Friday, 30 May 2014

Struggling temperatures

I'm having increasing trouble listening to weather forecasts on the radio and my mind always seems to slip past the bit where it explains what its likely to be like around here. Give me a simple chart with isobars and frontal systems and let me work it out for myself. But, even when I am listening, I find some of the things that get said so distracting that the rest of the forecast is obscured by an internally generated haze of irritation. I can almost forgive the occasional non meteorologically trained presenter from announcing that tomorrow will be twice as hot as today when they mean its likely to go from 4C to 8C (and not 277K to 554K (281C for those that care)) but I do have trouble when those who should know better talk of what the weather should be like, as opposed to what it might be like, or, for example, of temperatures struggling to get into double figures.

Since when did the weather do what it should? Who decided what it should be doing? The suggestion that the weather was given its instructions and then either compliantly obeyed or was willfully disobedient just doesn't make sense and neither does the idea that a temperature could have such a sense of purpose that it struggles to try and reach some arbitrary target. Yet these metaphors survive even the good scientific sense of the by and large properly trained meteorologists who work for the BBC. So, why the inappropriate metaphors? The ones that suggest that there's a hidden plan, with targets, that the weather may or may not see fit to meet.

Last week's European elections brought mixed results across the continent, but it's clear that there's increasing distrust of the mainstream political parties and of their failure to deliver the prosperity and security that we feel we've been promised. In the UK this took the form of a large vote for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Since UKIP don't seem to have any policies that they're prepared to talk about, other than being against immigration and withdrawing from the EU, I don't think it would be unfair to say that they've ridden a wave of Xenophobia, one that is inclined to find someone to blame for  "things going wrong" rather than do the equivalent of the good meteorologists trick of standing back, looking at the patterns of political, social and economic change (note that I avoid saying "development" because this suggests a pre-determined state that we might be developing towards) and then trying to spot underlying patterns so that we might better understand how things might change in the future. After all, we've never been at this stage of history before and there isn't a way things should be any more than there's a way the weather should be. 

What links the foolish metaphors about the weather with the shallow political perspective of UKIP is the very human tendency to see active agents at work in what might otherwise be seen as essentially chaotic processes. This tendency has been given an explanation by evolutionary psychologists which can be summed up by one simple example. If you're a  vulnerable animal surrounded by hostile predators then there's a survival value in treating the rustle in the bushes as though it was caused by a lion rather than hanging around to find out if it was just a rustle in the bushes. Of course, living in a land of few serious predators, it's much easier for me to avoid jumping to this sort of conclusion and it has been argued that, first of all, this search for agency - even where none exists - is a prime driver of religious belief and, secondly, that as societies become safer the need for religious belief has declined. 

Now, if there is some grand plan, even a great creator, then the idea that things should be some way or other makes sense. Things either conform to the plan, or the great creator's wishes, or they don't. But if we're just an intelligent lifeform that happens to have evolved on this particular planet, carrying with us the baggage of our evolutionary history, then there isn't a plan and the best we can do is try to figure out why things are as they are and, if we don't like the situation we've found ourselves in, try to work out how to change them.

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