Tornadoes, climate change, and real scientific literacy

Discuss

82 Responses to “Tornadoes, climate change, and real scientific literacy”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Very nice piece.

    And that photo looks like what you see in that kind of storm. When we used to live down south a sky like that would of had us heading for shelter because one was going to hit somewhere soon.

  2. Colorado Bob says:

    Maggie -
    There’s a difference between scientific literacy and willful ignorance …….
    ” Rep. Dana Rohrbacher (R-CA) was “one of President Reagan’s senior speech writers” from 1981 to 1988. Reagan, of course, famously said “Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do.”

    So it is perhaps not a complete surprise that at a House hearing on UN climate talks chaired by Rohrbacher, he actually asked:

    “Is there some thought being given to subsidizing the clearing of rainforests in order for some countries to eliminate that production of greenhouse gases?” the California Republican asked Todd Stern, the top U.S. climate diplomat and lead witness at the hearing. “Or would people be supportive of cutting down older trees in order to plant younger trees as a means to prevent this disaster from happening?”

    • gravytop says:

      “Reagan was lampooned by Democrats in 1980 for having claimed that 80 percent of air pollution was caused by plants and trees. Reagan aides later said the then-presidential candidate had been misquoted and was referring only to certain types of pollutants, not to all air pollution.

      The world’s trees, shrubs and other plants do produce massive amounts of hydrocarbons – nine times as much as do automobiles, by some counts.

      Those gases, most notably isoprene, are major ingredients of ozone, a lung irritant linked to asthma and other serious respiratory ailments.”

      http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/03/17/tech/main544188.shtml

      • witsendnj says:

        Gravytop, you are cherry picking -either you did not bother to read the entire artivcle, or a deliberate misinformer. Here’s a fuller explanation:

        The world’s trees, shrubs and other plants do produce massive amounts of hydrocarbons – nine times as much as do automobiles, by some counts.

        Those gases, most notably isoprene, are major ingredients of ozone, a lung irritant linked to asthma and other serious respiratory ailments.

        Ozone formation also requires a second ingredient: nitrogen oxides, a byproduct of the combustion of fossil fuels. A major source of those gases is the tailpipe of just about every car, truck and bus on the planet.

        Waft nitrogen oxides – NOx for short – over a forest of isoprene-emitting oaks in, say, the suburbs of Atlanta, throw in a little sunshine and ozone levels will spike.

        “It’s not the trees’ fault we’re throwing NOx at them,” said Jose Martinez, an atmospheric chemist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

        In other words, Gravytop, if there were no nitrogen oxides from human emitted pollution, ozone wouldn’t exist to cause the epidemics of cancer, emphysema, asthma, and other diseases it is inked to including diabetes, Alzheimers and autism.

        Not to mention, the vegetation is even more sensitive to poisonous greenhouse gases and is dying back at a rapidly accelerating rate. It is also causing crop yield and quality losses in the billions annually, according to NASA, the USDA and numerous international agencies. See:

        http://witsendnj.blogspot.com/p/basic-premise.html

  3. awjtawjt says:

    This sky is too gray. (LOL)

  4. oligore says:

    While I don’t think there is any statistically significant link between tornadoes and climate change, I think it’s good that fear of tornadoes might increase political action on climate change because nothing else seems to.

    • Gulliver says:

      While I don’t think there is any statistically significant link between tornadoes and climate change, I think it’s good that fear of tornadoes might increase political action on climate change because nothing else seems to.

      Except that it won’t work. Scare tactics will drum up a modicum of short term support that will evaporate when something else catches the public’s need to justify their existential fear with something external and vast. The only way to get long term support for addressing generational problems is through education and persistence. Preying on people’s ignorance is not only unsustainable, but it will come back and bite you in the ass when doubt is inevitably cast on you depiction of the issues.

  5. Andy Rofl says:

    ‘The colors of reality become oversaturated–greens too green, yellow a sickly gold. This is what tornado weather looks like.’

    … because during a tornado all cameras automatically switch to HDR photography mode.

  6. Anonymous says:

    There is a certain fitting irony, given the context of the story, to the number of people opining learnedly as to the technical provenance of the photo without, you know, bothering to click through to Flickr and read what the actual photographer wrote. (I won’t spoil it for you.)

