Monday, September 9, 2019

From Hurricane Forecast Molehills To Sharpie Mountains

Recently I was talking with a friend who was wrestling with the reality of working with people who lied all the time. “It’s not just big things. They lie about things they don’t need to lie about. It makes no sense.” The fact that they so easily lied about mundane things seemed to unsettle him more than knowing they lied about big things. 

I understood my friend’s frustration. I used to work with a guy who lied all the time to people around him.  He, too, fudged the truth on everything almost instinctively. He would lie to others in front of me all the time - and he knew that I knew he was lying. It didn’t take long before I not only didn’t believe anything he told me, but I generally didn’t trust him. 

Most ethicists would agree with the following premise: as a general rule, lying isn’t the right thing to do. I suspect most of us would agree with the following corollary: there may be exceptions (we would lie to save a life, for example). We might even begrudgingly acknowledge yet another aspect: it’s to some degree understandable (even if it's not defensible) to lie in certain situations when the stakes are personally high. 

Of course you lied about cheating on your taxes when the IRS called; of course you denied the affair; of course you said the bloody glove wasn’t yours. Both the lie and the act that triggered the lie are wrong, but it’s a lie that makes emotional sense even as we disapprove of it on a rationally moral level.

The ideal is that we set our moral bar at the highest level on this issue. The rule is “Don’t lie.” This includes an understanding that genuine moral dilemmas exist in which lying might serve a profoundly greater good (think Corrie Ten Boom lying to the Nazis about hiding Jews).  

So, how much lower is that moral bar set when lying becomes acceptable for situations that are not at over genuine moral dilemmas but are instead over issues of serious personal impact? 

How much lower is that already lowered bar set when any situation is fair game to get you out of a merely uncomfortable situation?  

How much lower is that already lowered bar set when someone constantly evades the truth on even the most mundane and inconsequential things? 

And just how much should that concern us? 

What does it reveal about the character of the person in question?

* * * * *

An almost irrelevant incident that turned into an ongoing national story is just eating away at me. On the one hand, the incident in question is really trivial. On the other hand, it seems profoundly important in light of the nature of my opening comments. 

WARNING: This is about the President. I have been accused of being overly critical of the President, and there is no doubt I have my criticisms. I appreciate that he promotes the pro-life agenda, and I like that the courts are trending conservative in relation to religious protection. But that does not mean I give him a pass when no pass should be given. I'm not holding him to a standard I have not had for previous presidents. Obama had his scandals and still struggles to get the facts straight even while he's out of office. Of the 500 or so statements from Obama's presidency that Politifact scored, only 47% were "true" or "mostly true." 

But he's not the President right now. Trump is the President.

It bothers me that I can't speak truth about this President without taking heat. Truth is truth. Please, just listen and think for a while before you respond.

* * * * *

The incident: the President tweeted a map of hurricane Dorian that had been altered with a Sharpie so that the projected path impacted Alabama. Why does this matter? 

Here’s the background. 

The National Weather Service and NOAA release official projections of what course a hurricane could take. They study different models that predict different possibilities, which they in turn use to craft an official forecast. These models and forecasts grow more specific the closer and more predictable a hurricane gets. 

The President stated on September 1 that Alabama was going to be impacted significantly by Dorian. The National Weather Service tweeted within 20 minutes of his statement that Alabama was absolutely not going to be impacted. 

So, far, it’s not really a story. It was just a mistake. This was a great opportunity for the President to say, “Good call. Thanks for the update, NWS!  I was going off some projections I was given a few days ago. It’s good to know Alabama is safe.” It’s a fluid situation. Correcting projections is a normal thing. 

The President did not do this. And this is where the troubling part begins.

Also on September 1, after both the national NWS and the Alabama branch of the NWS weighed in to say there was no threat, the President said in a FEMA briefing that Dorian “may get a little piece of a great place: It's called Alabama… [it] could even be in for at least some very strong winds and something more than that, it could be. This just came up, unfortunately."  It hadn’t just come up. And as you will see in a bit, the winds predicted were hardly "very strong."

Instead of giving the nod to the NWS, he continued to restate his case. The President said the forecast and maps had shown Alabama had a 95% change of getting hit "very hard” (none did). One NOAA forecast (not model) on August 30 showed winds barely crossing the south east corner of Alabama. Trump posted a tweet from the Alabama National Guard about the hurricane impacting Alabama (a 5% to 30% chance of strong winds). That was one tweet out of a lot of other tweets from the ANG that said the opposite. The ANG tweeted a graph from the Alabama EMA on August 30 that showed Dorian would not impact Alabama. The next day, the 31stthe Alabama National Guard tweeted, “#HurricaneDorian models are beginning to more consistently show the storm tracking away from Alabama.” 

