In a culture obsessed by weather we are constantly complaining – it’s too hot, it’s too cold, it’s too wet, or it’s too dry. Many suffer through winter waiting for summer and an equal number do the opposite while we identify favourite seasons and talk about being ‘summer people’ or ‘winter people’.
When we are all sweltering in the discomfort of a heatwave (and we certainly do that well in South Australia) we cling to the weather forecast looking for psychological comfort… just knowing there is a cool change on the way (even if somewhat distantly) brings instant relief. Recent online access to weather observations as they are occurring across the state and nation, allow us to spend an even greater amount of time and energy indulging in an almost religous meteorological fervour tracking the temperature, rainfall or stormfront but not really understanding a great deal about the ‘how’ and ‘why’.
Why do they get it wrong?
But woe betides those meteorologists when they get the forecast wrong. Bizarrely, we seem to hold weather presenters and meteorologists personally responsible when forecast weather conditions don’t materialise exactly as predicted yet the weather and climate are a mystery to most people. We place all our faith in the forecast but then take strange delight in smugly reflecting upon how wrong the Bureau of Meteorology got it yet again; even when only by a degree in temperature.
This points to our fickle obsession with weather and yet for many people there is little understanding of weather and climate conditions and how they occur. We constantly ask, ‘Why do they get it wrong?’ What we fail to appreciate is the weather forecast is purely a forecast [prediction or estimation] and due to the chaotic nature of the atmosphere, the massive computational power required to solve the equations that describe the atmosphere, error involved in measuring the initial conditions, and an incomplete understanding of atmospheric processes, forecasts become less accurate as the difference in time for which the forecast is being made increases.
We also fail to recognise the process of weather forecasting has improved immensely since it was first formalised in the mid to late 19th century, with greater collection of raw data, specialist knowledge and technological improvements. In response to widespread criticism about inaccurate forecasting, Dr Alan Thorpe (former head of the Met Office’s climate change arm), suggested the day-to-day broadcasts of local weather forecasts were too short and simple to properly explain anticipated weather conditions.
Informing and educating the public
Expanding the traditional format may better educate the public about how atmospheric conditions develop and influence the weather they experience. Perhaps this is part of the problem manifesting itself in a public resistance to an informed debate about the science of climate change in Australia. It is hard to meaningfully debate something you don’t understand. Here is a short overview presented by meteorologist Dr. Karl Braganza, of how weather and climate conditions are monitored and predictions are made by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.
It is ironic that as our abilities to predict weather and climate improve, the weather is itself becoming less predictable with an increasing number of extreme weather events around the world attributed to long-term climate change. The video below provides an engaging explanation of the global climate system and links between recent extreme weather events. (Duration: 20 minutes)
‘Extreme Weather’, An episode of Catalyst, ABC Televison 2013
Planning for natural disasters
As well as informing our everyday decisions about whether (no pun intended) to wear a rain coat or cancel the school swimming carnival, being able to accurately predict the weather also underpins the effectiveness of service providers such as utility companies. For example knowing there is going to be an extended period of very hot weather enables them to manage day-to-day peak power supplies to homes over hot summers. And being able to predict short to long-term climate conditions has relevance for major infrastructure planning including strategic plans for state and nation-wide water supply as well as budget implications.
Weather forecasting is also crucial for mitigating the impact of extreme weather events. Just consider that climate and water-related hazards account for 90% of all natural disasters. Climate change scientists predict it will be developing nations which will face a greater number of extreme weather events in the future and yet they will be less equipped to either pre-empt or respond to these.
Professor Peter Webster of the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, attributes the disparity between the human impact of Cyclone Sandy (which hit the east coast of the US) in 2012 and those which hit developing nations, to planning which was made possible through accurate long-range weather forecasts (Webster, 2013). The difference is thousands of lives.
It is astonishing to consider that according to Webster, ‘while only 5% of tropical cyclones occur in the north Indian Ocean they account for 95% of such causalities worldwide’ (p. 17). They also have much less resilience and succeeding seasons of unpredictable weather conditions create ever-deepening impoverishment. The unpredictability of weather systems through climate change have undermined traditional weather forecasting knowledge and practices developed over hundreds of years leaving small-holder subsistence farmers at the ‘mercy of the heavens’. The spread of new technologies in poorer isolated districts can provide forewarning if an information-sharing network is in place but access remains patchy. (Herro 2011)
Webster cites the example of a pilot study demonstrating the advantages of timely forecasting in Bangladesh whose low-lying regions are regularly inundated by seasonal flooding. The UN estimated that weather warnings communicated to the community leaders of pilot areas ten days in advance of the 2007 and 2008 floods, allowed residents to harvest crops, lead cattle to safety and store water, food and personal belongings saved an average of US$400-500 dollars per household which is the average yearly income.
‘The science is well ahead of our ability to implement it’
It seems a lack of resources is not only affecting meteorological offices in developing nations. Chief Scientist at the UK Met Office, Dr Julia Slingo suggested a lack of computing power (through supercomputers) due to limited funding was their biggest obstacle to creating better, hazard-relevant weather forecasts. In the journal Nature, she claimed, ‘The science is well ahead of our ability to implement it’, (Jones 2010). And so raw data is not the problem – the ability to analyse enough of it to ensure greater a greater degree of accuracy and certainty is, such as with Russia’s record drought which had a major impact upon global food security as the failure of Russian grain crops saw commodity prices soar.
Dr Slingo’s prayers have recently been answered with the UK Treasury committing to the purchase of a new supercomputer so the UK Met Office can develop ‘its world-class research base.’ Others suggest, however, even with all the computing power in the world someone still has to choose the best mathematical model and parameters for the computer to use in any given situation.