  7. mccun934 says:

    Just to clear things up from the point of the photographer:

    I took the photo used in this post, linked to here:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/mccun934/5262033742/

    It was taken back in December 2010 in Beaverton, Oregon during the day we had a tornado strike south of Portland near Salem. I have been getting a lot of hits and re-uses of the photo because I license ever photo I take with CC+Attribution and it comes up a lot for searches of ‘tornado weather’

    It is very much an HDR and a particularly bad HDR at that. I chose to use HDR just to cheaply bring out the detail in the clouds which to the eye actually did look like they do in the photo but didn’t spend much time processing or correcting the photo. I just fired off 3 exposures, loaded up PhotoMatix, processed and uploaded the photo. I don’t think it is art or even a good photo but people seem to like to use it to illustrate a point so in that respect I suppose it served the intended purpose.

    I don’t generally like or use HDR that much but in cases where you want to easily bump up the contrast of a photo and get people’s attention it is a tool that can be used.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Have you ever read about the Gaia Theory. It was a study commissioned by NASA in 1966. It basically says that everything on the earth is connected one way or another in a synergistic entity. Using that as a basis is it possible that climate change and world unrest are inter-connected? Gaia Theory says it is. Of course Wiki has an article on it. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaia_hypothesis

  9. travtastic says:

    Gah. Photography is too fake. I only use my eyeballs.

  10. andrewgd says:

    Please stop using poorly corrected “HDR” photographs.

    • tamgoddess says:

      I’m glad someone else was annoyed with that HDR photo. Yuck.

      • xtalman says:

        If you have ever seen storms roll in like the ones we have had you will realize the shot are probably not color corrected. Colors do take on a very different hue during these storms.

        • PaulR says:

          If you spend a lot of time working in the field of photography, you realize that the photographer likely used a Cokin half-filter to darken the upper half the photograph…or it’s shopped.

          Look at the buildings.. There’s the clue.

      • shamptonian says:

        lol…I logged into comment on that bad HDR photo, but two of you beat me to it :)

        PS I don’t think it’s even an HDR; it looks like someone just put an exposure gradient on the sky, w/o masking the houses, then added another on the bottom to boost the exposure of the foliage.

        • Anonymous says:

          That photo isn’t shopped at all. That is exactly what tornado weather looks like–the colors and everything. Hell, I’ve even seen thunderstorms that look like that.

          • Anonymous says:

            “That photo isn’t shopped at all.”

            The climatologists argue that non-climatologists need to stay out of the climate change debate. Similarly, people who have no experience with Photoshop should stay out of the discussion. :->

      • Anonymous says:

        I take it you’ve never seen the sky do that..?

  11. Anonymous says:

    There is a whole other point that is not addressed by this article. While once cannot show that the recent tornadoes were caused by climate change we still do know that 1) tornadoes and other severe weather events are very, very bad; and 2) there will be more severe weather events in the future due to climate change.

    Since we can’t change the past we really need to think about the future and see what hard science tells us will happen when there is far more CO2 in the atmosphere.

  12. GreenJello says:

    Interesting post, I’ve been thinking about global climate change, and what all these tornados mean. It’s cool to hear somebody say that something like this can have a lot of different meanings.

  13. tesselater says:

    “If we pump people full of facts, but don’t teach them about uncertainty, then we can’t be surprised when they dismiss anything that isn’t 100% certain.”

    Thank you. Thank you. This piece of knowledge needs to be on the wall in front of every science teacher’s desk, at every science museum, and at every vote for science funding.

    How can we make that more broadly realized?

  14. Mister44 says:

    You know why I hate ‘climate change’? It is it’s politicized rhetoric. You can’t have an honest opinion or open debate because you are instantly branded an SUV driving, Texas oil tycooning, earth hating, ignorant conservative – or an organic eating, hybrid driving, knows what’s best, hands waving in the air screaming, “OMG we are all gonna die if you don’t start to bottle your farts and get a solar powered toilet!” liberal.

    Then we have statements from people like “All these disasters must be connected and only willful ignorance allows us to ignore that.” – who sound just as ridiculous as people say it’s god punishing us for the new Lady Gaga album (as if the album wasn’t punishment enough.)

    One thing to consider, while we have had an uptick in the number, May IS the #1 month for tornadoes, and it is possible that the year will end average or only a little bit above. Even if we do set a record, you can look at the number of F3-F5 tornadoes and see that 1974 sticks out like a sore thumb with nearly 2x as many tornadoes than any other year in the last 60 years (other than 1965). What was so special about 1974? Could it be that ‘shit happens’, and there may not be direct causes? That there is a factor of randomness?

    With the comparison of DEATHS, it is more or less irrelevant in my opinion. DEATHS have more to do with dumb luck. If a tornado hits in the middle of a field, it can harm no one. The same storm slams into the middle of a town – and you get Armageddon.

    So yeah… I hate climate change. The whole debate will be moot when everything north of South Dakota is under a mile of ice.

