Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Predictable Adversaries


At the outset of an otherwise mediocre article on AGW, Leslie Kaufman provides some useful background information for people who came in late:

The debate over global warming has created predictable adversaries, pitting environmentalists against industry and coal-state Democrats against coastal liberals.
To put it another way, a scientific question was reduced to a matter of identity politics, so that it could be debated ad infinitum in the media, according to unreasonable rules that journalists enforce while pretending to be objective bystanders.

But now, "the debate over global warming" is also creating friction between groups that "might be expected to agree on the issue: climate scientists and meteorologists, especially those who serve as television weather forecasters."
Climatologists, who study weather patterns over time, almost universally endorse the view that the earth is warming and that humans have contributed to climate change. There is less of a consensus among meteorologists, who predict short-term weather patterns.
Which is really just a roundabout way of saying that people who understand climate science tend to have a better grasp of climate science than people who don't. The fact that climatologists and weather forecasters both talk about rainfall doesn't make them peers, any more than my ability to play "Chopsticks" makes me Charles-Valentin Alkan's peer. The only surprise here is that anyone imagined otherwise.

Kaufman notes that only about half of America's weather forecasters have a degree in meteorology. It's probably coincidental that a recent study found that "only about half of the 571 television weathercasters surveyed believed that global warming was occurring." But either way, who cares? What makes the opinion of these non-experts more compelling than that of any other non-expert?

Kaufman explains:
The split between climate scientists and meteorologists is gaining attention in political and academic circles because polls show that public skepticism about global warming is increasing, and weather forecasters — especially those on television — dominate communications channels to the public. A study released this year by researchers at Yale and George Mason found that 56 percent of Americans trusted weathercasters to tell them about global warming far more than they trusted other news media or public figures like former Vice President Al Gore or Sarah Palin, the former vice-presidential candidate.
Some Americans may doubt AGW because they trust weathercasters. Others may trust weathercasters because they doubt AGW. Whatever the case, Kaufman predictably ignores the role of the media: the fact that dissenting TV weather forecasters tend to work for the very same businesses that routinely provide a megaphone to other non-expert denialists is somehow not germane to the issue of "public skepticism."

So some people who are frequently on TV say one thing, and other people who are rarely on TV say something else, an isn't it interesting how people disagree about stuff?
“In a sense the question is who owns the atmosphere: the people who predict it every day or the people who predict it for the next 50 years?” said Bob Henson, a science writer for the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, who trained as a meteorologist and has followed the divide between the two groups.
In another, more accurate sense, the question is: who has enough expertise to assess the data and draw conclusions that are likely to be trustworthy?

That's no fun, though. Isn't it better to reduce everything to a pissing contest, even if it means grotesquely misrepresenting the terms of the debate? Granted, you can't say that weather forecasters attempt to "predict the atmosphere" in the sense that climatologists do. And you shouldn't imply that forecasting three days of rain in Portland, OR requires the same knowledge and skills as climate modeling. And you can't pretend that the media are simply watching this Clash of the Titans from the sidelines; allowing one's weather forecasters to strut around in borrowed plumes is a management decision, after all.

But when all's said and done, views differ! And isn't that what matters most in a democracy like ours?
“There is a little bit of elitist-versus-populist tensions,” Mr. Henson said. “There are meteorologists who feel, ‘Just because I have a bachelor’s degree doesn’t mean I don’t know what’s going on.’ ”
Damn straight. I don't know the meaning of half those long words, and I don't believe climatologists do either.

The fact that meteorologists are vying with climatologists to be accepted as experts on climate data doesn't really strike me as an outbreak of populism. But it's nice to be reminded that although we praise individual effort as the solution to all life's problems, we tend to detest people who are actually rewarded for it. In a scrupulously fair meritocracy like ours, assuming that the people above you are phonies and cheats is almost as important as sneering at the poor.

Since we must maintain the polite fiction that the AGW debate takes place on a level playing-field, it's better to complain about the ignorance of meteorologists than the professional rewards they can earn by putting it on display.
“What we’ve recognized is that the everyday person doesn’t come across climatologists, but they do come across meteorologists,” said Melanie Fitzpatrick, a climate scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Meteorologists do need to understand more about climate because the public confuses this so much.”
Sure. Because if meteorologists understood more about the climate, they'd stop resenting all those goddamn climatological elitists and admit that AGW probably isn't a hoax. And then, the executives who pay their salaries would reward their honesty by giving them more money and more airtime. And then, any doubters in the audience would conclude that these previously skeptical meteorologists had been swayed by the evidence, rather than indoctrinated into some sort of anti-human death cult. And then, at long last, we'd reach a public consensus as well as a scientific one. Which could conceivably lead to an eventual consensus on some sort of prospective solution, long after we're all mercifully dead and buried.

It's worth a shot, I guess.

14 comments:

Jazzbumpa said...

The real salient, deeply buried point, which becomes obvious when you consider such gems as the person who wrote "Al gore can suck eggs" to the editor of my local paper upon observing that it had snowed last winter, is most people have no awareness that climate and weather are two different things.

As always, WASF,
JzB

grouchomarxist said...

Nothing to add, really. Just glad you're back posting.

emmasi said...

Certainly broadcast meteorologists have a strong incentive to be skeptics. Or to put it another way they have a strong disincentive from being AGW proponents. Most everyone who is employed in the private sector in the US knows that being an AGW skeptic is the smart opinion. It almost goes without saying the boss is a skeptic.

If a TV meteorologist spoke on air about GW at all, setting aside the A part the email box and phone lines would fill with very angry missives. I would hazard a guess that most TV and radio stations have a policy for their weather people to never mention GW at all. Better safe than sorry.