Some commentators go on to express a belief that climate science has become ‘state science’ pursuing a particular propagandist climate change agenda as opposed to a disinterested pursuit of knowledge. Hence they accuse such institutions as the UK Met Office as being committed to the wrong computer model and failing to update their climate assumptions; thus incapable of providing accurate weather forecasts and climate predictions. They use the past winter and current summer as clear evidence. [This alternative view published in The Spectator magazine can be read in full online. Similar commentary about the claimed 20% revision down of previous climate warming predictions by the UK Met Office can be found online at the home of the think-tank GWPF (Global Warming Policy Foundation); anthropogenic climate warming skeptics.]
The following video (another from ABC Television’s science programme Catalyst) entertainingly looks at the last 100 years of Australia’s recorded weather to find out whether it has really changed. (First aired November 15, 2012) Catalyst: Taking Our Temperature – ABC TV Science.
Thanks to James Byrne’s (RiAus) discussion yesterday of his blogging regarding use of antibiotics in the US meat and livestock industry, I have been prompted to discuss the bestselling book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Penguin Press, New York, 2006) by US celebrity food writer and Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at the Berkeley Graduate School of Jornalism, Michael Pollan. You may have come across the book if you consider yourself a ‘foodie’, organic agriculture supporter, agro-scientist, sustainability student, or government/big business conspiracy-theorist. I think it is also quite pertinent to the subject matter of this blog – negotiating science literacy through the intersection of science, domestic life and cultural ‘norms’.
The reason I want to talk about this work is because I read and reviewed it while undertaking another course and looked at it from the perspective of global food systems (I will attempt to post and link to my book review later). However, after a talk from Dr Paul Willis at RiAUS yesterday morning about science literacy and science equity, I went back to my original book review and realised I hadn’t addressed or even clearly acknowledged the strong science theme running through it. In fact I ignored it almost entirely. As per usual my interest was focussed more squarely upon the cultural dynamics at play. But upon reflection, Pollan comments a great deal upon science, both directly and indirectly to frame his debate on the politics of food. These comments are usually in the context of highlighting evidence and mainly about the ‘evil’ of science (muwha-ha-ha) or rather the evil of the industrial food system which has been driven forward based upon scientific breakthroughs. It does this, however, in a very dramatically engaging and entertaining style – incessantly firing selective scientific facts and figures at the reader to shock and awe. It is through the ‘unbelievable-ness’ that one believes what is claimed on the page. What does that say about how our brains process information?
The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a borrowed phrase from research psychologist Paul Rozin (1976) referring to how people’s biological ability to ingest just about anything nature offers creates anxiety when it comes to deciding what we should eat. Being generalist eaters has advantages and disadvantages, allowing us to sustain ourselves across different environments but it also means we can be faced with too much choice. Our cultural traditions which codify, ‘the rules of wise eating in an elaborate structure of taboos, rituals, recipes, manners, and culinary traditions’ (2006, p.4) are no longer reliable guides as our food chain becomes longer and more anonymous through an industrialised process.
Contributing to the omnivore’s dilemma is a modern food industry offering us cheaper variety than ever before in ever diverging processed food forms. This complicates our ability to identify what is ‘good’ food and what is ‘bad’ when contemplating health, ethical and moral questions. If eating represents our fundamental engagement with the natural world as suggested by Pollan, then our consumption of highly processed food pumped out of the industrial food chain is a rather dysfunctional and unhealthy relationship.
Pollan directs particular criticism towards the growth of the commercial GMO agriculture sector and the industrialised livestock model including the use antibiotics to enable ruminants to digest corn (because it is cheap and produces high-yielding harvests thanks to genetic modification) which hardly sounds like scintillating reading. He is, however, an undeniably great storyteller but he has also been accused of failing to tell the full story and reliably represent the science-based facts he uses. Adam Merberg[i] who is well-known online for critiquing Michael Pollan provided an opinion piece for the Berkeley Science Review which criticizes Pollan’s work for a lack of accuracy in representing the historical scientific record and failing to understand the scientific method. There is also a good discussion to found in the article’s attached comments from readers.
I guess there is a dilemma about a literary genre which is not aimed at science professionals but at the public and to be successful it therefore needs to be entertaining and compelling; hence the drama underpinned by a selective interpretation of history. I have no doubt Pollan believes passionately in what he says as do many of his readers who are likely to take a dim view of scientific endeavour after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma as it fails to sufficiently differentiate the underlying science from what the science was used for (which is also up for debate). Pollan is criticising scientific reductionism suggesting throughout his book society is sometimes too quick to employ new discoveries without fully understanding them. This is a point I am inclined to agree with to some degree. Does this suggest there are limitations to the scientific method? Perhaps – with our somewhat fallible decision-making. I look forward to your opinions in response to that particular query.
Pollan is a very successful and plausible communicator who knows his audience. Whether or not you agree with his opinions, his work is bringing application of science up for debate by popular audience through demonstrating its significant place in their lives; albeit not always in a good light. But isn’t this important too? I don’t think anyone would suggest it is good for science should be isolated from challenge. And all too often, science is presented as fact while failing to provide contextual meaning for society as a whole. I believe science communicators need to take this into account, recognise that this (science communication) is contested territory and attempt to better understand how science is (and can be) accessible and meaningful to the populace. It seems to me (as a non-scientist) this is particularly hard for scientists to appreciate properly without understanding what fundamentally motivates people is not always black and white.
I leave you with the loaded question, how do authors like Pollan contribute to or detract from science literacy and/or equity? Happy reading.
from the domestic scientist
[i] At the time of writing the article in 2011, Adam Merberg was a Ph.D candidate in Mathematics at UC Berkeley.