Galactic Interactions

Book review : Storm World by Chris Mooney

Read this book.

First and formost for a book review: Storm World is a good
read. You will not find yourself bogged down or forcing yourself to
push through a book that’s “good for you.” You will keep reading
because you will want to know more.

As for the book itself: Mooney clearly has a point of view in the
book, and does not hide it. However, that point of view is considered
based on the evidence, and he also admits that it is not exactly the
same as the point of view he expected to have when starting research for
the book. This is not a polemic, it is not a “the sky is falling, we’re
all gonna die!” rant about hurricans and global warming. Even if you
are one who is inclined to doubt all of that, I strongly encourge you to
consider reading this book.

The book is really about two things. First, it’s a historical and
present account of our increasing understanding of just what hurricanes
are, including that there still is a lot about them that we don’t
understand. Second, it’s an examination of the scientific process which
is in many ways more honest and true to reality than many of the
sugar-coated versions of the scientific process that we hear.

At times, I thought that this book could be subtitled “Scientists
Behaving Badly.” The book is full of tales of scientists personally
attacking other scientists— magnified all the more because that is
the sort of thing that the media loves to latch on to, blowing it out of
proportion. However, the subtitle “Scientists Behaving Badly” really
would not be appropriate for this book. While many of the scientists in
this book make questionable decisions as people, what is absent
from this book is any tales of scientific misconduct. Yes, some
of the scientists have accused other scientists of ethical lapses, but
Mooney does not see any of them of having ethical lapses. Even those
scientists who have come to different conclusions about global warming
than most of us are portrayed as ethical scientists with integrity by
Mooney. This is one of the most refreshing things about this book. Too
often, when you read a non-fiction book, those who are on the “other
side” come out looking like villains. Science does progress
despite the acrimony and personal conflicts. The process is not
pleasant, and some end up suffering greatly, but ultimately it does
work.

Don’t get me wrong: there are clear and unabashed villains in this
book, but they are not the scientists; they are the bureaucrats who
interfere with the scientific process, to the dismay of all of the
scientists portrayed in the book. But even the most irrascable and
controversial scientist in this book is one whom Mooney explicitly
admires.

Mooney does a good job of portraying how different scientific
philosophies and approaches can lead to different conclusions— and
tracing that back through a century of research about hurricanes.
Indeed, another subtitle for the book might be “a clash between
empiricism and modelling.” Even there, however, Mooney comes to the
conclusion that both approaches are utterly essential for
science. From the earliest days of trying to understand the dynamics of
hurricanes, it becomes clear that the empiricists and the modellers each
had a piece of the picture right, and their mistake was in seeing
the two in conflict rather than trying to figure out how to reconcile
the two.

Regarding the connection between global warming and hurricanes,
Mooney makes several important points that too often are simply
impossible to portray in the either-or, black-and-white,
defeate-the-enemy soundbyte tone that permeates political debate today.
There is a lot of subtlety. Yes, we don’t really know if we’ve already
seen an upturn in hurricane intensity because of human-induced globaly
warming, but it remains a possibility. It’s a strong possibility that
things will get worse in the future because of that… and, thus, we
should be planning for it, even if we admit that we’re not
certain about it. Too often one side says, “you don’t really know this
will happen, so why must we spend all that money?” That leads the other
side to overselling the evidence as a way of fighting back. We need to
learn how to deal with scientific uncertainty as a fact of life, and to
plan for things that have a reasonable probability without later
condemning the scientists who made predictions that do not come to
pass.

Mooney also makes the very clear point that even if it is true that
the overall number and/or intensity of hurricanes have already been
affected by human-induced global warming, it is impossible to say that
any one individual hurricane was “caused” by global warming. Hurricanes
happen! There are many causes to them. Global warming may well cause
an increase in the intensity of hurricanes, but you can have a Category
5 hurricane without global warming. Once again, those who would see
action on the possibility that global warming is threatening us through
hurricanes oversell the evidence; global warming did not cause
Katrina. Unfortunately, those on the other side latch on to the
absurdity of this to dismiss the connection altogether. The subtlety of
increased risk does not sell well in a soundbyte political debate.

I would love to see everybody in the world read this book. Not only,
or even not primarily, because of the thoughtful treatment of an issue
that should concern us all (the connection between hurricanes and
global warming). But, rather, because it is a good exploration of how
we should be dealing with figuring out what is most likely to be true by
looking at scientific “consensus,” and how science really does work and
progress when it appears dysfunctional or contradictory to the outside
observer. Too many treatments of science oversimplify the connection
between theory and experiment, and how easy the process of
“falsification” is. Too many treatments of science make it appear that
all ethical scientists will agree when the results of an experiment or
observation indicate that their position is wrong. In reality, the
results of experiment are rarely so obvious, and often ethical
scientists with different approaches will disagree for a long time. The
way science is described in this book is much more the way science
works in the real world than the way many of us claim it works when
trying to explain it to the general populace.

(Note: Chris Mooney is one of the co-bloggers of href="http://www.scienceblogs.com/intersection/">The Intersection,
anther blog (much more popular than this one!) hosted at
scienceblogs.com. He’s recently been blogging about some of the huge
hurricanes of the current season, Dean and Felix.)