    • Anonymous says:

      You know why I hate ‘climate change’? It is it’s politicized rhetoric. You can’t have an honest opinion or open debate because you are instantly branded an SUV driving, Texas oil tycooning, earth hating, ignorant conservative – or an organic eating, hybrid driving, knows what’s best, hands waving in the air screaming, “OMG we are all gonna die if you don’t start to bottle your farts and get a solar powered toilet!” liberal.

      You can have an honest opinion. Read some climatology journals, learn to understand the science, evidence, and statistics, and make your own decision. What you’re complaining about is that reading “climate change is a socialist conspiracy!” editorials doesn’t count, and people call you on it.

  15. ncarp says:

    Thanks for this beautifully-articulated post, Maggie. I think it gets to the heart of much of the ridiculousness of the “culture wars” by pointing out that it’s not so much an issue of presenting the facts (facts are cheap…), but of our means of communicating science. I study and teach communication theory, so I apologize for the name-dropping, but there’s a great quote by James W. Carey in an essay called “A Cultural Approach to Communication” (1988) in which he says “models of communication, consequently, create what we disingenuously pretend they merely describe.”

    In other words, we’re in serious trouble if the public continues to follow a model that science education is about “teaching controversies.”

  16. Anonymous says:

    So, this reads to me like we would have better public understanding and, hopefully, better policy if we just moved to practicing and reporting science using likelihood statistics (where we can say we have x% of certainty in a particular connection) instead of frequentist methods (where we have that backward weird ‘can or cannot reject the hypothesis’ crap).

  17. OldBrownSquirrel says:

    What strikes me is not so much the number of tornadoes, but the number of fatalities. What strikes me most about the fatalities is the apparent geographic skew. Looking at the tornado in Minneapolis (one dead) or the Comfrey-St. Peter outbreak in 1998 (two dead) make me ask why Southern tornadoes are so much more deadly.

    Underenforcement of regulations might be a factor. Greater severity of tornadoes in the South might be another. Poorer disaster preparedness by local governments, less effective warning systems, and less effective public education about how to behave during a natural disaster might also contribute. Demographics might be another explanation; the recent tsunami in Japan killed a disproportionately large number of seniors with impaired mobility.

    If Democrats want to find ways to blame the destruction on Republicans, climate change probably isn’t the best drum to beat.

    • Anonymous says:

      The reason that Southern tornadoes are deadlier is because there are more of them and they are bigger.

      Take a look at the map of tornado tracks here from 1950-2006. You should notice a trend. That trend is that there is a high density of bad and long-track tornadoes in the South.
      http://news.discovery.com/earth/redefining-tornado-alleys.html

      That being said, I should point out that Southern tornadoes AREN’T more deadly. Most of the tornadoes in the South go through farmland and don’t hurt a lot of people. But the South has a whole damn lot of tornadoes, and so even if most go through farms, there are still a lot that go through towns and cities.

      TL;DR There is probably an order of magnitude difference between the number of tornadoes in Minnesota vs. Mississippi. And there’s probably an order of magnitude difference between the occurrence rate of F3+ tornadoes in Minnesota and Mississippi. That’s why you might be noticing that geographical skew.

    • elsuperjeffe says:

      @oldbrownsquirrel,
      under-enforcement of regulations has nothing to do with it – only a reinforced concrete bunker can predictably withstand a tornado.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Odd question but how did First Nations of the region cope or not with tornadoes? What does their oral history tell us?

    • Mister44 says:

      Not that I am an expert – but I don’t think much. Simply put, any direct hit of a tornado would wipe all traces of them out.

      I recall one ‘legend’ that if you build between the fort of two rivers/large creeks it will prevent tornadoes from hitting it.

  19. Utenzil says:

    Reed Timmer had some comments re: La Nina and other conditions that lend themselves to a particularly ferocious tornado season.

    http://www.spotterchat.org/?p=138

    re xtalman’s post: yes, anyone who has been under tornado forming clouds will recognize the “hyperreal surreality” that the scenery takes on is well represented in that photo.

  20. Anonymous says:

    Interesting, passionate take on this issue. I also think NOAA’s analysis, released a week or two ago, was much more limited than many people interpreted it. My coverage at Climate Central (/blogs/another-day-another-deadly-tornado-strikes-the-us/index.html) and washingtonpost.com has focused on the environmental factors that are favorable for producing tornadoes, and how those may change. I agree that risk and uncertainty should be talked about, and taught, a whole lot more than they are.

    -Andrew Freedman, editor, Climate Central

  21. caross says:

    Where is that photo taken?