Now if someone can point out 1 or 20 media weather people who are mild to wild proponents of GW and or AGW then I would be heartened.

Rmj said...

I had a friend in elementary school who had the "Rock 'Em, Sock 'Em!" Robots. I always envied him those.

Of course, after five minutes play they weren't any fun anymore, because all they did was the same old thing, and we'd go outside and crawl around in storm sewers and pick up sticks to make guns out of.

I wonder if you still don't need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

Phila said...

Nothing to add, really. Just glad you're back posting.

Thanks, GM. I was out in the desert for a few days. Mental health break, basically.

Phila said...

RMJ,

Of course, after five minutes play they weren't any fun anymore, because all they did was the same old thing, and we'd go outside and crawl around in storm sewers and pick up sticks to make guns out of.

They certainly looked good in the commercials, though! Lots of personality.

Sticks were my preferred toy, too.

That bit about storm drains reminds me of something that occurred to me the other day, when I was reading an old book in which a bunch of unsupervised kids wander off into the landscape and end up having various supernatural adventures. It struck me that for a lot of kids today, the lack of supervision might seem less believable than the supernatural incidents.

I don't know any kids who have that kind of freedom. Hell, I know a 13-year-old who's not even allowed to walk alone to the library, even though it's only six blocks from his house.

I may as well have grown up on a different planet.

Phila said...

emmasi,

Certainly broadcast meteorologists have a strong incentive to be skeptics. Or to put it another way they have a strong disincentive from being AGW proponents. Most everyone who is employed in the private sector in the US knows that being an AGW skeptic is the smart opinion. It almost goes without saying the boss is a skeptic.

Depends on the industry, of course, but yeah, I think there's a lot of truth to that.

Rmj said...

I don't know any kids who have that kind of freedom. Hell, I know a 13-year-old who's not even allowed to walk alone to the library, even though it's only six blocks from his house.

I may as well have grown up on a different planet.


I still remember when the family home got "central air," instead of the window units which were only turned on in August.

Didn't matter, since we spent every day, winter and summer, outside when we weren't in school. Used to walk to the store and back, just for something to do, or ride bikes around town. As you say, no one worried that we wouldn't come home. Then again, no one thought to sit in front of a cathode ray tube for hours on end, either.

I sometimes think that's the difference between "then" and "now." "Now" we obsess over distinctions we can find in "debates," which are really just pissing contests because we're bored with our toys and we can't find the box to play with, and we don't want to go outside.

Because it's so much more comfortable here in the air conditioning. But there's nothing on TeeVee....

Phila said...

Jazzbumpa,

most people have no awareness that climate and weather are two different things.

Sure. Although as time goes on, I'm starting to suspect that it's not a lack of knowledge so much as a failure to call it to mind. I suspect that in everyday life, the knowledge is there when it's useful. But when it comes to AGW, it just sort of evaporates.

I know a guy who's capable of getting very worked up about harsh winters in N. America while ignoring hot summers in Australia. He's lived in the Southern Hemisphere, so he definitely knows about the difference in seasons. But when he needs to forget about it, he does.

Of course, some people are simply ignorant. And journalists could undoubtedly do a better job of explaining and contextualizing climate issues. But on the whole, I don't think a lack of information is the problem.

There was a Freeper the other day who said that the only reason Gandhi was nonviolent was 'cause he didn't have enough guns to go around. If he'd had adequate firepower, he would've used it, obviously! I mean, who wouldn't?

In theory, it should be pretty easy to rebut that argument with facts. In practice...well, you go first.

Anyway, whatever blind spot causes the inability to distinguish between weather and climate seems to me to be matched by the blind spot of journalists and scientists who think that once everyone finally understands the difference, we'll be able to move the argument forward. The assumption that public opinion is all-important in this debate is as ideologically willful as anything we're talking about, IMO.

Not arguing with you, you understand. Just overcaffeinated and rambling.

Phila said...

Didn't matter, since we spent every day, winter and summer, outside when we weren't in school. Used to walk to the store and back, just for something to do, or ride bikes around town. As you say, no one worried that we wouldn't come home.

My parents would be arrested, nowadays, for some of the things they let me do. And the funny thing is, they were generally anxious people...they worried and brooded about all sorts of things. But preventing kids from playing outdoors, unsupervised, until well after dark would never have occurred to them.

I sometimes think that's the difference between "then" and "now." "Now" we obsess over distinctions we can find in "debates," which are really just pissing contests because we're bored with our toys and we can't find the box to play with, and we don't want to go outside.

Beats me. It's an odd time. Sometimes I see it as a sort of adolescence, where we're facing certain responsibilities for the first time, but also running away from them. There's a lot of petulance and stupidity, but part of that is simply because change is inevitable.

As someone who's extended his own adolescence a few decades beyond the normal bounds, this isn't necessarily a hopeful comment.

Rmj said...

There's a metaphor in there somewhere.

Let the reader understand....

Rmj said...

Then again, no one thought to sit in front of a cathode ray tube for hours on end, either.

OTOH, we did. We were the TV generation, after all.

But it seems to me that complacency coincided very nicely with the widespread advent of "Central Air."

Why sit passively inside if it's the same temperature as outside, and outside you might catch a nice breeze?

Phila said...

There's a metaphor in there somewhere.

One, at the very least!

Phila said...

OTOH, we did. We were the TV generation, after all.

I watched a lot myself. Not usually in the daytime, though.

OK, sometimes in the daytime, maybe. But no more than an hour or two. Usually.