With All Due Respect

So the other night I’m watching TV.

I watch TV in the evenings because it’s easier than learning to play the banjo and more relaxing than trying to teach myself Mandarin Chinese.

Mike Nelson was on. Mike Nelson is a weather-guy for Channel 7 News. He’s the highest-paid television news personality in the market. Mike Nelson teaches kids to do the “Tornado Dance” whenever a camera is within range. It’s an uncomplicated step. The kids spin in place, and howl like a gale, and spin and spin, and then fall down like a trailer park. The Tornado Dance is Mike Nelson’s signature contribution to education and the arts.

But Mike Nelson wasn’t demonstrating the Tornado Dance. He was being interviewed by a pretty young Channel 7 news correspondent. She was asking him questions about recent Colorado flooding. Mike Nelson said the floods were “extreme”, and that we could expect more “extreme” flooding in the future, and well as extreme drought, and extreme winds, and extreme calm, and extreme snowfalls, and other weather-type phenomena of frightening extreme-ness. All that extremity, said Nelson, was our punishment for stuffing the atmosphere full of carbon dioxide. It was Nelson’s opinion that catastrophic “climate change” is our doom and we are the architects of our own destruction.

“What,” the doe-eyed beauty asked in conclusion, “is your biggest concern about climate change?”

Mike Nelson was ready for the question. I mean, really ready. Almost like he knew it was coming.

“I think what bothers me most is the lack of respect for scientists,” he said, earnestly.

My Hot-Pocket slipped from my fingers and into my lap, leaving small streaks of tomato sauce on the front of my Snuggie. If I’d heard right, Mike Nelson was predicting meteorological Armageddon, but was principally “bothered” that “scientists” weren’t getting their due props. Who, I wondered, choking on outrage and bone-dry Hot-Pocket crust, wasn’t giving scientists the respect they deserved?

Scientists are aces in my book. From anti-lock brakes to colonoscopy to GPS, scientists have made life in the 21st century an impossible dream of comfort, safety and convenience that would have been unimaginable even 100 years ago. Scientists have made it possible for me to research anything and everything in excruciating detail without ever getting up from my ergonomic chair, and to waste a few hours playing Spider Solitaire when even that stupefying expediency becomes too burdensome. Via the Internet I can discourse at length with people from Denver to Djibouti without having to shave first. The World Wide Web is science as magic, and I’ve never met anybody who didn’t benefit substantially from its creation, or who wasn’t, at the very least, impressed by the quantum leap forward it represents.

No scientists are more deserving of admiration than agronomists. Agricultural sciences have made it possible for Mankind to feed itself. Yes, people still starve, but not because there’s nothing to feed them, but invariably because political scientists have diverted the bounty to other, political, uses. Drought- and pest-resistant strains, improved farming techniques and technologies, and better fertilizers and crop-management strategies have combined to produce annual yields sufficient to the dietary needs of 6.5 billion mouths. While agricultural scientists may often go unsung, I’ve never heard anybody speak ill of them.

Cataracts used to spell the end of sight. Now they’re just an unpleasant afternoon. Both of my parents would be dead right now if not for the stents given them in simple out-patient procedures. For that matter, one in three people of your acquaintance might be dead right now without a helping hand from medical scientists. Ticker gone bad? They can give you a new one. Blood pressure slowly killing you? There’s a pill for that. Cancer – just about any cancer – used to be a death sentence. These days, folks with colon cancer have a 70 percent chance of beating it, and, if detected early, nobody dies of breast cancer anymore. If anyone’s been beefing about medical scientists, they’re not doing it where I can hear them.

But perhaps Mike Nelson was talking specifically about weather scientists. True, weather-wonks take a lot of heat, but mostly because they’re sticking it out there every night at 5 and 10 and their mistakes are so easy to see. And that’s unfortunate, because they perform a helpful service, thanks in large part to the extensive network of weather satellites designed by aerospace scientists that allow them to see weather coming from much farther away than you or I can by poking our heads out the kitchen window. Do I condemn weather-folk for their frequent miscalculations? Absolutely not, and if people tend to grumble when they get caught in a thunderstorm without umbrella and galoshes, they’re typically grateful for a timely heads-up when the morning commute is apt to be on the slickery side. No, if there’s rampant disrespect for weather scientists, it’s news to me.

