The Proper Roles of Hype and Emotion in Science

Recently a few respected scientific colleagues responded to some findings regarding the relatively warm global surface temperatures apparent so far in 2016, compared to the previous year(s), with adjectives such as “stunning”, “shocking”, “disturbing”, etc. Why?

As scientists, is our purpose to act stunned, shocked, saddened or ecstatic (depending on our emotional attachment to the findings or sociopolitical biases revolving thereabouts)?

Alternatively, should we dismiss the temptation to launch hyperbole and simply present scientific findings to media and policy-makers in a factual, levelheaded, mature manner?

I advocate the latter. It is not our purview to influence policy or public opinion on the merits of our own work (or others’ research that directly involves ours); in fact one can argue that it is a conflict of interest. To any extent I may have done so ever, I ask for forgiveness.

Moreover, hyping and exclaiming results also leads to cumbersome, divisive backlash that can range from nuisance-grade distraction to substantially counterproductive to completely self-defeating. That wastes time and concentration that could be used to do science. Instead, we simply should present results, be open, reproducible and accountable about what we’re doing, and let the policymakers and opinions go from there.

If the data, methods and conclusions are robust, and can stand up to scrutiny, they will stand the test of time and attacks by ignorant non-scientists. As I often say, “Excellence is self-evident.” Also: “Excellence needs no self-advertisement.” Nor does it need embellishment from emotionally derived hyperbole. Humility and calm still have a place…or at least they should!

    “But…but…we’re humans, not robots! We have emotions!”

Acknowledged. True, yet irrelevant. To counter: we’re humans, not subhumans. This means the ability — and responsibility — to compartmentalize in a self-disciplined way, to extinguish the smoldering, toxic cigarette of emotion when we need to be objective and analytical. Snarling wolves arguing over a kill can’t turn off their rage or overexuberance, but we are higher-order sentient intellects than that. We can…and should.

It’s great to have a burning, chronically motivational baseline of passion about our fields of study; otherwise why do it? Yet in science, sometimes we need to be able to question, critique and even attack our own work dispassionately, and flip the switch off our egos and self-investments. We need to be prepared to defend our work objectively when it is robust, and to falsify it when counter-evidence appears. Check your emotions at the lab door. Those without that level of self-discipline are not well-suited for science and should consider other lines of work.

Scientists who find themselves emotionally invested in their research should back off that work until such time as it can be done more objectively, or pass it off to someone who has more maturity and self-control. Sure, results may surprise us; that’s the nature of any anti-hypothetical finding. However, hypotheses are meant to be refuted as much as supported. When I am doing research, I am not “shocked Roger”, nor “astounded Roger”, nor “conservative/libertarian Roger”. Those things are dropped off in a box and left there to pick up at the end of the research hours. Why? Easy: they are immaterial to the data, analyses and conclusions.

Data don’t care what we “feel”. The results simply are what they are. We analyze, report and conclude. Why add hype to that? To generate clickbait and draw attention to ourselves in order to pander to fawning from the frothing e-mobs with ten-second attention spans? I pray not! What we do as scientists is not about self, nor about shock-and-awe, but about science, about assessing evidence and offering the results thereof. To inform, not to titillate…otherwise we become walking mini-versions of TV “crockumentaries”, entertainers instead of informers, foolishly validating ourselves as scientists by how loudly an audience claps and whistles at our dog-and-pony act.

The Venn diagrams of reason and hype don’t overlap. And science, above all, is about logic and reason. Keep shock and shouting out of it and compartmentalized elsewhere, in other realms of life. Keep reasoned, keep cool and keep humble. Away from the lab or cubicle walls, in the world outside our own scientific studies, there’s plenty to be about which to be shocked, disturbed, dismayed, thrilled, ecstatic, enraged, etc. Inside: drill into the science and do it with utmost focus, unadulterated by emotional contamination.