  22. exitr says:

    I think too much emphasis is placed on “scientific literacy” in thinking about global warming. Scientific literacy is no doubt a Good Thing, but it’s hard to think of instances where it’s been the basis for large-scale political action or social change. There are many other ways of processing the news about local weather and global shifts than through the lens of science.

    In this instance, we’re almost certainly better off (if not necessarily correct) assuming that correlation is causality.

    • Wally Ballou says:

      I think too much emphasis is placed on “scientific literacy” in thinking about global warming.

      “I think too much emphasis is placed on “scientific literacy” in thinking about vaccination.”

      “I think too much emphasis is placed on “scientific literacy” in thinking about evolution versus creation.”

      • exitr says:

        Was there a point there?

        • Wally Ballou says:

          Your post #13 seems to be saying what a couple of others have said downthread.

          To wit, “Well, it’s not the best idea to seriously investigate whether AGW actually causes these tornadoes. Much better to use the fear of getting creamed by a tornado as leverage to gin up the political action we want, without looking too hard at the actual science.”

          I was just wondering whether you would take the same approach in other current controversies where there is an intersection between scientific analysis and political action.

  23. witsendnj says:

    Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words:

    http://witsendnj.blogspot.com/2011/01/kitchen-table-comic.html

  24. hancocks says:

    Photograph: it’s a good look regardless.

    Fatality issue(s):

    1. Population is increasing, houses are still being built.
    2. Technology is only (fairly) recently able to discriminate, on an increasingly sophisticated level, tornado strengths.
    3. An F5 tornado screaming through eight miles of farmland obviously has a vastly different impact profile than one roaring through, say, eight miles of Joplin, MO.
    4. An increase in stronger tornadoes, if true, may or may not be a trend. If so, that trend may or may not be attributable to climate change (or something else for that matter).
    5. If we have 136 F5 tornadoes in one year (I’m making this up, I hope) which touch nothing but farmland, and one F5 tornado which torches downtown Joplin, MO the next year, which was a worse year? And as measured according to what?

    Tx…

  25. Matt Drew says:

    “If we pump people full of facts, but don’t teach them about uncertainty, then we can’t be surprised when they dismiss anything that isn’t 100% certain.”

    A very true, and useful statement. However, you then demonstrate the problem yourself:

    “The future of human life depends on how we respond to climate change.”

    The use of 100% certain, assertive statements like this one is indeed the single greatest problem with getting people to realistically and rationally approach climate change. The more people make noise like this, the less likely that we’ll be able deal with climate change effectively.

    There *is* something different about this year – it’s a statistical outlier, just like 1953 and 1925. One of the many frustrations about dealing with climate change and other beyond-human-scale issues is the very human reliance on stories and anecdotes instead of data, logic, and deduction. Our media is constantly full of stories that highlight just how exceptional some particular event is, because reporting exceptional events is what they do and it’s what people want to hear about. However, this time next year, the entire thing will be forgotten – just as the swine flu scare is forgotten today.

    In order to really deal with these problems, we have to get past this cognitive problem of jumping from exceptional occurrence to exceptional occurrence. We are slowly getting better at this, as alarm after alarm is proven to be baseless and much less risky than it appeared. Those who actually care about this would be wise to be less alarmist and more practical.

  26. perchecreek says:

    I’ve just finished a quantitative analysis class at SFSU this semester, and a class on climate last semester, so this article definitely rings a bell* (* ahem, curve, that is). In the climate class, we looked at data from Antarctica, with particular emphasis on uncertainty, and the length of time it takes to separate random variation in the data from any trend that might emerge. What blew me away about the whole exercise was the paucity of our data: according to the wikipedia article on Antarctica, first sighting of the continent is dated to 1820, and we really ignored the continent until ca. 1900. As far as weather data goes, annual observations weren’t made on a systematic, continent-wide basis until the International Geophysical Year, 1957-58. Note that this is some 100-150 years after humans began burning fossil fuels in earnest. Antarctica contains perhaps 90% of the Earth’s fresh water, and the global mean temperature increases we’ve seen so far, mostly from Arctic data, seem to show that regions of the globe closer to the poles warm faster than those nearer to the equator. And yet, for Antarctica, our weather data for the entire continent comes from 50 (or so) stations that have been active for only 60 years. We’ve observed changes in sea ice extent, precipitation, etc., but we just don’t have enough data yet to say for sure what kinds of trends might be emerging, at least in Antarctica.

    Fortunately, there are many analogues, such as ice cores through ice sheets, sediment deposits, pollen grains, etc. that can be used to corroborate and extend data. Another researcher at SFSU is focusing on the Pliocene warm period as an analogue for our current climate. Here, too, several different data sources can be cross-checked too get a picture of what happened. An example is Foraminifera tests (tiny shells of organisms that live in the water column) brought up by the IODP (International Ocean Drilling Project) ship, the Joides Resolution, can be used as a proxy for ocean temperature.