 Then again, maybe I misunderstood Mike Nelson’s lament. Maybe when he said “lack of respect”, he meant “lack of obedience.” Maybe he meant that we, the great unlearned, should be more compliant to the commands of our scientific betters. If so, then Mike Nelson and I may have a problem.

 The thing is, being smart doesn’t make you wise, and sometimes it doesn’t even make you smart. Scientists, for all their education, for all their insights, for all their focus and knowledge and ability, are wrong precisely as often as, well, anybody else. For every ballyhooed triumph of science, like mapping the human genome, or the Higgs boson, there’s an equal and opposite failure, like Einstein’s static universe, or Windows Vista. Whatever Mike Nelson may think, a science degree doesn’t confer infallibility, and a Nobel Prize in science doesn’t come with a Bat-Phone to God.

And I have to believe that Mike Nelson isn’t suggesting that scientists are somehow more virtuous than we dullards. Any good scientist in the marvelous field of robotics will assure you that most scientists are not artificial beings, but rather are reg’lar folks like thee and me, and subject to the same weaknesses, lapses, and personal, philosophical, political and financial predilections as any other creature of flesh and bone.

Billions of dollars worth of crops are still destroyed each year. It’s not for nothing that about 10 cents of every dollar spent on health care goes to pay malpractice insurance premiums. My computer is still a sitting duck for every worm that comes winding down the Inter-pike. Do I really have to remind anyone about the ill-starred Mars Climate Orbiter? And yes, Mike Nelson and his well-groomed TV colleagues are quite capable of some pretty spectacular prognostic blunders. Right about now a lesser person would bring up the Ice Age scare of the 1970s. But I won’t.

It wouldn’t be classy.

Do the weather-heads deserve our scorn for missing the daily high by almost 35 degrees? Heavens no. If I know anything – and that’s certainly debatable – it’s that the study of weather is, like all natural sciences, hideously complex and only poorly understood. I recall a very interesting feature that appeared in the Denver Post awhile back. It involved the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the handful of hard-working scientists who spend 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, dreaming up complicated weather-predicting models on their computers. It’s their goal that, by plugging all known weather data into their ingeniously devised models, their computers will spit out an accurate picture of the weather to come. It’s a miserable, painstaking, and very cutting edge discipline, and I have only admiration for the people who undertake it.

Here’s the interesting part – every time one of those talented nerds comes up with a new climate prediction model, it has to be tested for accuracy. They test it by picking a recent day – yesterday, for example – then turning back the calendar a week, or a month, or whatever, and applying the model based on previously documented weather conditions. If the model is correct, it will accurately predict yesterday’s weather. In a fit of journalistic competency, the reporter asked how often they get it right. In a fit of surprising candor, the climate scientist told him.

“So far, we’ve never had a model that got it right,” he said. “There’s obviously some factor – or possibly several factors – that we’re not taking into consideration.”

Now there’s a scientist worthy of respect. More than most, the beaker and Bunsen set hate to admit that there’s anything they don’t know. Would that Mike Nelson – who clearly counts himself among that useful class – could muster such humility. Because if I interpret the subtext of Mike Nelson’s statement correctly, and I think that I do, it’s his position that anybody who doesn’t automatically and utterly accept the scholarly conclusions  about climate change reached by Mike Nelson for no better reason that because It Is He Who Hath Sayed It is guilty of disrespect at best, and at worst of willful ignorance.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a scientist, nor have I ever been credited with the invention of a vomit-inducing dance for pre-adolescents. On the other hand, I don’t believe I’m more stupid than my fellows, and if the foremost scientists working in the field of weather prediction can’t accurately foresee weather that’s already happened, then I can’t in good conscience get behind an economy-crushing carbon tax, or paying Third World countries for permission to turn up my thermostat, or henceforth riding my bicycle to the grocery store, purely on the say-so of an engaging on-air personality whose chief professional responsibilities are reading from a teleprompter and looking good in a suit.

No disrespect intended.