Sep 13 2018

Hurricane Pseudoscience

Hurricane Florence is about to hit the Carolinas, extending as far south as Georgia and north as Virginia. The storm peaked at a Category 4, but now as it approaches land has been downgraded to a Category 2 hurricane. Hurricanes generally gain power over the ocean, from the energy of water evaporating off the surface, and then lose power when they hit land.

But this weakening does not mean that the storm is not dangerous. The category refers only to wind speeds, but there are other factors to consider. First, this is a very large storm. Also, it is slowing down, so may stall over the Carolinas. This means it can just sit there, dumping large amounts of water. The two dangers are storm surges and flooding. A storm surge is the rise in sea level above the normal high tide, caused by the wind. This can rapidly flood coastlines.

Flooding occurs when rivers overflow their banks and there is simply too much water too fast to be absorbed into the ground or flow back to the ocean. Flooding and storm surges actually cause most of the damage and deaths during large storms, not the wind itself.

Dramatic storms like Florence always seem to prompt fresh discussion about the effects of global warming and what we should be doing about it.

Here is a good summary by the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory of the effects of AGW on tropical storms. Warming does not increase the number of storms, but it does increase the average intensity of storms and the amount of water they drop. Therefore, statistically we should be, and are, seeing more intense storms and more flooding.

Of course you cannot blame any single storm on AGW – it is a statistical effect.

I do think that how we respond, both individually and collectively, to such powerful natural events says a lot about our culture. Do we respond with pragmatic and science-based solutions, or do we respond with superstition and tribalism? Of course, the answer is yes – everything happens.

Pat Robertson, you may (or may not) be reassured to hear, has commanded Hurricane Florence, in the name of Jesus, to do no damage. He has erected a religious shield over the east coast – especially his properties in Virginia.  I take no issue with people turning to their faith for comfort in threatening times. I do think it is counterproductive to think that you can erect a magic shield with your faith. Robertson has taken credit for previous hurricanes that did not turn out as bad as feared.

Self-proclaimed “Christian prophetess” Kat Kerr is taking the same approach – using her magical powers to “take control” of the hurricane. No doubt she will take credit for the storm being downgraded from Cat 4 to 2, but will she accept the blame for any flooding or damage that is done?

This type of grandstanding before storms is known as the rainmaker fallacy. The name comes from some traditions to perform rain dances or other rituals to summon the rains during a dry spell. Eventually, of course, the rain comes and the ritual is given credit. The fallacy is in pretending or believing to have control over events that you do not control. They don’t have to be weather related – anything random or simply out of your control. You might psychically turn a red traffic light green – and it will turn green.

I wrote recently about superstition and the illusion of control. There is a tendency to assume cause and effect, and this can lead to the illusion that we can control events we don’t control. Or, the illusion of control can work by proxy – convincing others you have control over things like the weather. The illusion of control directly relates to superstitious beliefs. It is interesting to speculate how much the illusion of control may have contributed to the evolution of religions.

A sense of powerlessness or lack of control is a major motivating factor in developing superstitious beliefs. Religion may just be the ultimate expression of this phenomenon. Imagine how powerless our pre-scientific ancestors felt before nature, which could literally deal life and death. Having a powerful being to pray to could be a comfort, especially if the illusion of control makes it seem to work.

To be clear, I am not trying to be anti-religion. I do think that modern religions would be better served by understanding their own historical and psychological roots. Further, I think they would do well to strip themselves of superstitious beliefs. If they want to have a legitimate role in a modern society there is much they can do to promote rational morality and charity. In the face of a storm or other crisis religious organizations can help pull people together, provide resources, and be an important glue to society (and to be fair some do). This is far more useful than pretending to control the storm with magical powers.

Extreme weather events also bring out the AGW non-controversy. Since North Carolina is a target of this storm, we are reminded that in 2012 the state passed a law banning any policy based on prediction of severe sea level rise. This was a reaction to a study by the Coastal Resources Commission indicating that the North Carolina coast, which is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise, could see rises as much as 39 inches over the next century.

I am sure residents were very reassured that the state government’s reaction to this information was to simply ban it.

Trying to be fair to their position, promoters of this bill argued that dire predictions at the extreme end could unfairly and adversely affect property values. They feared a panic causing a run on coastal properties. But even if we take this as a legitimate argument, simply banning any law based on this science does not seem like a useful response.

Even more conservative estimates of sea level rise are still extremely concerning for residents of the Outer Banks (my parents owned a home there for about a decade, but not currently). And – the 39 inch prediction is no longer the most extreme.

But fine – consider options to limit panic and a sudden collapse of coastal property values. Or – how about this – stop developing vulnerable coastline. Take steps to mitigate the effects of sea level rise. Plan for worst and strive for the best. Become leaders in addressing AGW, because you have so much to lose.

Or, as Orrin Pilkey, a retired Duke University coastal geologist, wrote in a recent op-ed:

“Currently the unspoken plan is to wait until the situation is catastrophic and then respond.”

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