Saturday, May 22, 2010

Those Butterflies are Screwing with the Weather Again

I want to write another one of my meaningless rants today, just because doing so makes me feel better somehow. This one concerns the weatherman. Yes, I know. The weatherman always gets blamed for bad weather. But that’s not really what I’m going to blame him for. (Oh, and by “weatherman” I’m actually referring to any of the television weather broadcasters, regardless of their gender.)

Like I said, I’m not trying to blame the weatherman for bad weather. That would be silly. He has no control over the weather. He doesn’t order up severe storms, tornadoes, or long droughts. The weatherman simply reports the weather. What are the current temperature, sky conditions, and wind speed?

The weatherman’s job is also to forecast future weather. Some of them, probably most of the primary broadcast meteorologists at major television stations, produce their own forecast. They don’t simply parrot what the National Weather Service meteorologists said in their latest four-times-a-day update.

And like the NWS meteorologists, the TV weathermen sometimes (often?) get the forecast wrong. But getting the forecast wrong isn’t really what has raised my ire either. Not really. I understand that weather forecasting is not an exact science and that sometimes weather forecasters are going to get it wrong. It has something to do with the chaos factor, otherwise known as the butterfly effect. Technically, it’s known as sensitive dependence to initial conditions. It means that, in order to produce a spot-on forecast more than just a few hours in advance, you would have to know much more about the current condition of the atmosphere, all over the world, than is possible to know. It’s not simply a matter of data, though. It’s a matter of knowing the precise conditions for every square foot of atmosphere and at every altitude worldwide. An unknown disturbance in just one square foot of atmosphere might be enough to throw off the forecast significantly at some point in the future, hence, the butterfly effect.

Anyway, getting back to what is really bugging me, it’s not that I’m miffed at the fact the forecast is so often wrong. It’s more about the arrogance with which the forecasters deliver their drivel. Ok, in all fairness, they are right more often than they are wrong, at least with short-term forecasts. But the way they deliver the message sounds like a sure thing. We all know that it isn’t a sure thing, but at the same time, given that the weatherman is right much of the time, it’s hard not to trust him when he sounds so convincing.

My thoughts go back several years when I was planning a short vacation. Do I want to go to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, or do I want to go to Tennessee. It’s June, so if I go north (from Indiana) I take a chance that the weather will turn cold. If I got south, it might get sultry. So, naturally, I consulted the weatherman.

According to his long-range forecast, he seemed fairly certain that it was going to rain in Tennessee but it would be fair and pleasant in Upper Michigan. I chose Michigan.

We got to Mackinac Island and disembarked on our first day of sightseeing and fudge buying. But by late in the afternoon, clouds were starting to roll in. A couple of hours later, it was drizzling. It had also gotten colder.

I thought, “This isn’t supposed to happen.” So back at the hotel, I turned on the tube and found a weatherman. The forecast had changed. In fact, it was 180-degrees out of whack with the former forecast. It was now supposed to rain for several days with temperatures in the 40s. It was a miserable vacation. Oh, and Tennessee was warm and sunny.

A week ago, on Monday, the weatherman came on with his five-day forecast, which showed that it would rain through Wednesday, but Thursday was supposed to be warm and sunny. The guy didn’t hedge his bets. He normally puts a percentage chance for rain on each day of the extended forecast if, indeed, he thinks there is any chance of rain at all. There was no percentage on Thursday. There was just a big smiling sun.

Thursday morning arrived; I was getting ready for work and turned on the set to hear the morning report. The same guy was now claiming that there was a really good chance of showers and even thunderstorms beginning around three o’clock. He didn’t apologize for his earlier error. It was just a matter-of-fact forecast that now included rain after work. I was pissed.

If he had given a disclaimer on his Monday’s forecast that it might, indeed, rain on Thursday afternoon even if he didn’t at the moment think it would, I would have felt a little better about it. Well, not about the rain, but I would have had more respect for the weatherman. But no, he arrogantly told me on Monday that there would be no rain on Thursday, and then on Thursday is said, “rain this afternoon folks.”

If he had been just a little contrite; if he had said something like, “Sorry folks, I realize I told you earlier in the week that it would not rain today. And I apologize for my error. Shit happens.” But he didn’t. He just arrogantly went on and gave his new forecast with the same degree of assurance. No looking back on old mistakes for this guy, or for any of the broadcast meteorologists, really.

The Thursday forecast called for rain on Thursday night and Friday, but fair on Saturday. Should I trust him this time? Turns out, he was right. But I still can’t forgive him for his method of delivery, as though no mistakes are possible. Yes, we all know the nature of forecasts. And we should all take the long-range predictions with a grain of salt. But when they are delivered professionally and with great assurance, at the very least the weatherman should acknowledge his error when he gets it wrong.

There’s an old weather saying that goes like this:

And in the dying embers these are my main regrets:
When I’m right no one remembers; when I’m wrong no one forgets.

