Good Friday Morning! I hope you had a blessed Fourth of July holiday with friends and family! America’s Independence Day celebration is one of the best times of the year, rain or shine. The Nation always reminds its readers of the great Frederick Douglass’s remarks on American independence — and he summarizes everything I believe about the topic in a single speech. I try to reread them every year.
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King Jr. all described America’s ideals on freedom, liberty, and how to accomplish them in ways that continue to shape our understanding today. The Founders wrote a promissory note regarding Americans claims to freedom and liberty that Lincoln, Douglass, and King all remind us to take ahold of and continue to claim for each succeeding generation. Remembering their work and ideas on the Fourth is essential.
This week I’m writing about the weather, weather models, prediction, and what those things can do to inform us of how to gauge the world. It’s a tad esoteric, but I’ll explain more below. Links to follow.
Where you can find me this week
My piece on John Roberts and the conservatives getting the Supreme Court out of political issues that the Court has no place in solving.
You may or may not have seen the story of Antifa beating up several people in Portland, including a writer/journalist for Quillette. I write about the moral underpinnings of the support for the Antifa movement, and how this movement has been building for decades.
Weather models, Weather prediction, and futurism
One of my favorite pastimes is reading about weather modeling and forecasting. Predicting future weather is one of the most fascinating things that the human race has improved on dramatically in the last hundred years. Our accuracy, or the lack thereof sometimes, shows us the full extent of our predictive power — even with perfect information and modeling.
I like it also because of what it tells us about our capacity to predict the future — and more importantly the amount of information it takes to make an accurate prediction. When you’re discussing the future, foreign policy, politics, and elections, predictions are hard because more factors go into those things than just voters and news cycles.
What goes into a perfect forecast? The better question would be, what doesn’t go into a weather forecast?
Take, for example, this description on Wikipedia of Numerical Weather Forecasts and the various problems and variables at play:
Manipulating the vast datasets and performing the complex calculations necessary to modern numerical weather prediction requires some of the most powerful supercomputers in the world. Even with the increasing power of supercomputers, the forecast skill of numerical weather models extends to only about six days. Factors affecting the accuracy of numerical predictions include the density and quality of observations used as input to the forecasts, along with deficiencies in the numerical models themselves. Post-processing techniques such as model output statistics (MOS) have been developed to improve the handling of errors in numerical predictions.
So first we have the first level problems with prediction. You have the accuracy of your own observations — and they have to be specific observations. These are things like measuring temperature, rain amounts, barometric pressure, and so on. You need precise measurements, the instruments to be accurate, and you need a lot of that data from many locations.
If any of your observations are wrong, that affects the overall accuracy of your prediction. If how you measure data is off, even if just a little, your accuracy is going to suffer.
And then, what drives weather inaccuracy, even more, is the problem of chaos — that is even if you’re perfect, there’s still unknown randomness that throws things off:
A more fundamental problem lies in the chaotic nature of the partial differential equations that govern the atmosphere. It is impossible to solve these equations exactly, and small errors grow with time (doubling about every five days). Present understanding is that this chaotic behavior limits accurate forecasts to about 14 days even with perfectly accurate input data and a flawless model. In addition, the partial differential equations used in the model need to be supplemented with parameterizations for solar radiation, moist processes (clouds and precipitation), heat exchange, soil, vegetation, surface water, and the effects of terrain. In an effort to quantify the large amount of inherent uncertainty remaining in numerical predictions, ensemble forecasts have been used since the 1990s to help gauge the confidence in the forecast, and to obtain useful results farther into the future than otherwise possible. This approach analyzes multiple forecasts created with an individual forecast model or multiple models.
Everything, from how plants are growing, how much moisture is in the air, to events in outer space can affect and change the weather around you. So when we’re building these models to predict the future, we’re trying to account for all this data and also ensure we have the right calculations that predict what happens next.
It’s always going to end up wrong because chaos is the name of the game.
You get a sense of this in the popular fight between the Euro weather model versus the American GFS models. The Euro model is considered king among all weather models, but even it is fallible. American meteorologists have spent the better part of this year rolling out and testing a new model that’s supposed to have better predictions, but the problem is that like all models, it has biases that throw off accuracy.
The new GFS modeling has shown accuracy improvements, but as the former head of the meteorological society points out, there are issues:
Improvements were observed in how GFS intensifies tropical cyclones and represents track within the first five days, according to Berger. I highly recommend Berger’s article because he provides details on the metrics used in the comparison. He also highlights weaknesses in the “new GFS” such as a dry bias for high-impact precipitation events and a tendency to be too cold with nocturnal temperatures.
The Euro has its own biases that work against accuracy, and once you go beyond around 14 days, the models are complete trash. Once you sprinkle enough chaos into the system, they can’t correct or account enough to show accuracy.
I enjoy reading about weather models because the weather is an hourly, daily, and weekly phenomenon. You can take your predictions and compare them immediately to exact data to test those predictions. There’s even a whole equation to figure out what your odds are of getting precipitation in a given location (probability of precipitation).
Wicked versus king learning environments
Modeling is testable, and everyone is working on getting more accurate. The atmosphere, and weather more generally, is what is known as a “wicked” learning environment. There’s too much information, chaos, and variables to get perfect at long range. While scientific laws govern over every process — there is an incredible number of variables working together to produce the eventual forecast outcome.
Compare this to a “kind” environment, like chess or sports, where the rules are set and the variables mostly predictable. In chess, every move has an outcome, and the greatest grandmasters mostly memorize their way to greatness.
Most of the world is not a variable-free zone. It’s closer to the weather. Politics, the economy, and culture are all wicked learning environments. The number of variables playing into these broad contours of our society is incalculable — but they all matter.
