It’s Not What You Know That Will Hurt You . . .

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.  .  . it’s What You Think You Know That Just Ain’t So.

Group-think is a big part of how the human brain functions. Typically, when somebody relays information to you and that information carries an assumption you will also carry the same assumption. And this happens on a subconscious level such that you are hardly aware of it. For example, examine the following response to a Quora question.  See if you notice the hidden assumption in the response:

Question: What causes tornadoes? – Quora

http://www.quora.com/What-causes-tornadoes

Answered by Gabriel Garfield: “There are many theories for what causes tornadoes, but they are untested. As a matter-of-fact, the VORTEX-2 field project — of which I am a part — is seeking to surround tornadoes with different weather instruments to try to understand why tornadoes form. We know that the parent thunderstorm that causes a tornado to form — i.e., a supercell — forms because of a combination of buoyancy and wind shear. Something similar likely happens with a tornado, but the exact mechanisms are still unknown.”

Did you see it?  Did you see the hidden assumption in Gabriel’s statement?  What about this: “We know that the parent thunderstorm that causes a tornado to form — i.e., a supercell — forms because of a combination of buoyancy and wind shear.”  Do we KNOW that thunderstorms are the parent of tornadoes?  Do we KNOW that buoyancy is a factor?  (Do we even KNOW that moist air is more buoyant than dry air?)  No, we don’t.  In fact all of these things are as equally untested as are the points that he refers to as being untested.

This problem is, of course, not new to science.  And, of course, we all know what the solution to this problem is supposed to be: professionals trained in the scientific method constantly attempting to disprove and test assumptions.  Unfortunately what happens in many scientific disciplines is that a hidden assumption is maintained and generation after generation of practitioners fail to test it. Eventually people stop asking questions and the assumptions is raised to the status of being sacred–beyond question.  And the professionals become really good at discouraging (and sometimes shouting down) anybody that has the temerity to express doubt about these sacred notions.  The professionals, essentially, evolve into being priest of a religion–gatekeepers of “truth.”  And all of their effort go not into developing methods of examination but more sciencey-sounding terminology to further obscure their sacred beliefs.

For example.  The following is an attempt by professional meteorologists to admonish journalists for using the phrase “clash of air masses,” in regard to journalists’ attempts to explain the origins of tornadoes to the public:

http://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/pdf/10.1175/BAMS-D-13-00252.1
Tornadoes in the Central United States and the “Clash of Air Masses”
by DAVID M. SCHULTZ, YVETTE P. RICHARDSON, PAUL M. MARKOWSKI, CHARLES A. DOSWELL III

Therein you will find statements that purportedly delineates the current state of knowledge about what causes storms and tornadoes (edited slightly to improve readabilty):

“. . . storms occurred when warm humid air near the surface lay under drier air aloft with temperature decreasing rapidly with height [originating from higher terrain to the west or southwest], providing energy for the storms through the production of instability. Large changes in wind with height (“wind shear”) over both shallow (lowest 1 km) and deep (lowest 6 km) layers—combined with the instability and high humidity near the surface—created a situation favorable for tornadoes to form.”

And:

“. . . all convective storms are initiated when air parcels with convective available potential energy (CAPE) reach their level of free convection (LFC), with one of the most common mechanisms for storm initiation being ascent associated with airmass boundaries . . . ”

Ultimately there is a lot of circular reasoning and tautological rhetoric in all of this: updrafts are caused by up-moving air; instability is the result of air being unstable; winds get higher with height. Is any of this genuinely explanatory? No, not in my opinion. These are just observations repackaged to sound sciencey. All that is being achieved in these explanations is to add another layer of abstraction between the reader and the realization that–frankly–they don’t have it all figured out yet.

We can’t blame professionals for wanting to appear professional. And the purpose of this post is not to ‘out’ them for being less than the scientific ideal. But it is, in my opinion, important to point out what they themselves are incapable of seeing: at no time do any of them draw any attention to the fact that the notion that moist air is lighter (more buoyant) than dry air has never been tested/measured, this being the sacred notion that nobody in meteorology dare challenge, the consequence being excommunication.

Would you like to participate in an actual test and/or measurement of moist air vs. dry air notion to get to the actual truth therof? If so, please complete the following contact information.

Kindest regard to all!

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