"There was absolutely not ever a 95% chance that Alabama would get hit, let alone ‘pretty hard’ or ‘in all cases,’" according to Brian McNoldy, a tropical cyclone researcher at the University of Miami. 

On September 4, the President tweeted a map in his defense (Fox News had also been posting it to defend the President.) It shows a forecast that predicts the trajectory of Dorian. It definitely has some sort of impact that extends into Alabama. But watch the time lapse forecast, and watch the dates. By the time the President said Alabama was in danger, (September 1), any danger was clearly in the past. Even when there had been "danger," the forecast had never shown more than 20 mph winds except in the extreme SE corner of Alabama, and that went into the 30-40mph range. View it for yourself. Look at the dates.  By September 1, only a tiny portion was forecasted to have 10 mph winds. 

When the President tweeted a still shot of this map on the 4th, the projected path for Dorian was outlined in white. You can see in his Twitter post that the forecast did not include Alabama. However, he or someone on his staff used a black sharpie to add a projection path into Alabama. There is a picture on the White House website of an official briefing Trump was given in which you can clearly see the original picture, and there is no added Sharpie bubble.[1]

The timeline so far: The original map from the briefing was shown to him on August 29th. On September 1s, t he tweeted about Alabama’s danger. Cue criticism. On September 4th, he showed the image that had been altered to ‘prove’ his early statement. 

He also tweeted a map from the South Florida Water Management District, a map which used something called a “spaghetti model projection” (see this link for what a lot of ‘spaghetti models’ were saying as of August 29, including the one Trump tweeted). This in not a forecast. It's “raw output from a computer model, with their data taken into account by the National Hurricane Center meteorologists who issue the official center forecast.” The [100 or so] spaghetti tracks "are useful for hurricane forecasters to consider," said Judith Curry, an atmospheric scientist and founder of the Climate Forecast Applications Network. "But they are easily misinterpreted by the public." The site actually encourages people not to use the models if it confuses them (“"If anything on this graphic causes confusion, ignore the entire product.") 

Oh - and this seems important 0  the spaghetti model graph the President posted in his defense was a week old when he said in September 1 that Alabama was currently in danger. Had he checked, the latest spaghetti models by September 1 no longer included Alabama at all (and barely did to begin with). Either he had spent a week ignoring updates based on models rather than forecasts, or he was looking for anything - even a model, not a forecast - that could give some plausibility to his claim on September 1. 

Fortunately for the President, the director of communication at NOAA is Julie Roberts, a member of Trump's 2016 campaign and inaugural committee. On September 6, the NOAA posted a statement that the President was correct on September 1 based on data they had previously published. The problem is that their data clearly did not support the President’s claims. It’s probably no surprise that former NOAA leadership was appalled at this statement, as were other professionals in the field. As one person noted, either the NOAA doesn’t know how to interpret its own data, or the administration pressured them to publicly support the President even though nothing supported him.

It didn't calm any critics down to learn that someone in the NOAA warned staff not to contradict the President on September 1 even though he was clearly wrong. That someone, it turns out, was Wilbur Ross, Secretary of Commerce, who threatened to fire people at NOAA if they didn't back the President's false claims. 

In other words, the President was wrong on September 1 when he said that Alabama was in danger. That's an insignificant problem that was easily amended. He didn't do this, however, and his attempts to defend himself proved even further that he was wrong. Yet as the week unfolded, he continued to mount a defense, blame the news of being #fakenews for calling him out on this, and got his people to threaten the jobs of others if they didn't play along. 

* * * * *

Frankly, I don’t care if President Trump was wrong in his initial statement about the hurricane. It must be tremendously difficult to keep up with the latest information in a constantly changing scenario such as this one. I have no problem with him making a mistake. This should have been a trivial blip that nobody cared about. A shrug, a “mea culpa,” and a nod to the NWS for updates and this would have been all over.

It’s not over. Now, a lot of people who could have cared less care about it a lot (Twitter is having a field day with Sharpie doodles over all kinds of pictures). 

There are at least three reasons for this that I can see. 

First, the ‘liberal’ press is not inclined to give Trump the benefit of the doubt on anything while the ‘conservative’ press is inclined to overlook or defend him on most things, even issues for which they vilified Obama. The same thing was true with President Obama. Fox was not inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt while the other MSM outlets were. This dynamic has been true for decades. No one should be shocked.  