    Given that weather data may prove inadequate to warn us with enough lead time that we’ve triggered large changes in the Earth’s climate by burning fossil fuels, we’ll really need to pay attention to the analogues.

    The central theme throughout any of the science is that uncertainty is key: it tells us if our data is meaningful.

  27. trent1492 says:

    @MAtt Drew,

    Exactly what do you mean by baseless alarms? Can you be specific?

    • Matt Drew says:

      @trent1492:

      Well, the biggest and most obvious one right now is terrorism. As a threat to the human race, terrorism ranks well below gravity – far more people die from simple falls and things dropping on them than are killed by terrorists. Terrorism is, in essence, a baseless hype-fed alarmist positive feedback loop between a handful of murderous crazy people, power-hungry politicians, and our exception-driven media.

      Another example is the “population bomb” scare in the 1960′s, which predicted global mass starvation in the 1970′s and 1980′s. In fact, the opposite happened as hundreds of millions of people were lifted out of poverty and hunger.

      Unfortunately, the climate change discussion is also riddled with such breathless predictions of ultimate doom – precisely the thing this author both argues against, while simultaneously engaging in the same practice. It distracts attention from the real problems and the practical solutions for climate change – which I think, in the end, is more dangerous than climate change will ever be.

      • trent1492 says:

        Matt Drew Says: Another example is the “population bomb” scare in the 1960′s, which predicted global mass starvation in the 1970′s and 1980′s. In fact, the opposite happened as hundreds of millions of people were lifted out of poverty and hunger.

        You do realize that resources are finite and population that fail to curb consumption and expansion will suffer?

        Matt Drew: Unfortunately, the climate change discussion is also riddled with such breathless predictions of ultimate doom – precisely the thing this author both argues against, while simultaneously engaging in the same practice.

        Trent Says: In regards to climate predictions can you be more specific please.

        • gravytop says:

          Perhaps this? Although feel free to refute it, I have no dog in this race.

          http://dailycaller.com/2011/04/16/the-un-disappears-50-million-climate-refugees-then-botches-the-cover-up/

          • trent1492 says:

            @Gravy Top,

            Your contention that the U.N predicted fifty million refuges by 2010 is refuted here: A Lie Revealed. I suggest you become more skeptical of the press. Disagree? Then show me the original report.

            Gravy Top Says: I have no dog in this race.

            Trent Says: You live on another planet?

          • Anonymous says:

            50m environmental refugees by end of decade, UN warns· States urged to prepare for victims of climate change
            · Natural disasters displace more people than wars

            Share180 David Adam, environment correspondent The Guardian, Wednesday 12 October 2005 Article history

            Rising sea levels, desertification and shrinking freshwater supplies will create up to 50 million environmental refugees by the end of the decade, experts warn today. Janos Bogardi, director of the Institute for Environment and Human Security at the United Nations University in Bonn, said creeping environmental deterioration already displaced up to 10 million people a year, and the situation would get worse.
            http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2005/oct/12/naturaldisasters.climatechange1

          • gravytop says:

            Hmm…

            The refutation you point to links to this “screendump”

            and then says “Perhaps that’s a genuine screendump, and someone at UNEP did make that headline claim – I don’t know. But on reading the report, you quickly find the first major blunder: the subject is environmental refugees, not climate refugees. ”

            Okay assuming the screendump isn’t a forgery of some kind, then it proves the point re environmental hyperbole exactly: a headline on an environmental site that apparently grossly overstates the significance of the scientific data it purports to describe. Kind of hard to see how the author of the refutation you cited (and you) both missed that seemingly obvious point.

            I don’t have a dog in this race means: I call ‘em as I see em, and my ideology doesn’t blind me to errors, even egregious ones, made by the side I might sympathize with. See?

          • Anonymous says:

            @gravytop #55

            See Post #53 The 50 million refugee estimate is a fact and I included the link to the 2005 Gaurdian Paper which is a pro-AGW paper in the UK. Trent’s source did not do enough research as it took me all of 1 minute to find a credible newspaper with the information. I also sent an email to the “Covered in Bees” blogger and hopefully he will correct his erroneous post. I did see the UNEP web page before it was taken down. As always do the research. I hope this helps you guys resolve your issues.

          • gravytop says:

            We seem to be talking about different things. You linked to an article that said that there would be 50 million environmental refugees in a decade. The article makes it clear that this means refugees from all kinds of environmental degradation, not just AWG.