Some Lessons from the Sulphur Tornado Intercept

Sleeping after an overnight shift, I awakened to Elke’s informing me of a storm erupting a couple counties to the south. I had asked her in advance to do this conditionally–the condition being a storm forming W of I-35 that could cross the Interstate not far away. This was close to the Interstate, likely necessitating a more eastern approach, especially considering all the road work and likely delays around SW Highway 9 and I-35 in Norman.

When I looked through sleepy eyes at a surface map, satellite image and radar loop, those eyeballs damn-near exploded out of my head–this storm was moving off the dryline and into a tremendously moist and well-sheared environment and obviously would stay that way for another 1-2 hours, and I had to get out the door fast. More on the environment later…

As it turns out, and unbeknownst to me at the moment, the supercell already was becoming tornadic before I pulled my vehicle out of the house. I quickly fueled, picked up my intercept partner for the day (Mateusz Taszarek), and booked out of town as quickly and safely as traffic and lights would allow. Five more minutes delay at any point in the process and we might have missed everything, for we would have had to divert the long way around through Ada instead of plunging straight southward on US-177 toward Sulphur to get ahead of the main mesocyclone.

Anticyclonic forward-flank tornado–inside the core!

Every year we learn new things about the atmosphere. Out of hundreds of supercells I’ve intercepted, this is the only one with an anticyclonic tornado inside the forward-flank core! Scarier still, another few minutes and we might have driven into it unknowingly. Then again, another few minutes and I wouldn’t have attempted to go southward through an even meatier part of the core with the risk of huge hail. We made the plunge because I still could see through it to the other side, and because the obviously intense mesocyclone still would be a few miles W of the road when we passed. Below is an annotated screen capture from a RadarScope display including our location at about image time.

This is the first time I’ve even heard of a well-developed anticyclonic tornado buried inside the forward-flank core. In making the transect, we saw no evidence of it in the gray murk of heavy rain to our W, nor any suspicious wind shifts. We had NW winds W of Roff (as it turns out, on the clockwise side of the mesoanticyclone); but you’d also, often experience the same in that part of a “normal” forward-flank core. Winds then shifted to SE as we exited the forward flank. This is nothing surprising either; a violently tornadic circulation lay a few miles to our WSW.

What was surprising was to glance at velocity information a bit later and see that clockwise-spinning couplet racing away from us to the NE as we positioned temporarily in that great photographic location directly in the big tornado’s path.

Why did the anticyclonic tornado happen? We only can offer speculation and conjecture at this point, pending more detailed mobile-radar information (were they scanning northward at all?) and numerical simulations, so I’ll offer my best guess.

Conceptualize a localized anticyclonic vorticity field along the forward-flank gust front (FFGF), perhaps cast there or reinforced by negative BL vorticity from an absorbed split or left-moving updraft…then reinforced by anticyclonic shear (negative vorticity) ambient to that distance from such a big and intensely tornadic mesocyclone. I’ve seen small, brief anticyclonic tornadoes on FFGFs before. Still, even when reckoning that improbable (yet physically plausible) stack of dominoes, I’m at a loss for how that tornado survives for >12 miles while buried in the static stability implicit to 59–64 deg F (based on car thermometer) surface conditions inside that FF core!

Below are a couple 0.5-deg radar loops Steve Miller (TX) made of the process. He saved me the trouble (thanks Steve!).

Will this change intercept strategies in the future when north of a storm? Maybe. Playing probabilities, the odds are extraordinarily tiny of ever seeing another anticyclonic tornado entombed in the forward-flank core of even a violently tornadic supercell. Yet now we know it’s possible, and we must be vigilant of that. This means paying more attention to wind cues and, when available, radar velocity imagery in and near that part of the storm.

Wet wedge, debris-filled RFD

Okay, this isn’t a great surprise after the fact, in a mesoscale-diagnostic sense, given: rich boundary-layer moisture, low cloud bases (low LCL), favorable deep shear, and strong low-level shear and helicity. The supercell interacted with a vorticity-laden outflow boundary from morning storms for a long time by moving eastward at about the rate and direction the boundary itself eroded.

