This blog is supposed to be a science blog, so I try to keep it non-political. Science is the best method we have to discover the truth about the behavior of matter and energy in the world around us. Furthermore, science makes it possible for human beings of very different religious, philosophical, and social persuasions to come to an agreement on issues pertaining to the natural world. In order to keep this capacity, science should not intrude into those areas that are not of its competence such as values, morals, ethics, religion, political views, etc. However, this is a two-way street. Politics, religion, and other disciplines of human thought should not intrude into the scientific realm and thwart the scientific quest for truth. So what are scientists to do when this happens?
Hurricane forecasting is a difficult scientific discipline. There are many variables involved in predicting the path of hurricanes, and many of these variables are not yet known or even understood well enough to make long-term predictions. These limitations are well known and are woven into our current hurricane forecasting system. Citizens are always informed of the likelihood that a hurricane will affect certain areas and to what extent to the best of the abilities of the scientists and the effectiveness of the technology at their disposal. However, it is imperative to understand that the prediction of the path of a hurricane can sometimes change from one day to another.
Political personalities or celebrities that are followed closely by millions of people can play an important potential role in the preparedness against an impending hurricane. These individuals can raise awareness quickly about the need for people to protect themselves and what they have to do. However, for this potential to be realized there needs to be close cooperation with weather scientists as well as reliance on the most up to date forecasts. This brings us to hurricane Dorian and President Trump’s tweet. The facts of this SNAFU are well known and you can read about them in several media outlets, so I will just gloss over the most salient aspects.
On September 1 close to 11 AM Mr. Trump, tweeted that the state of Alabama would be among the states most “likely hit (much) harder than anticipated” by hurricane Dorian. It seems that Mr. Trump was basing his tweet on dated information from 5 PM on August 30 that included the possibility that within 5 days large areas of Alabama would have a 5-30% chance of experiencing sustained winds of 34 knots (39 mph), and the southeastern corner of the state would have a 5-10% possibility of receiving winds of 50 knots (58 mph). According to the Beaufort Wind Scale, a wind speed of 34 knots is the wind speed that will break twigs and small branches from trees and make walking difficult, whereas a wind speed of 50 knots can break or uproot trees and cause considerable building damage. However, by the time of Trump’s tweet, the predicted path of the hurricane had moved eastward and now only the southeastern corner of Alabama stood a 5-10% chance of experiencing sustained winds of 34 knots within 5 days. The inclusion of Alabama in Trump’s tweet and the language he used alarmed many people who read it or heard about it, and they started frantically calling the office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Birmingham, Alabama, which issued a tweet contradicting the president’s assertion.
Over the course of the next few days, Mr. Trump defended his tweet with several pieces of evidence. One was an actual NOAA weather map that had been altered with a line drawn over Alabama. Another was one of the so called “spaghetti plots” that displayed a few potential hurricane tracks over Alabama. However, these devices are not weather forecasts. They are very preliminary and inaccurate plots that scientists use to make the cone plots of probability for forecasting the hurricane’s path. It seems that Mr. Trump did not know this.
The most serious thing that happened was that NOAA’s management sent an agency-wide communication to all its weather service personnel telling them to “only stick with official National Hurricane Center forecasts if questions arise from some national level social media posts which hit the news this afternoon” and not to “provide any opinion.” This was widely interpreted by both present and former employees of NOAA as pressure from the higher ups not to contradict the president and received widespread condemnation. At the time of writing this blog, the latest reporting on the matter indicates that the president himself directed his staff to pressure NOAA’s management to disavow the Birmingham office, which the president denies. (Update)
I want to state the following regarding this issue. Both the president and NOAA have the duty to serve the American people to the best of their abilities. This means that:
1) If the president is going to issue a communication regarding a potentially shifting weather phenomenon like a hurricane, he has the obligation of basing it on the most up to date information. For this, the president has to request to be briefed accurately and also educate himself on the subject. There is nothing shameful in this. A person can’t know everything. Additionally, it also means that the president should quickly admit mistakes and vow to ensure that they don’t happen again, as opposed to doctoring weather maps or producing dated or deficient maps to defend his claims. Admitting a mistake and taking efficient corrective actions is not a sign of weakness. We are all humans. We all make mistakes. People understand this and can relate to it.
2) NOAA has a duty to not only provide education to the president, but also to coordinate with him to avoid confusion, recrimination, and loss of confidence in the agency.
However, what the higher ups at NOAA did, which was essentially chastise their scientists for providing the most up-to-date information to the people of Alabama, is unacceptable. When the president of the United States speaks, or in this case, tweets, his words can have far-reaching consequences. The Birmingham office should be commended for their quick action in defusing a tense situation created due to a presidential communication based on deficient information.
A modern society cannot face challenges effectively when the message delivered by science is nullified by political considerations. This is especially true when the well-being of human beings is at stake, as is the case with the possible path and impact of hurricanes, and is made more relevant today by the fact that global warming is contributing to the strengthening of hurricanes. Unfortunately, not only is Mr. Trump skeptical of climate change reports put together by his own scientists, but his administration has also been actively opposing the efforts by scientists to educate society to address this issue. The pursuit of the scientific truth is something to be cherished and promoted, not something to be met with reprimands, disavowal, disbelief, or ignored altogether.
The Dorian Forecast Graphics by NOAA are in the public domain.