Civility, Correction, and the Weather Enterprise

When I was a cub chief meteorologist at a TV station in rural Texas, I noticed that our competition was using one of the credentials of our trade in a way that, while technically against the rules, wasn’t really causing me or anyone else any trouble.  Being the newly-credentialed, prideful kid I was, though, I reported the station to the folks in charge of that particular credential for violating their rules anyway.

Thinking I’d do the other chief a “favor”, I caught up with him at a public event we were both at shortly thereafter and “let him know” about it so he “wouldn’t be caught off guard” by whatever happened.  His response was simple: He didn’t have anything specific to do with that decision but that I should “do whatever [I] felt like I had to do”.  On at least one level, though, he seemed genuinely hurt that I thought so little of our relationship as colleagues serving the same area that I didn’t approach him first.

It was a real “stay classy, San Diego” moment for me.  I walked away feeling awful.  Shoot, it’s been more than a decade, and I still feel awful about it, especially since in every regard, the fellow was always and has been nothing but a class act to me and in the community he still serves.  I was and still am humbled.

That’s not to say we should let things devolve into a free-for-all where order and correctness do not matter.  Any community that is interested in improving upon the status quo must both adopt and maintain standards for orderly conduct and have a way for more learned members to instruct or correct less-well-informed on points of knowledge or etiquette when needed.  Further, the community and its members must be able to celebrate the successes of some even while learning from the shortcomings of others.  And we must do so within the context of our relationships with one another as members of a vibrant and diverse community.

Thursday was a great example of how this can work, as I watched a number of colleagues gently and reasonably inform another colleague of shortcomings in an explanation he provided on a public forum.  They did so not to embarrass but to educate not only our colleague but those who depend on him for information.  It was measured and respectful. The spirit in which this correction was offered was one of service to science and to our fellow weather enthusiasts.  I can only hope it was received as such and that should I ever speak beyond my understanding, my colleagues will reach out and guide me onto the right path similarly.

Adam Baker -

Adam Baker via Flickr (CC 2.0)

However good this example, though, events over the past few weeks suggest our community, our Weather Enterprise, still has a ways to go — And I write this as a man living in a glass house with a bunch of busted windows and a stone in his hand.

If you’re reading this, chances are, you already know what I’m talking about.  That’s good because I’m not going to go into detail here, but suffice it to say, it wasn’t just one thing, one person, one day, or one forum, and folks from every corner of the Weather Enterprise got involved.  In some cases, it’s a tone that belies the façade of respect; a snarky, dodging response to a fair question.  Elsewhere, it’s a perception that some are gloating over the shortcomings of others.  There’s even been willful ignorance of respective roles of various members of our community, some straw-manning, and even some argumentum ad hominem and disrespect, too.

Emeldil via Wikipedia (CC 3.0)

Look, I don’t expect us all to be gathering ‘round the campfire, holding hands, and singing Kum ba yah all the time.  It’s OK to have disagreements.  We’re allowed to have different interests, goals, purposes, and audiences even within this big umbrella of improving weather forecasting, research, and understanding of ours.  The interactions amongst us — when they are civil, respectful, and productive — are what drive our community forward toward better forecasts, better warnings, and better service to our publics and clients.  And it’s great that, by and large, we who self-select into our community tend to be passionate about what we do and whom we serve. It certainly makes our conferences more interesting! Put more directly, we need each other, and the Weather Enterprise needs the diversity of approaches that arises from the unique blend of public, private, media, academic, and other contributors to the community.

However, I fear that we sometimes get caught up in whatever you want to call it — the moment, the heat of battle, the sake of argument — and we cross the line.  Our passion for personal and professional growth and advancement of our organization, employer, or “side” turns uncivil, disrespectful, and unproductive, and we harm the very relationships that make our Enterprise work.  In that moment, we forget that, whether it’s a technicality reported by an over-confident kid or an issue of deep import to our entire community, when we get down to it, we’re all people fascinated with the weather.  We’re all in this crazy business of trying to figure out Mother Nature’s next move together, and we’re all one event — or one silly technicality — from being humbled.

Every sailor knows that the sea
Is a friend made enemy
And every shipwrecked soul, knows what it is
To live without intimacy
I thought I heard the captain’s voice
It’s hard to listen while you preach
Like every broken wave on the shore
This is as far as I could reach
— U2, “Every Breaking Wave”

About Nate Johnson

Meteorologist, instructor, blogger, and podcaster.
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3 Responses to Civility, Correction, and the Weather Enterprise

  1. I think I will disagree with you a bit here. Of course we should be civil. But credentials are hard won, and for them to have significance, they should be a distinguishing characteristic to the public. You’re initial story shows me you had guilt because of the motive you had in mentioning your colleague’s mischaracterization. It’s fine to have guilty, but he’s actually the person that did the wrong and dishonest thing and he should have been called out for it. Otherwise, our credentials have no meaning.

    I appreciate your effort in writing this so cogently. However, it would help if we know the event you had in mind. I suppose it is the Moore tornado pontificating by one firm and a bunch of TV stations in OKC. But the NWS has stayed above it all, as usual. Thank goodness.

    • Nate Johnson says:

      John, thanks for the reply. Two thoughts, if I may:

      1) My point in relaying that story wasn’t to assuage my guilt over this, nor was it to suggest I shouldn’t have brought it up because credentials don’t matter. They absolutely do, those who earn them should be proud of that achievement. (And the person in question had – remember, this was a technicality we’re talking about, not a blatant claiming-credentials-someone-didn’t-have thing). Rather, the story was to point out that far too often, instead of building or maintaining relationships with our colleagues, we run to the “higher authority” and have them deal with it. We don’t treat our colleagues with respect, a respect that begins with acknowledging them in the first place.

      It’s not unlike the rise of home-owners associations. Decades ago, if I had an issue with a neighbor, say a barking dog or unkept lawn, I had to go to that neighbor and resolve it. Now, we avoid treating our neighbors as persons as just “turn them in” and let the HOA “deal with it”. What I should have done was reach out to my colleague (with whom I’d had friendly dealings in the past) first, explain the situation, and see if we could resolve between the two of us. Failing that, then I could approach the organization for relief.

      2) As you’ll read above, “it wasn’t just one thing, one person, one day, or one forum”.

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