            The UNEP website then put up a story, presumably based on this study, but adding a headline to the effect that 50 million refugees created by climate change would be seen.

            This is a hyperbolic interpretation of the facts. And one posted on the UNEP web site. Your “research” doesn’t refute the claim originally made, and in fact goes some way in confirming it.

            http://www.amazon.com/Building-Thinking-Skills–Critical-reading/dp/1601441495/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1306692669&sr=8-5

      • Gulliver says:

        Terrorism is, in essence, a baseless hype-fed alarmist positive feedback loop between a handful of murderous crazy people, power-hungry politicians, and our exception-driven media.

        You forgot to add a credulous and reactionary public.

  28. witsendnj says:

    Just for the sake of accuracy, if anyone had troubled to look the photographer of the picture at the top says he used a triple exposure HD to bring out the detail in the clouds.

  29. Anonymous says:

    Great post Maggie. Accurate, articulate, awesome.

  30. JoshP says:

    i know i’m not the only one of us who thinks we should be leaving the planet. not because of the massive amount of good forced scientific improvisation would have on the rest of the species, but i just keep getting this weird zomg we are one bad cosmic tick away from oblivion thing. I feel we are sitting on our collective ass now. Maybe there is something to gaia, and maybe she’s saying it’s time to get out of the basement and get a job. or else.

  31. Anonymous says:

    Although scientific literacy (lack of) is a problem, a bigger problem is the politicization of science. The huge financial cost of dealing with global warming means millions of dollars (literally) will be spent on PR to make sure that global warming is debunked. The book “Toxic Sludge is Good for You” explains how this is done, how powerful PR strategies are used by corporations routinely: “astroturf” fake citizen groups or paying scientists to get the result you want, or, if you can’t do that, to manufacture doubt. In the global warming debate they have definitely gotten their money’s worth.

  32. Nierd says:

    http://meteorologicalmusings.blogspot.com/2011/05/great-q-about-tornadoes.html

    Just some info about this – this is not the worst year for tornadoes – that was 1925 – this is the 8th worst year (on record).

    And Mike makes a good point – while the average temperature has been rising steadily – the average # of tornadoes in the US has gone down each year… so while it seems real bad – it’s hard to *scientifically* point at this year as anything other than an anomaly.

    • Maurice Reeves says:

      Nierd,
      The 1925 statistic is only in relation to number of fatalities in a single year, which is certainly one way of looking at tornadoes, but when people say this is a historic year we’re talking about the sheer number of them.

      One of the local forecasters here in my area of Pennsylvania said that we normally get 2.75 tornadoes a year here. So far we’ve had eight, with two more likely to be declared from yesterday’s storm which left 60,000 people without power for 24 hours.

      So, I’m jazzed that with such an explosive growth in the number of tornadoes the number of deaths is so low comparatively. But still, the number we’ve had is staggering.

  33. Anonymous says:

    I like how its changed from global warming to climate change. Yes, of course the climate is changing, it has for billions of years and will continue to change no matter what we do. But regardless of that fact how can anyone argue that being good stewards and not polluting so much is a bad thing? Even if you are a non-believer then lets just work on getting clean air for the sake of breathing and clean water to drink and swim in.

    Trying to deduce what is natural and what is man caused climate change may be impossible to do so please just quit being a dick to planet earth and Mother nature.

  34. kateling says:

    Great post Maggie, thank you.

  35. jaytkay says:

    …when NOAA looked at data for the past 30 years’ worth of Aprils in the Mississippi Valley, they didn’t see evidence of any trends that would mean tornado weather is already becoming more frequent.

    Shouldn’t that be stated earlier in the post?

  36. Anonymous says:

    I think this is a great article and the school that I am a teacher at a school which teaches to be aware of uncertainy and because, not just our climate, but the world, even universe is so complex, we must always prepare for the unknown. How will we ever be able to prepare, if a star blows up and when we look at it is so many light years away (depending on the distance of the star from us) we would never know the end is near. We always need to be able to understand that there is a chance of variable change.Science is a guide to help us make understanding of the universe around us. We, as humans, need to respect the unknown and we can only try to prepare ourselves the best we can. You never know you could be walking in the middle of a field and a rock can fall on your head.
    On another note, if we want to withstand a tornado and you live in a climate were they are possible then don’t build your house out of wood! A more structually sound house might have saved lives but you just may never know, variable change.

  37. NikFromNYC says:

    I was inspired by this story to make a graphic poster about Global Warming:

    http://oi53.tinypic.com/rmljex.jpg

  38. Anonymous says:

    The air grows thick. Dark clouds churn and seem like a pot of boiling water overhead. The colors of reality become oversaturated–greens too green, yellow a sickly gold. This is what bad HDR photography looks like, and the United States has been hit with a lot of it lately.