This is not something that can be forecast more than a few hours out, as analytic details become better-defined, because neither the synoptic operational guidance nor the high-resolution convection-allowing models (CAMs) tend to predict such features well. Some CAMs forecast a supercell in about that area (right for the wrong reasons?), but none finished before 12Z had updraft-helicity (UH) tracks characteristic of a violent-tornado-producing supercell. Regardless, the value of careful human diagnostics shines through here, and helped to motivate a well-reasoned pre-watch mesoscale discussion, then tornado watch and follow-up discussion from the SPC.

The tornado itself was a well-developed wedge when we first saw it to our SW (video capture from Mateusz), breaking out of the forward-flank region, and remained over a mile wide as it crossed US-177 north of Sulphur, based on the annotated NWS Norman path map linked here. The next two photos were shot from the first good vantage we could find outside the forward flank, a spot that also happened to be in the tornado’s path (see map linked above). This also was in a beautiful country setting with green grass, trees, a pond and wildflowers-and unfortunately, a beautiful ranch home that was hit (survey photo and damage-assessment tool image courtesy NWS Norman).

The next four images follow the tornado from our second vantage (green dot on the above map), after we got out of the tornado’s way and let it pass to our immediate NW and N.

Violent tornado(es) and disconnect between winds and damage

The storm already had produced one violent tornado before I got there, and another was underway. For the record, I refer to the first (“Katie”) as “violent” given its EF4 damage rating to one house, and the second (“Sulphur” wedge) also as “violent” due to EF5-level mobile-radar winds ~50 feet above ground, even though the highest damage level found was EF3. Official damage ratings are based on the EF scale, which is a damage scale used to estimate winds. It does contain damage indicators that extend 50 ft or more above ground, which also is where the mobile Doppler radar did its sampling in this case. The EF scale, however, does not contain accommodation for actual wind measurements at or near ground at the level of varius DIs, such as by wind instruments or mobile radar.

We can argue about the problems with this until our faces turn blue, but regardless of science or what you and I think, official policy since mid-2013 forces ratings to be based strictly off damage only, regardless of any and all other evidence. This event piled more fuel onto the flames of disconnect between tornado intensity and tornado damage that began with 2013’s El Reno OK and Bennington KS radar-EF5 tornadoes (the latter of which I also observed and photographed) that “only” produced EF3-level structural damage due to their most intense winds missing structures capable of yielding EF5 results. That happened with Sulphur.

The American Society of Civil Engineers has commissioned a group of meteorologists, engineers and a forestry expert to revisit and standardize the EF scale, which ultimately will refine and add damage indicators. It’s a years-long process. A lot of cooks are stirring that stew, including some I respect hugely. [I’m not part of that process due to lots of night-shift work and associated inability to be coherently present for many meetings.] However, the official policy of rating tornadoes based only on damage is a separate matter, and imparts a strong bias toward populated and densely constructed areas. As such, the official tornado rating is essentially a pathetic joke from a scientific perspective.

The EF Scale as it now stands also is about as useful as a $3 bill in rural areas where violent tornadoes occur, but damage indicators capable of EF5 results either aren’t present or aren’t spaced fortuitously with respect to the tiny area of a tornado that has those top-end winds. That’s a good thing from the human-impact perspective! However, it leads to unrepresentatively low ratings for many high-end Great Plains tornadoes.

A well-developed tornado between supercells!

We had a little trouble finding Highway 7 east out of Sulphur, but once we did, we noticed a new supercell well to the southeast (but conceivably reachable). This would become the Wapanucka/Atoka supercell, its first tornado causing a fatality SE of Connerville. Meanwhile the Sulphur storm charged eastward past Hickory, appearing to lose organization as a rampart of convection erupted between it and the Wapanucka storm to its SE.

We had a decision to make: go after what was left of the Sulphur storm, go home, or try to intercept the Wapanucka storm from a typically unsafe NW approach, as that supercell headed toward the steep terrain, road voids and thick forests immediately east of Atoka. Imagine our surprise, then, when this materialized from a small, ragged, otherwise unimpressive updraft several miles to our ESE, NW of Connerville and in between the supercells!

