Friday, July 2, 2010

The complete scientist

A classic argument between being just a scientist and being an applied scientist. It is worthy of considering, since science is not just done for pure fun and amusement by the curious. We are, afterall, interested in using science for the betterment of society. Knowledge gains are practical too, since they provide a foundation from which applied science may be constructed.

I took issue with little in this blog post, but I have my 2 cents:
1. The requirement to go out and be social! I like this point but it is far from practical for your average university professor or average young scientist. These are people busy building not just their knowledge base and communication skills, but also their reputation in the scientific community. They are busy expanding their career and acquiring future funding. There is seldom time for such outreach activities. This is not to say they should not be doing outreach, but rather that their time is better spent in the construction and development phase of their career.  Personally I would much rather the elder scientists participate in outreach activities and from what I see, this happens fairly regularly.

2. watches and warnings are not intuitive. Oh yeah:
person 1: watch out, their might be a something bad around the corner.
person 2: warning, anvil is about to fall on your head from that coyote!

Seems pretty intuitive to me. watch = prepare, warning=action. See the difference?

The confusion lies in the perception of risk that is built into those words from the culmination of life experiences. I was watching "After the catch" about a fisherman from LA who survived Katrina. He did not evacuate and he almost payed dearly. He thought: I survived before and this one wont be so bad. the gist of his story is his wife floated away, to be found alive 6 hours later, and most of his family held onto trees until they got in a boat.

This type of story is common. The forecasting community recognizes these types of social behavior but there isn't too much to do yet. I do know that an NWS office issued tornado warnings when the eyewall of a certain storm was passing through LA. They wanted the gravity of that situation understood in plain words: all hell is about to break loose if you can hear this message (and in particular, if you havent already realized the gravity of the situation). Kudos to you NWS. 

Breaking the myth of how poor weather forecasts used to be and educating the public on how good they are is difficult to do. I was in an airport a while back and a random conversation ensued: "As a meteorologist I get to keep my job precisely because the forecast was wrong". May seem strange, but bad forecasts imply there are tools we need to improve and situations we need to learn from. The publics perception is that we are always wrong (not precise). But that is the entire point we need to convey ... being precise is not what makes a good forecast. Knowing the evolution is much better that getting all the numbers correct*.

*getting all the numbers correct serves a different purpose: Farmers want to know how the heat will affect crops, or how much rain to expect. People in general want to know what the temp will be and how humid and how sunny. But being precise isnt what is promised. A range is always better since local variations will always be present.