Second, controversy benefits the national press, and controversy with Trump in particular is good for business. If they get under his skin, he will keep them front and center in the news cycle as he responds. Vox has an honest look at how this works. There is no doubt that a lot of people are looking for any possible misstep. (Frankly, a lot of "fact check" sites are ridiculously petty when Trump gets genuinely small details wrong). 

There is no doubt that national medial – and I include Fox, by the way - looks for controversy. When the President belongs to a party that any MSM outlet does not like, buckle up. Every molehill (say, golf) will become a mountain when the opposition does it. Just look at how much Trump has golfed compared to Obama, and which MSM outlet was incensed about how lazy and unofficial a President who golfs a lot must be. (In case you are wondering, "Trump has played 2.6 times more golf than Obama in his first 2 years and 91 days and has cost the tax payer an estimated $74 million more than Obama."

Third, this particular President has a history of making very public statements that are easily verifiable as dishonest. Dishonesty does not make him unique among presidents (anybody remember “If you like your health care plan, you can keep it”? #thanksobama). Dishonesty also does not make him unique among politicians (google Biden’s made-up war stories and Elizabeth Warren’s faux Native American heritage). But the rate at which he distorts the truth, the easily falsifiable nature of his claims, and his inability to admit mistakes[2] have made this problem abundantly clear. Here’s a very truncated recent list:


It’s perhaps even more unsettling how often he lies or exaggerates about the extent of his own knowledge: 

  • Campaign finance: "I think nobody knows more about campaign finance than I do, because I'm the biggest contributor." (1999.
  • TV ratings: "I know more about people who get ratings than anyone." (October 2012.)
  • ISIS: "I know more about ISIS than the generals do." (November 2015.)
  • Social media: "I understand social media. I understand the power of Twitter. I understand the power of Facebook maybe better than almost anybody, based on my results, right?" (November 2015.)
  • Courts: "I know more about courts than any human being on Earth." (November 2015.)
  • Lawsuits: "[W]ho knows more about lawsuits than I do? I'm the king." (January 2016.)
  • Politicians: "I understand politicians better than anybody." 
  • The visa system: "[N]obody knows the system better than me. I know the H1B. I know the H2B. ... Nobody else on this dais knows how to change it like I do, believe me." (March 2016.
  • Trade: "Nobody knows more about trade than me." (March 2016.
  • The U.S. government system: "[N]obody knows the system better than I do." (April 2016.
  • Renewable energy: "I know more about renewables than any human being on Earth." (April 2016.
  • Taxes: "I think nobody knows more about taxes than I do, maybe in the history of the world." (May 2016.)
  • Debt: "I’m the king of debt. I’m great with debt. Nobody knows debt better than me." (June 2016.)
  • Money: "I understand money better than anybody." (June 2016.
  • Infrastructure: "[L]ook, as a builder, nobody in the history of this country has ever known so much about infrastructure as Donald Trump." (July 2016.
  • Sen. Cory Booker: "I know more about Cory than he knows about himself." (July 2016.
  • Borders: Trump said in 2016 that Sheriff Joe Arpaio said he was endorsing him for president because "you know more about this stuff than anybody." 
  • Democrats: "I think I know more about the other side than almost anybody." (November 2016.
  • Construction: "[N]obody knows more about construction than I do." (May 2018.)
  • The economy: "I think I know about it better than [the Federal Reserve]." (October 2018.
  • Technology: "Technology — nobody knows more about technology than me." (December 2018.
  • Drones: "I know more about drones than anybody. I know about every form of safety that you can have." (January 2019.
  • Drone technology: "Having a drone fly overhead — and I think nobody knows much more about technology, this type of technology certainly, than I do." (January 2019.)

No, he’s not trolling. He’s serious. 

This is a pattern. There is good reason for the press and the public to be leery of the statements our President makes on almost every topic he addresses. Even if you are a fan of the President and his policies, doesn't intellectual honesty demand that you see and acknowledge this propensity toward dishonesty in him? 

When I am around people who are characterized by a lack of truth telling in even the most ordinary situations, who don’t care if their claims can be easily falsified, and who refuse to acknowledge they were either mistaken or that they lied, I have really deep reservations about that person’s character, integrity, and trustworthiness. 

If we are not defenders of the truth, we are done.

If we do not demand that our leaders be truth tellers, we are lost.


[1]To be clear, it is a violation of federal law to falsify a National Weather Service forecast and claim it is official. 

[2] For example: “I’m not sure I have [asked God for forgiveness]… I don’t think so.” And why not? He doesn't seem to believe he has had any reason to ask for forgiveness.