Among the many topics I really don’t want to comment on, but will anyway, is “Sharpiegate”. To say that the US President is divisive is an understatement, and the sad fact is that American Politics in general has become so insanely partisan that it is almost impossible to comment at all without being accused by one side or the other of being in league with evil – evil being defined as “the other side”. So there’s probably no upside to commenting on this. However, there are some important points to be made, if they could only be heard over all the noise. And sometimes you get lucky and manage to irritate both “sides”. So let’s try that.
I don’t know what was said in the briefing that resulted in President Trump tweeting that Alabama was potentially going to be hit by Dorian. I’m assuming that seed was planted on Thursday the 29th or Friday, 30 August, based on the “cone of error,” a product few really understand how to apply and I think everybody who really understands hurricanes hates, but hasn’t figured anything else out yet. In fairness to the President, like the blow-up over nuking hurricanes, I can see how someone might think Alabama was at risk. People see a track forecast and often ask “what will happen next.” And given the uncertainty in the five day forecasts, I can see how a briefer might have said “on that track, then in 6-7 days, or if the storm is at the outer edge of the cone, yes Alabama might be at risk.” The tweet that started the firestorm came on Sunday, but by then the tracks and models had shifted. This happens all the time – as a track shifts, people get an earlier forecast stuck in their mind and keep repeating it to others long after it is stale, causing confusion. Since it was the POTUS doing the repeating, this put the NWS WFO in Birmingham in a tough position that, again, all of us in this business get put in all the time: I’d guess for every “you’re doomed and gonna die” I have to dish out, there are twenty “no, you are not at risk from this storm, that’s an old forecast.” It does raise questions as to how often the President is briefed and, perhaps, his attention span. But, objectively, this shouldn’t have been much of a big deal had everyone been reasonable.
This could and should have been quickly defused, but the US President and his team are “doubling down,” while the opposition is pushing this as a catastrophic failure indicating various psychological or character flaws. Modern political leaders have an extraordinarily difficult time in admitting they were wrong, some (most?) to the point of pathology. And their opponents love to take innocent or common mistakes and blow them up for short term advantage no matter what the long term institutional costs. Now both pro and anti Trump sides are blowing this up for their own political reasons because they think it gives them some tactical advantage. Real problem or manufactured political fight? Probably both in this case, but that’s not my point here.
What *is* my concern in this is the continuing corruption of science in policy debates and public safety. I find it ironic beyond belief that many major news networks who don’t hesitate to use one-off long range model forecasts that go well beyond the NHC forecasts, sowing fear and confusion as they go, are now piously condemning the US President for doing what they themselves do virtually every 5 minutes during a storm. The sheer hypocrisy of this is staggering. Equally odious is putting your scientific (not to mention intelligence agency) staffs in the position of having to back your political positions and cover for your mistakes. It is something most administrations do. It’s always wrong, and while both parties do it this administration seems to be taking the practice to new extremes. It’s a dangerous trend. If you want to say “they” are worse than “we”, I might not argue, but like the saying goes, if you choose the lesser of two evils, you’re still choosing evil …
I’m also concerned that some scientific organizations, and some individual scientists and meteorologists, are now jumping into this debate in a way that is starting to feel, or is rapidly being turned, into partisan attacks. The problem isn’t so much that they are wrong (many are in fact right about how this is evolving, and the potentially dire implications for government sponsored research and science applications), my problem is that they haven’t called out previous administrations for their abuse of the science because they agreed with the the politics of those administrations, or maybe they felt it just wasn’t bad enough, or both. Unfortunately, like the climate change debate, this is dragging scientists (some willingly, most probably not) into political crap flinging that diminishes public trust in all of our institutions.
So for what it’s worth, here’s the TL;DR …
- That the President thought Alabama was at risk in the future, on Thursday or Friday, based on the Thursday/Friday forecast doesn’t bother me too much.
- That he was still saying it Sunday bothers me a lot: by then he should have had a fresh briefing. If not, that’s a problem. If he did, and was still saying it, we have another problem. Either way, not a good situation.
- Attacking WFO/BHM is scary: they were doing their job.
- The media is being utterly hypocritical and self righteous over this – they extrapolate beyond the NHC forecast all the time, sowing fear and confusion.
- Scientists should vigorously defend the science, but tread carefully over being perceived as overly partisan. Especially in the climate debate, some have already crossed that line, advocating specific politically based solutions rather than sticking to underlying problems, and evaluating the effectiveness of proposed solutions. That kind of advocacy hurts credibility in situations like this.
Science is the only credible tool we have for understanding how the world works, and should be the underlying basis for devising policies that address the problems our society faces. Once that credibility is lost, we are in fact doomed. This whole debate, especially how it is evolving, is destructive and does not bode well for the future.