Sunday, May 1, 2011

Don't dumb it down

The Outbreak of 27-28 April 2011 was incredible. Incredible loss of life in a relatively high population density area, amazing damage to what we believe are sturdy structures, amazing long track tornadoes, some incredible supercell storms, incredible LIVE coverage of the tornadoes, and an incredible number of warnings, and a pretty good warning lead time performance for the weather service.

What I also find incredible is the disconnect between the linkage of science and society as it pertains uniquely to journalism. I will not pretend I am a journalism expert. I am not. So take the following with a grain of salt.

What makes a great story are personal details. Something the reader can relate to and understand. As if they were there, reliving the story with themselves as the subject of the story. There is implied intelligence here. This human story does not require anything more than what happened and how did you feel and what was going through your mind. This gives that sense of being there only without the mystery of what happens next. The spoiler was probably the title, and the fact that a person was interviewed means they survived.

To add to the story writers like to add facts for perspective. They look for all kinds of facts. They ask the experts and then they modify the words for effect sometimes losing all coherence. They like to add words like rare and extreme.

Then they add their own perspective. They cite their experience of why they are qualified to offer an opinion. Read that sentence carefully. There is only one. Assess if they are truly qualified to make a statement. It is usually obvious. If you ask a wrongologist, they would remind you that the writer is like the coyote chasing the road runner off the cliff (not having fallen yet). They keep writing because they are on a roll and havent taken stock of where they are. Then they realize. They look down and fall.

I have read a number of articles where the writer just hasn't realized. Then they make statements which seem plausible but wouldnt stand up to a thorough review by a subject matter expert. Remember the experts? They are interviewed first. The editor has the last say. Think he/she is a scientist?

The disconnect is in the presentation of "dumb-downed" science. The public may not understand everything about the science, but surely they are capable of learning. We need a more educated public. A more educated public is quicker to adapt. They are harder to confuse. They are privy to the "inside" information ("inside" will fade away when everyone knows the information). They are more likely to prepare because the risk is that much more understandable, that much more real, and that much more on their radar (pun unintended).

I like when people on TV say things like: "We are not used to this like people on the Great Plains." Thanks. I accept your accolades. You just insulted all your listeners. You told me that other people are more prepared, more accepting of the risk, more in tune with the violent weather risk. You also admitted publicly that you haven't done enough to prepare your listeners for that dreadful day.

Ask any survivor if they are used to being in a tornado that is ravaging their lives. The people are used to warnings and watches. They believe they are at risk, rightfully so, but usually are not directly at risk. Tornadoes tend to be small. That is one aspect of the problem. Big mile wide tornadoes are somewhat rare and also somewhat weaker on average, a fact I still find surprising. (I await that data being published in a peer reviewed journal.)

Not all stories or opinion pieces are bad though. I have read quite a few amazing stories, seen even more on TV. The father and son who left their mobile home to seek shelter face down in a ditch. The apparent life saving act was a tree falling on them to keep them anchored to the ground before it was lifted off of them by the tornado trying to suck them up. I guess the word is getting out to the mobile home folks, even if it is a relative few. This was the 2nd such story I read where people left their mobile home and sought refuge in a ditch. Others who stayed in theirs, were not so lucky.

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Was this event rare? Rare in the once every generation rare. In terms of the meteorology it was certainly unique to have so many supercells producing long lived, long track tornadoes. The violence of those tornadoes was certainly not rare, but the number of them that were violent in a high population density area could perhaps be described as rare.

The EF5 in MS received the following description from the NWS Storm Survey: "appliances and plumbing fixtures in the most heavily damaged area were shredded". That to me is rare, having not been a storm surveyor, but only because I too think that the safest place to be in a house without a shelter or basement is the bathroom. Where all the pipes essentially reinforce the walls at least in a small area.

I should also refer you to this blog: http://stormeyes.org/wp/ for more perspective on this outbreak. It was well worth the time.