    ;)

  39. firstbakingbook says:

    If it’s true, as Maggie argues, that scientific literacy depends on being comfortable with ambiguities, and if it’s also true, as was reported in a recent study, that self-described conservatives are demonstrably intolerant of ambiguities, then the two are mutually exclusive.

    Maybe that isn’t news.

    But it could suggest that teaching people at large about ambiguities in science would necessarily fail (if the intolerance is innate), or (more hopefully) that if it succeeded it would change the political composition of the population.

  40. Anonymous says:

    It’s cheeky to say that science doesn’t fit into political ticky boxes, but it’s also ignorant. At some we have to be willing make political, *not scientific*, arguments to political problems (if we want to use public policy and resources to solve them).

    This doesn’t mean saying anything that we know is false or even dubious. What it means is that we have to focus on stressing the things we do know or are probable and leave the tenuous connections out of it. A principle rule of framing is to ignore arguments like the one you’re addressing, by addressing it you are undermining the point that climate change should be addressed (to everyone accept the people who are savvy enough not to have needed your argument at all). Instead of arguing against people who want to connect this phenomenon directly to climate change, it’s much more effective to simply ignore those arguments and refute the ones that are actually standing in the way of addressing the issue (however you may want to attempt to rationalize it, “these tornadoes were caused by climate change!” will never be serious impediment, the rationale inevitably stems from a well documented (and largely non-rational) tendency in toward (in this instance intellectual) “purity”. Things which are intellectually impure harm the world about as much as people who are sexually “impure”).

    We need to put forward a line of reasoning like, “do you see how damaging serious storms can be? There is a high probability that climate change will bring more, and more serious, storms.”. We do not need to undermine that line of reasoning with pop-science articles that preach nuance to the choir, please leave that out of general audience forums.

    I know I’m being a bit of a hardass here, but I think as important as teaching uncertainty is to budding scientists, it’s equally important to teach budding citizens the painful necessity of making difficult decisions that impact millions of people with only paltry scraps of relevant data.

    Unfortunately, our entire lives are political and higher the power of our microphone (boing boing is a pretty fu&^*ng big microphone), the larger our responsibility. If your post related to climate change isn’t helping the Bangladeshis or the Maldivians that me you and everyone you know currently screwing over with our lifestyles (none of us reading this post are living carbon-nuetral, much less a carbon negative life-style), then you probably shouldn’t write it.

    That’s what I would say if I thought that, as a species, we were capable of reacting rationally to a non-immediate external threat, but I don’t we’ve come quite that far yet, so don’t take any of this as an admonishment. There will be winners and losers, but we don’t actually have the capacity to make those decisions.

    • Gulliver says:

      @ Anon #31

      This doesn’t mean saying anything that we know is false or even dubious. What it means is that we have to focus on stressing the things we do know or are probable and leave the tenuous connections out of it. A principle rule of framing is to ignore arguments like the one you’re addressing, by addressing it you are undermining the point that climate change should be addressed (to everyone accept the people who are savvy enough not to have needed your argument at all). Instead of arguing against people who want to connect this phenomenon directly to climate change, it’s much more effective to simply ignore those arguments and refute the ones that are actually standing in the way of addressing the issue (however you may want to attempt to rationalize it, “these tornadoes were caused by climate change!” will never be serious impediment, the rationale inevitably stems from a well documented (and largely non-rational) tendency in toward (in this instance intellectual) “purity”. Things which are intellectually impure harm the world about as much as people who are sexually “impure”).

      If your goal is to temporarily win an argument then this may be the way to go. If your goal is to engage the public in constructive debate and promote pragmatic prudence then this sort of political spin on an empirical problem will simply undermine your credibility in the long term. Strategies that depend on the selective dissemination of information to shape the opinions of the audience are doomed to fail. Maggie is right, scientific literacy, even among non-scientists, is the only hope for fostering sustainable good stewardship if the Earth.

  41. Anonymous says:

    you need to read the book Data Soliloquies

    Data Soliloquies is a book about the extraordinary cultural fluidity of scientific data. A wide array of graphs, charts, computer models and other forms of visual advocacy have become inescapable fixtures of public science presentations, though they are often treated as if they were neutral ‘found objects’ rather than elaborate narrative constructions containing high levels of statistical uncertainty.

    http://grey.is/data/

  42. ferrohorse says:

    Great post.

