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Communication Solutions for Atmospheric Scientist

Abstract

The issue of atmospheric scientist communication, being a topical issue in the contemporary science realm, has been raised quite a few times. The report under the title of “Atmospheric Scientist Communication Problems” is one of the studies that address the issue in question. The current paper aims at discussing the findings of the above-mentioned report, therefore, drawing important lessons regarding the recent changes in atmospheric scientist communication. The current study shows that the lack of standards concerning the communication process may be the key impediment to successful communication between atmospheric scientists and the public.

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Introduction

This proposal is a response to the analytical report entitled “Atmospheric Scientist Communication Problems.” The purpose of this research proposal is to increase public and scientific awareness of possible partial solutions to atmospheric scientist communication problems. While the analytical report focused on detailing the major Linguistic and Cultural Communication Problems that Atmospheric scientists face, this proposal will focus on solutions dealing mainly with the national weather service linguistic problems and, in the process, define the lack of awareness as a problem that can also be the key to a solution.

Methods

The research methods for the solution were similar to my research for the analytical report. As an Atmospheric Science major, I retrieved most background knowledge for this report from class and personal research related to weather. Some knowledge also came from working at Louisiana’s Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and emergency preparedness. Additionally, I discussed the topic with regular people (non-scientists) and searched for my topic in recent news articles. When searching for resources, the American Meteorological Society was used because the library’s online resources provided little results.

Statement of the Problem

Communication problems between atmospheric scientists and the general public cause confusion and mistrust, sometimes leading to unnecessary fatalities. The main causes of the communication problems are technical and cultural language barriers, communication methods, and lack of two-way communication. Atmospheric Scientists or Meteorologists form a part of a scientific culture that uses a technical language that is not easily understood by the general public. The National Weather Service in the United States government agency is responsible for communicating short-term forecasts, long-term forecasts, severe weather warnings, and severe weather outlooks. Even though the Atmospheric Scientist at the national weather service has been using terms like the probability of precipitation (POP) for over 50 years, the general public still fails to understand what POP means. In addition to the Technical language barriers, inconsistencies involving the definition of technical terms like POP among atmospheric scientists in the public and private sector aggravate the communication problem.

A more alarming communication breakdown than the public’s lack of understanding of POP is the Storm Prediction Center’s Severe Weather Outlook taxonomy (Storm Prediction Center, 2014). Understanding when and where severe weather conditions are going to occur is very important for the safety of the general public. Events like tornadoes kill many people every year. However, very few individuals even know about the Storm Prediction Center, not to mention understanding the Severe Weather Outlook categories. Again, in this case, like with POP, it is not only the technical language that confuses but also the lack of consistency from public and Private Sector Atmospheric scientists. An example of this is the Weather channel’s use of the term Torcon to indicate the probability of a Tornado occurring, which differs from the Storm Prediction Center’s severe weather outlook category. These are not the only communication problems that atmospheric scientists face, but they will be the ones addressed in this proposal to find a solution.

Proposed Solutions

The reported problems cannot be solved all at once or by utilizing only a few tactics. For over fifty years the term “probability of precipitation” has been misunderstood and nothing has changed yet. For atmospheric scientists to be understood, two important things need to happen. First, there needs to be a uniform standard definition for the terms used by atmospheric scientists. Second, atmospheric scientists need to be able to translate scientific and technical terms to nonscientist ones because it is impossible to educate the entire public to a level where they can understand all the terms used by atmospheric scientists. In suggesting these necessary changes, another problem is evident. For communication to be effective, it has to be reciprocal. Atmospheric scientists need feedback from emergency preparedness personnel, local and federal governments, and the general public. This feedback must be constructive and as specific as possible since meteorologist is the only job where you can be wrong 50% of the time and still have a job. Therefore, the third solution involves increasing awareness of the communication problem and providing atmospheric scientists with feedback.

Linguistic Communication Solutions

Using standard terms is imperative to fix the ineffective communication between atmospheric scientists and non-atmospheric scientists. Adopting standards has long been a problem in the world for scientists, governments, and private industry. In the financial world, a standard currency has been talked about for a long time but has never been adopted. The same is the case for measurements, in the United States, the Imperial system is still being used, while the rest of the world uses the metric system. Scientists, however, understood the need for standards, and today the scientific community uses SI units for all scientific research and calculations. It is now time that atmospheric scientists should take the same step and adopt standard terms and definitions. Once standard terms and definitions are in place, the atmospheric science community needs to work with translators to interpret the scientific language into a simple common language. Finally, atmospheric scientists need feedback from non-atmospheric scientists to have effective communication. This feedback will only come if non-atmospheric scientists are made aware of communication problems.