Back during the Obama administration, there was a brief dustup over a State Department official’s answer to the problem of ISIS. They suggested that we just needed to ensure economic opportunity:
“We’re killing a lot of them, and we’re going to keep killing more of them. … But we cannot win this war by killing them,” department spokeswoman Marie Harf said on MSNBC’s “Hardball.” “We need … to go after the root causes that leads people to join these groups, whether it’s lack of opportunity for jobs, whether –”
At that point, Harf was interrupted by host Chris Matthews, who pointed out, “There’s always going to be poor people. There’s always going to be poor Muslims.”
Harf continued to argue that the U.S. should work with other countries to “help improve their governance” and “help them build their economies so they can have job opportunities for these people.”
Here’s the thing: Harf was both right and wrong at the same time. Are there Islamic extremists who would step out of terrorism if economic opportunity improved and they got jobs? Sure! But it’s not the only draw from groups like ISIS — which is proven when you factor in Americans and others from the West joining that group.
Other factors are at play.
When he accepted his Nobel award in economics in 1974, the great economist Friedrich Hayek ended his acceptance speech with the following observation on knowledge:
If man is not to do more harm than good in his efforts to improve the social order, he will have to learn that in this, as in all other fields where essential complexity of an organized kind prevails, he cannot acquire the full knowledge which would make mastery of the events possible. He will therefore have to use what knowledge he can achieve, not to shape the results as the craftsman shapes his handiwork, but rather to cultivate a growth by providing the appropriate environment, in the manner in which the gardener does this for his plants. There is danger in the exuberant feeling of ever-growing power which the advance of the physical sciences has engendered and which tempts man to try, “dizzy with success,” to use a characteristic phrase of early communism, to subject not only our natural but also our human environment to the control of a human will. The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men’s fatal striving to control society — a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals.
The point of all this reading and discussion of weather models and the rest is to prove Hayek’s point: we will never have perfect knowledge. And because we can never achieve this perfection, it should humble us and make us see the world around us, the economy, politics, culture, and everything, as organic.
The natural world around us is organic with individual plants and animals living within ecosystems that shift and change and support those creatures. These things move in tandem with other ecosystems to produce the world around us and the weather we see.
Culture and politics are the same. We are within smaller and larger ecosystems that produce a larger whole. And while significant events like recessions, wars, and elections can impact everyone — the little events in some ecosystems can turn around and affect the larger whole.
This past winter and spring, the Midwest faced record snow and flooding, which is in turn affecting weather patterns across the United States. Culturally, we also need to understand these events and how they can impact the whole.
There was a quote in the Hobbit, based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpieces, from Gandalf the Grey that summed this up nicely:
Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? I don’t know. Perhaps because I am afraid, and he gives me courage.
Hobbits were unseen by the great evil powers of Tolkien’s universe, but the impact everyone. Similar events can impact our culture. We should remain humble that small things can significantly impact every area of our country and society.
Links of the week
‘What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?’ – Frederick Douglass
Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address – George Washington
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address (1865) – Abraham Lincoln
I have a dream – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Declaration of Independence – Thomas Jefferson
When racists try to poison our national symbols, we shouldn’t just surrender – Alyssa Rosenberg, The Washington Post
A Tuskegee Airman Turns 95: America isn’t perfect, but it was and still is worth fighting for. – Harry Stewart, The Wall Street Journal
Our politics is in a partisan death spiral. That’s why I’m leaving the GOP. – Representative Justin Amash, The Washington Post
The Democratic Candidates Are in a Bubble on Immigration – Andrew Sullivan, New York Magazine
A Leftist Mob Attacked Me in Portland: I have been targeted by Antifa and its allies for my critical reporting of their violent extremism. – Andy Ngo, The Wall Street Journal
[Noteworthy piece because according to reports it is animating the Trump administration’s thoughts/plans on Iran] What Iran Is Really Up To: Desperate to preserve the nuclear deal, Iran with the help of its Western friends is creating just enough turmoil to make America, and not it, appear eager for war. – Michael Doran, Mosaic Magazine
San Francisco Will Spend $600,000 to Erase History: The school board has voted to destroy public murals by a New Deal-era Communist. – Bari Weiss, The New York Times
A Wretched Start for Democrats – Bret Stephens, The New York Times
NRA meltdown has Trump campaign sweating: Republicans worry that the NRA and two other groups that have long formed the core of their electoral infrastructure will be effectively on the sidelines. – Alex Isenstadt, Politico
Scientists are searching for a mirror universe. It could be sitting right in front of you: If the “mirror verse” exists, upcoming experiments at Oak Ridge Laboratory, in Tennessee, involving subatomic particles could reveal it. – Corey S. Powell, NBC News
Twitter Thread(s) of the week
Satire piece of the week
Imperial AT-ATs Begin Arriving In Capital For Military Parade – The Babylon Bee
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Ahead of Trump’s planned July 4 military parade, several dozen Imperial walkers began to arrive in Washington throughout the week.
The AT-ATs were dropped off by U.S. Space Force Star Destroyers just outside the city and then slowly marched toward the capital (rather than being dropped right next to their target, for some reason). Military bands solemnly played the Imperial March in honor of their arrival. Trump was seen at the White House, pointing excitedly at the looming all-terrain armored transports through an Oval Office window.
“Wow, look at those guys!” he said while gleefully clapping his hands. “Do you think President Xi has any of those? I bet he doesn’t. Ha! Guy is probably sooooo jealous right now. And North Korea only has those little chicken walkers! This is definitely the best military parade on the planet!”
Last Time Sources Checked This Still America – The Onion
Thanks for reading!