    One sentence could be a whole ‘nother topic:
    “This is about nuance and uncertainty, and if the American public doesn’t get those things…”

    There is no “if”. Nuance is dead, and uncertainty is simply unacceptable in average American discourse these days. It seems the simplest or most complex issue not only MUST be seen in stark black or white, but must be defended or attacked at a level of ferocity guaranteed to draw blood or score political points.

  43. Jason Stuart says:

    Yeah, good article and all. But, uh, Boing Boing? You sold an ad to Mike Huckabee’s “Learn Our History” video series? Really?

  44. Anonymous says:

    Missing from this is a discussion of the “precautionary principle” or, the less you know about the consequences of an action, (read “scientific ambiguity or uncertainty”)then more
    conservative assumptions must control actions until the level of ambiguity is decreased or until contrary assumptions are proved.
    Carbon loading of the atmosphere is a vast uncontrolled experiment which poses and existentianl threat to our civilization and to most life on this planet. The level of uncertainty should guide our actions, to restrict and DECREASE
    carbon emissions until we have better knowledge of what will happen with 450 ppm C or greater in this intricate and complex system. The tornadoes as just the warning buzzer on a collision avoidance system and largely irrelevant to the larger discussion.

    The so – called “climate science deniers” ask for “proof” and “facts” before they will change their behavior. But rather, the reverse is true, we need to change our behavior until it can be shown that no serious harm will come from our actions.
    Otherwise, willful ignorance and contempt for the future will guide the legacy of our species,

  45. angela123 says:

    As a teacher of college comp, I’m in the front lines of the cognitive maturity wars… By which I mean that some students I have are absolutists, and some are relativists. I teach students that they have to take it as a basic premise that the person who disagrees with them is not evil or stupid — but they still have to stand by their thesis statement. So you get the relativists who realize that people can disagree about an issue — and will leave it at, well, who can tell. Then you get the absolutists who, once they finally recognize that the person who disagrees with them is possibly not evil or stupid, will just change their paper topic altogether, because how can they possibly stand by what they say if there is any room for disagreement at all? I see more absolutists than relativists. It gets interesting.

    In the Midwest, I see color schemes like in the photo all the time. I am very curious to know if there’s any science behind this.

    • Anonymous says:

      Interesting insight into the variety of cognitive models humans employ. And also provides insight into the dynamics of the typical comment thread.

  46. jaytkay says:

    re: the photo

    The top half is darkened. Clumsily. Houses in real life are not graduated from dark to light.

    • Anonymous says:

      I doubt that the picture is HDRed or filtered at all. I’ve seen storms that look like that. If you haven’t, you’re lucky.

  47. Childe Roland says:

    Living in Tornado Alley, that picture looks real to me.

    I’ve almost got the 6 trees that a tornado blew over about a month ago chain-sawed and split. It’s about three years worth of wood for my stove.

    Then I lose another one Monday in that storm. Man. A pine, so I can’t turn it into firewood.

    Think of the political aspects of saying that these tornadoes are part of a long term trend. In the long run, we’re all dead. Short-term, all I know is that I’m almost 50 and have never seen storms like this before. Before now, I’ve never went to bed wondering how many people would die that night. It’s a wild way to live.

  48. Sekino says:

    In this country, we teach kids that science is a collection of hard facts.

    [...]That perspective might work okay when you’re sitting in a high school science lab, studying the digestive system of a fetal pig. But it doesn’t work as well in the real world.

    Perhaps another big problem is that education doesn’t exactly prepare people for ‘real life’ and its complexity. The education system as it stands is pretty much the antithesis of scientific inquiry: It discourages exploration and open discussion, it conditions people to become completely averse to risk and teaches them that failure/error is abnormal and ought to be punished.

    We need better scientific literacy out there, but who is responsible for it? Schools won’t do it, the government doesn’t seem interested and it’s off the layman’s radar… What’s the best course of action?

    • Anonymous says:

      I take exception to your overly broad depiction of education. My wife is a teacher, and a damn good one. She teaches middle school science. Besides avoiding telling them the answer when possible (she aims for discovery), she demands critical thinking and articulation. Here’s one of here more successful activities:

      Pick from the following subjects: genetically modified food, climate change, family planning, evolution, genetic disease (etc etc). Big, controversial stuff.

      Research it. Talk to your family, you don’t have to agree, but you should be respectful enough to learn their opinions. Research some more. Form an opinion.

      Write a letter to a relevant government official (state or federal) expressing what government action you should be taken (for, against, whatever). Give solid scientific reasoning and facts and cite your research.

      Finally, write an argument for the opposite.

      The kids absolutely love it. She refuses to share her personal opinion on any of the subjects, telling them they have to decide for themselves.

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