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Standard terms and definitions

To improve atmospheric scientist communication, atmospheric science terms must be clearly defined and maintained by a responsible organization. A good example of how a similar problem was solved is the International System of Units, which is known as SI. The international community realized that to be able to communicate and advance science, it is necessary to have a standard system of units. The International System of Units is the base unit that most scientists use. Its integrity is maintained by BIPM. BIPM is described on its website as “the intergovernmental organization through which Member States act together on matters related to measurement science, and measurement standards” (International Bureau of Weights and Measures, 2015, par. 1).

The solution to not having multiple definitions of POP or different severe weather outlooks is to make the organization take responsibility, i.e., to define and maintain atmospheric science terms. The American Meteorology Society recognized the need for standards back in 1978. In a 1978 journal article published by the chairman W.E. Hoehne, the chairman acknowledged the need for standards terms and said that a standard institute was needed to accomplish this task (Hoehne, 1978). Awareness and feedback are the key components of the solution required to create an institute to enforce standards or simply have government agencies like the National Weather Service declare standard atmospheric science terms. Emergency managers, students, the media, and the general public need to demand that an institute of standards be created. As taxpayers, we have the right to demand the best from government agencies such as the national weather service. As an atmospheric science student, I have emailed the National weather service requesting that they give a single explanation for the term POP. However, for real change to occur, non-atmospheric scientists need to pressure the agency into taking action. So, if you are reading this, even if you do not care about the weather, email the national weather service about having standard terms because weather affects us all.

Translation and interpretation

Scientific language needs to be translated and interpreted just like a real language would be, to be properly understood. In business and professional settings, interpreters and translators are used even if one of the individuals is bilingual to ensure accurate communication. Interpreters and translators are required to understand the languages and cultures to ensure accurate communication. Atmospheric scientists and specifically the Storm Prediction Center have recognized the need to have the scientific weather information properly interpreted and translated to the general public. The interpreters and translators that atmospheric scientists have chosen to use are social scientists. In 2014, the Storm Prediction Center changed its convective outlook to severe risk categories. According to the Storm Predictions website, the convective outlook severe risk categories were changed to improve communication-based on feedback. The website also says that the Storm Prediction Center used social scientists’ help to make the changes and is committed to using social science to continue to improve communication. The problem is that the Storm Prediction Center’s convective outlook severe categories are still not understood.

One possible reason for the improved changes to the storm prediction center’s risk categories to be still misunderstood is that the social scientist working with the Storm Prediction Center is not atmospheric scientists. When I was working in Afghanistan as an interrogator in the United States Army, I noticed that the best interpreters were the ones that had lived in Afghanistan but had also been in the United States military. The same idea may work with atmospheric scientists. If atmospheric scientists took Social Science classes, they might be better at communicating with non-scientists as opposed to the scenario in which they just work with social scientists that do not understand atmospheric science. As an atmospheric science student at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, I am disappointed that social science is not a requirement as part of my degree. If the National Weather Service required social science classes in their job posting, it is possible that universities would include social science classes as a requirement for atmospheric science degrees.

Awareness and feedback

Communication should be a two-way process. If atmospheric scientists have problems communicating weather forecasts, severe risk probabilities, the probability of precipitation, and other terms to the general public, but no one cares about it, nothing will change. Controversial topics like global warming get media attention, government funding, and public awareness, even though not all scientists agree that it is caused by greenhouses; however, the topics such as the controversy of the communication process are left unnoticed. It is important to raise public awareness of the communication problems that atmospheric scientists have because some of the problems like communicating severe weather forecasts are involved in life or death situations. The more people know about a problem, the greater the chance that the problem can be solved is.

Conclusion

Review of Major Findings

The Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center has made changes to how they communicate based on feedback. This shows that feedback and awareness from the public may help to change the communication problem. If an institute were created to dictate standard meteorological terms and definitions, it would eliminate multiple definitions for terms like the probability of precipitations. Social scientists can help translate and interpret complex atmospheric science language to something that can be understood by the public. However, if atmospheric scientists cross-train with social scientists, it may be more beneficial than using the help of social scientists that do not fully understand atmospheric sciences. Asking the National Weather Service to include social scientists in their job offerings would be a good way to ensure that Universities make social science a part of their atmospheric science degree plans. Awareness and feedback are imperative to improving atmospheric scientist communication problems. Government agencies such as the Storm Prediction Center are tax-payer funded and should improve if they receive meaningful feedback on their products from the public. This proposal for a solution is a good way to improve awareness of the problems.

Analysis of Major Findings

Public awareness of the communication problems between atmospheric scientists and the public must remain the top priority if any of the proposed solutions are to be implemented. Although we cannot ask private media like the weather channel to comply with standard terms or use social scientists’ help to communicate to the public, we can demand that the National Weather Service have standard definitions for terms like POP.

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References

Hoehne, W. E.. (1978). Standards for meteorology. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 59(12), 1156–1158. Web.

International Bureau of Weights and Measures. (2015). Mission, role and objectives. Web.

Storm Prediction Center. (2014). SPC day 1, 2, 3 convective outlook change page. Web.

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