The atmosphere made our decision for us: “None of the above!” Even though the updraft was rotating, it’s a stretch to call the feature a supercell, since its radar presentation was hardly recognizable, and since the parent cloud form was so disorganized and shredded in appearance. The cloud base is uneven and scuddy, what little updraft there is very tilted and small. Imagine this “storm” with no tornado—would you then expect a tornado to form any second? Below is a zoomed-in perspective.

Coincidentally, we viewed this remarkable tube from 7 miles away at a spot along the same road and very near where I observed another tornado (in a different direction), five years minus two weeks before this. The Connerville tornado offered a spectacular, protracted rope-out.

Thus delayed by observing this tornado, and concerned by the highly unfavorable logistics of intercepting the southern supercell around or east of Atoka from the NW, we crept E on the nearest county road behind the old Sulphur storm in case it revealed any tubes from the back side. That not materializing, we headed home in time for late dinners.

The lessons of this intercept are many, but they include:

  1. Beware the possibility of an anticyclonic tornado buried inside the forward-flank core of an intense, cyclonically tornadic supercell.
  2. Exercise due diligence and great caution with any approach of a potentially or actually tornadic storm from the north (its left flank).
  3. In high-vorticity (high-low-level-shear) environments, such as old outflow boundaries. watch for spinups from any persistent updraft, even if it appears disorganized visually and/or on radar.
  4. When sufficiently interesting storm-observing potential occurs amidst a set of night shifts, have someone alert/awake you to nearby development in a potentially ripe situation (such also was the case for me on 3 May 1999).
  5. Official (EF) ratings are not scientific and don’t necessarily represent tornado intensity. I’ve known this for many years. Chuck Doswell has too, and reinforced the point in a recent entry on his BLOG. One can have violent, EF5 tornado winds without a violent EF rating.

To quote the late, great Paul Harvey: “Good day!”

[EDIT: 19 May 16 for added image links]

Scattershooting 160508

Scattershooting while mourning the loss of Blackie Sherrod, one of the greatest sportswriters…hell, one of the greatest journalistic writers, period, of my lifetime. He started the “scattershooting” tradition many decades ago; and I, for one, plan to carry it forward by doing the same from time to time, on this BLOG, in my style. Get ready for brutal honesty; it’s the only way I know.

I’ve been on five storm intercepts this year, four of them substantially in the same Frederick-Lawton-Marlow corridor. All have been wet, messy supercells or bow echoes–interesting and worth observing (given their close proximity to home), but not yielding much in the way of outstanding photography. Regardless, the mere opportunity to head out a short distance and observe a fascinating variety of severe-storm morphologies, multiple times per year, is a privilege I do NOT take for granted. Every storm intercept is a unique adventure and learning experience. I’d like to thank visiting Polish atmospheric scientist Mateusz Taszarek for his keen and enthusiastic company on all the SW OK storms so far.

As I ponder the upcoming High Plains storm-observing season, the mind’s eye wanders longingly toward those tremendous, post-frontal, upslope-flow supercells that roll off the Laramie Range a couple days each June, like clockwork. They never fail to plant astounding storm structure and/or a picturesque tornado in the viewfinder–sometimes both. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Raton Mesa, Palmer Divide and Cheyenne Ridge too. But all things equal (and how often are they?), I’ll choose the rotating slinky coils that lumber eastward to southeastward off the Laramies toward Yoder, La Grange, Morrill and Pine Bluffs. Their beauty and power mesmerizes me.

We’ll need to behold and appreciate all the natural beauty we can find, and seek solace outside this world (in the Lord), given the continuing degradation of mankind. Here we go…

Speaking of degradation, are you on the left and want someone to blame for Trump? Since leftists love to assign blame instead of solving problems, look no further than Obama. Yes, Obama begat Trump. Every overreaction has an unequal and opposite overreaction. The pendulum keeps swinging wider and wider. That’s the brutal and unpleasant truth. Trump’s support is the overreaction to the thoroughly and unequivocally disastrous Obama regime, which was an overreaction to a mixed-results Bush administration. Both Obama and Trump, at this stage of the game, were/are presidentially unqualified figureheads of pathetic personality cults; and indeed, one is the yin to the other’s yang. Sad thing is: Trump isn’t even an actual conservative; in many ways he is a flaming liberal. Celebrity-worshiper voters, willing to follow any Pied Piper who promises them hope and change, feed these political monstrosities, and the second monster was spawned by the first.