How true. But maybe if they would forecast with less certainty and a little more humility, perhaps we would forgive them when they screw it up.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Whence then is Evil?

The problem of evil in the presence of God has been around ever since humans invented the concept of God. The bible spends many pages throughout the Old and New Testaments trying to rectify the situation. How can a just and loving god allow suffering in the world?

It is fairly unanimous among the Old Testament authors that evil is the result of God’s wrath. God was angry at us for disobeying Him or not worshipping Him as prescribed in His Law. The New Testament authors were less certain about the evil-as-punishment scenario and tended to believe that we paltry humans could not understand the mind of God and that if there is evil in the world, it must be for some greater good. Some of the authors of the bible believe that evil is necessary for the growth of a person’s spirit. Others believed it to be a kind of Yin-and-Yang circumstance, wherein evil exists simply because good exists; you can’t have one without the other. Then there is the explanation that says that God knows best. Just as a parent takes her child in for an immunization because she knows it will benefit the child by preventing disease, but the child has no knowledge of this. To him, the parent is inexplicably evil for doing this to him. These are all described in various modern theodicies in one form or another.

None of the theodicies, explanations of the existence of evil in a world with a loving god, hit the mark very well. They are all conceits. For thousands of years, mankind has struggled with the question of how evil can exist if God could easily destroy it, but no answer has ever been suggested with which everyone agrees.

Epicurus formulated the following logic centuries before the birth of Jesus: Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is impotent. Is He able, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Whence then is evil?

Said another way, the Christian concept of God is that he is all-powerful (omnipotent), all-loving (omnibenevolent), and all-knowing (omniscient). And, yet, there is evil in the world. If God is omniscient, then he knows better than anyone that evil exists. If he is omnibenevolent, the he hates the fact the evil exists. If he is omnipotent, then he is fully capable of eliminating evil from the earth. So either God is not omni-something, or there is no evil in the world (which we all know is false), or God does not exist.

I’m willing to accept the possibility that God is not omnipotent. Perhaps He is really, really powerful, but not ALL powerful. Perhaps God is also not omniscient. Maybe He knows an awfully lot, but not everything. I’m also willing to accept the possibility that He doesn’t exist at all. Any of these possibilities would solve the problem of evil.

There is one theodicy, however, that would explain the existence of evil and still allow for the omnipotence and omnibenevolence of God. I haven’t come across this theodicy in my study yet, but I’m not claiming authorship of it. If it already exists, which it probably does, it just isn’t one of the more popular explanations. And one wonders why not as it seems to do the best job of explaining away God’s problem of the existence of evil.

What if God allows evil to happen because evil invariably causes humanity to improve itself? It has nothing to do with growth as an individual; it is growth as a species. This would not only explain human-caused evil, such as crime, it would also explain natural disasters. Consider that famines of the past have forced humans to develop better agriculture to produce more food for a growing population. Or consider that the existence of droughts in the ancient world caused humans to develop and build aqueduct systems.

Maybe God, being eternal, is not concerned so much with conquering evil on the scale of individual episodes, because He knows that, on a societal level, evil tends to force us to progress. Maybe he wants us to overcome evil on our own because doing so makes us better.

Then again, maybe all these theodicies are just excuses for an entity that simply doesn’t exist.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Pro-Life is a Euphemism for Anti-Choice

When someone creates an organization to support a cause, they normally give it a descriptive name that let's people know what they are actually supporting: Save the Whales, Greenpeace, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, etc. If someone wanted to give their organization a name that has nothing to do with their cause it might be because they are brain dead, but more likely it is because theirs is really a clandestinely nefarious cause.

Take for example the Pro-Life movement. The Right to Life group claims to be Pro-Life. But aren't we all? Sure, some of us want convicted child murderers to be executed; some of us want to commit suicide, but by and large everyone is basically pro-life.

If a cause is pro anything, it generally means there is a large anti-something following. But what is the antithesis of the Pro-Life movement? You might think it would be the Pro-Death cause, but there is no such group. There is no Pro-Death or Anti-Life movement. What the pro-lifers are actually against is the Pro-Choice movement.

Pro-Choice is for those who support a woman's right to decide whether or not to have an abortion. It's the woman's own choice, to be made by her, in consultation with her doctor and whomever else she wants to invite into her decision-making process. But the Pro-Life crowd wants to be invited as well, and if they're not, they will crash the party.

The Pro-Life cause is not about being pro-life; we all are pro-life. Pro-Life is a euphemism for anti-choice. Of course, they couldn't name their group anti-choice because that sounds so negative and demeaning to those who value freedom of choice in this country. So they had to come up with a less sinister sounding moniker.

Of course, existing under a pseudonym sometimes means you don't want people to know your real identity. To know the real motive behind the Pro-Life movement means they would have far fewer supporters. Nobody wants to pronounce that they are anti-choice. But that's what the Pro-Life movement is all about, taking away the choice of free Americans and replacing it with their own twisted sense of morality.