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How weather and climate can teach us to consume information with a skeptical eye

Posted by David Epstein  September 4, 2013 06:00 AM

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Somewhere in a box of papers I have a piece of work I did on my first day of Kindergarten from this week back in September 1969. I remember well that exercise of learning to write my name. Miss Allen had already printed David Epstein at the top of the yellow paper and I was to copy the letters on the blank lines below.

You may not believe me, but I can recall that day well and my frustration at not being able to keep my big yellow pencil inside those lines. There was this one girl whose printing looked so adult and I thought how could she be doing that? It would turn out the girls in our class often had much better penmanship than the boys. (you can debate that later).

You may already be wondering what the heck does any of this have to do with the weather, but stay with me for a bit, I’ll get there.

I'll be interested in what you thought of this blog entry after reading it. Let me know on Twitter at @growingwisdom Please follow me there. Feel free to comment or ask questions too.

How we learn and take in information begins at a very young age and although I was only 5, I already was forming patterns of learning and observing. The following year I would end up being moved to the third grade for science class, as the first grade just wasn’t challenging enough for my inquisitive and probing mind. I always received the mark of O, or outstanding for “curiosity” in those early days of school.

I have embraced my passion to investigate, explore and push the boundaries of what I am told into my adult careers. As a college student, I was told you couldn’t winter over vegetables. As an adult my desire to attempt it led me to pioneers like Elliot Coleman and Johnny's Selected Seeds. Both have revolutionized fall and winter gardening in cold climates. I can now enjoy spinach, kale, carrots and choys almost the entire year. Did you know there are even certain banana trees that can winter over, with some protection, in the Boston area?

Tomorrow, I start another semester of teaching meteorology at Framingham State University. Most, if not all of my students, take the course to fulfill their non-laboratory science requirement. They probably thought to themselves meteorology is more interesting than some of the other choices. A few probably thought the course would deal with meteors before they read the syllabus last week.

What I hope my students end up with in December, besides an appreciation and knowledge of weather, is a healthy skepticism of the information they consume, including predictions about climate change and non-meteorological topics such as whether or not Syria used chemical weapons. (Don’t worry, I’m not going down that path).

I use my meteorology course to teach about the weather and climate, but to also guide students on a path of critical thinking, building communication skills and data evaluation. This morning on one of the morning shows, the news anchor read a story about a fire in Alexandria ,Virginia. He stated it was so big you could “see it all the way to Maryland.” For many, his statement would seem to indicate a rather large and impressive fire, but if you pulled up a map, you would realize that Maryland is just across the Potomac river, so was the fire really a big deal, noteworthy, statistically important?

One the hotter debates in the world of climate and meteorology is of course how anthropogenic, (man-made) carbon dioxide will impact the planet. Here is where my push to consume what you read, and sometimes parrot back to others, should be done with care.

We are currently entering the peak activity point of hurricane season and I suspect storms in the tropics will get quite active the rest of the month. One of the data points the media loves to report is that climate change will mean more hurricanes and bigger ones hitting the United States. When Sandy hit the East Coast last year, it was used as an example of the coming ferocity of the new climate.

Did you know on average the United States is hit by a two major (category 3 or higher) hurricanes in a three year period)? The last time the USA was hit by a storm of that intensity was 2876 days ago when Wilma struck Florida back in 2005. Clearly, at least in terms of the recent data, climate change isn’t causing more storms.
No one knows what this particular data point means. It’s but a blip in climatological history. It shouldn’t be used to prove or disprove anything. However, it does show we need to be careful consumers of what we hear. There is a report out on National Geographic's website stating a warmer world would actually somehow protect the East Coast of the United States from more hurricanes. The headline is based on a research paper from one group of scientists. Is their prediction true? Will it actually come to fruition? We will all be long since dead before we really know.

I had over 6 inches of rain this weekend at my house in Natick. This amount of rain surely seems out of whack with the norm. Is this a sign of a warmer world, in which bigger rains are common and 100 year floods come every few years? Perhaps, or perhaps I was just in the wrong spot this weekend. Boston itself had less than an inch.

Our weather looks sunny, mild and dry the rest of this week. You will no doubt be talking about the beautiful conditions and how tranquil the weather is. Inside classrooms under the bright blue sky, thousands of students will hopefully be learning something new every day this week. September is for me, more than any other month of the year, a time when learning, investigating, and questioning what we are taught just feels appropriate.

September means teachers, instructors, professors will be feeding gobs of information of various utilitarian value to their learners. As you get back to the grind after the long weekend, you are going to be bombarded by pieces of information throughout the rest of the week. Is what you are hearing really a crisis? Is the fire so enormous it can be seen an entire state away, or is it just across the river? Decide wisely, with purpose and with an open mind to what is real and what isn’t.
Gardening this week
Not that long ago I was fortunate to take a trip to Ecuador. The country is very beautiful and known for a wonderful growing climate. In this video I show you some of my visit to a farm that grows roses for markets all over the world.

I'll be updating the details of the weather on Twitter at @growingwisdom Please follow me there. Feel free to comment or ask questions too.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

David Epstein has been a professional meteorologist and horticulturalist for three decades. David spent 16 years at WCVB in Boston and currently freelances for WGME in Portland, ME. In 2006, More »
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