So Bernie Sanders’ supporters are dissatisfied by the powerful moneyed lobbyists and corrupt political climate of Washington, and the Fourth Amendment-violating invasions of Americans’ privacy by the NSA and CIA. So am I, actually, even if I think Sanders is a Utopian leftist crackpot with unworkable solutions, behind his facade of an affable and congenial old guy. So who has been overseeing that source of angst for the last eight years? Guess Obama didn’t deliver the “hope and change” you wanted, did he? Blame Congress instead? Bullcrap. The President and Congress were Democrat-dominated for two years and didn’t even accomplish then what Bernie and his far-left lapdogs want. In fact Obama’s underlings doubled down on the domestic spying from the Bush era. Hey, this is what you voted for. You should have known he, like the overwhelming majority of politicians, would sell out on many of your ideals. Guess what: so would Bernie. That’s right, so would Bernie. The only one I’d even partly trust to make any dent in the spying/cronyism machine is Rand Paul or perhaps the Libertarian candidate that emerges from their upcoming Orlando convention. The former is out of the race, and the latter is unlikely to win despite likely getting my vote. Hanging onto the promises of any one politician is a setup for disillusionment and despair when they inevitably break them. The sooner you realize this, the less naive and more truly enlightened you’ll be.

Bernie Sanders’ odds of winning the primary asymptotically approach zero as Hillary racks up “superdelegates” in a rigged party-machine system, and as more time passes with no criminal indictment against her from a Chicago Democrat-machine Department of Justice. Now, how convenient it is for many Bernie supporters, they of the religiously self-righteous, anti-corporate, income-inequality Puritanism, quietly to lose all interest in Hillary’s nasty habits of 1) covering for and going after the victims of her husband’s serial sexual predations; and 2) playing kissyface with corporate donors, speech-buyers and political influence peddlers. Harder to “feel the Bern” as one’s own principles are sacrificed to expedience, eh? Welcome to the real world, grasshoppers. You’re just pawns in their game, fools played for fools. That’s not cynicism; it’s the plain truth. The sooner you realize this also, the less naive and more truly enlightened you’ll be.

This is going to be the ugliest, most revolting Presidential election of my lifetime, by far. It’s making me consider tuning out politics altogether for a few months (for the first time since age 5 or 6), exiting that malodorous theater stage right, and paying even more attention to storms and sports. You tell me: why should I continue to watch this toxic train wreck that I cannot stop? I didn’t and won’t vote for either of these two vermin. If I’m a lot less conversant on social media about political subjects for awhile, you’ll know why. It’s largely pointless. Defeatist? No, instead realistic…I already cast my vote for a different, better candidate and lost, and will vote out of conscience for a third-party candidate who practically is likely to lose in November. Don’t blame me for whatever happens next. Do improve your survival skills, armaments and stocks of nonperishables, for the sake of dependents even more than self.

I am not depressed in the least, despite all of the above and more ills in the world. In fact I can sit and pragmatically observe this tragic circus, and adapt to the developments arising therefrom, while living reasonably well and happy, in a state of long-term peace beyond all short-term trouble! Why? Easy: Jesus. He is the cure for the disease of worldly culture and suffering. At the Father’s command, on a day and hour we cannot know beforehand, He (unlike any politician) will fulfill His promise. He shall return, then set about cleaning the earth of all its rubbish: literal, figurative and spiritual. His whip-cracking, table-tossing tirade in the Temple, against the money-changers, was small change compared to what’s to come; Revelation promises such. The sooner the better, as far as I am concerned! Until then, through all tribulations, then forever after, glory be to Him!

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