the necessity to drive marriage equality all the way to the SCOTUS.  It seems to me that the 14th Amendment is not really very difficult to interpret: "No person" is to be denied equal rights without due process.  What's to be interpeted there?  I made mention of the war on equal rights, and I need to expand on that a bit.

This "war" springs from the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001.  With the aid of the military-industrial complex and religious tribalism, we as a nation have succumbed to fear as a result of that attack - an irrational fear of terrorism from the outside - you know, islamic jihadists and all that.  It's an irrational fear because the actual American death toll from terrorism (excluding military casualties in our ill-conceived, ineffective military actions against terrorism) doesn't warrant the level of fear that has been generated.  We'll never solve the problem of external terrorists by military action.  Some of the "patriotic" conservative politicians have joined hands with the terrorists in promoting this unreasoning fear for their political (and pecuniary) gain, aided by some media pseudo-pundits* and the news media in general.  We're allowing this exaggerated threat to frighten us to give up our Constitutional freedoms in the name of "security".  This is precisely what we've been warned not to do by no less a person than Benjamin Franklin:

Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

What we've done is to give the terrorists precisely what they want:  to transform ourselves into the de facto enemy of muslims around the world.  Along that path, we're denying ourselves the very freedoms of which we're so proud that have distinguished this nation for much of our history.  We're losing the war on terrorism, badly.  Not only are terrorist actions causing us to waste vast resources on "security theater" as well as huge military expenditures leading nowhere, but we (including the courts!) have gutted the 4th Amendment:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Our lives are being tracked by the so-called National Security Agency (better named the National Insecurity Agency!) without warrant or probable cause, police are being transformed into a paramilitary arm of the government with the apparent right to use deadly force with impunity whenever they wish, and so on.  Edward Snowden, like Daniel Ellsberg (remember the "Pentagon Papers"?) before him should be honored as a hero for exposing the NSA's intrusions into the lives of ordinary Americans.  Instead, he's cast as a traitor and so has been forced to become a fugitive from the "American Justice" for being a whistle-blower.  We're sleepwalking our way into becoming a fascist oligarchy and international bully.  The "collateral damage" from our foreign incursions recruits new terrorists every day.  Ordinary Americans are being bombarded with propaganda about the terrorist bogeyman from islam, while the real threat, resulting from real acts of murder, is home-grown terrorism from right-wing extremists willing to commit any crime to advance their cause.

What makes our nation attractive to the residents of other nations is its opportunities.  Those opportunities spring from the freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution.  We're being led to yield those freedoms for the illusion of our own "protection".  What we truly need protection from are those who would gain from our irrational fears.  Those who profit from that fear are the real enemy and we need to stop giving in to this pressure from our enemies (foreign and domestic) to sacrifice our essential liberties.

*A true pundit is:  a person who knows a lot about a particular subject and who expresses ideas and opinions about that subject publicly.  That is, a subject matter expert.  Most of the media's pseudo-pundits are pretty far from experts in their public proclamations of their opinions about various topics.