Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Why I think the March for Science is misguided

There's been a lot of discussion of the upcoming March for Science, among both scientists and non-scientists.  I respect the motivations of the people organizing it and the people taking part, but the fact is, I've given it quite a bit of thought and concluded that at best this march will be very ineffective, and at worst it could be very counterproductive.  My key reasons are as follows:
  • First and foremost, the biggest general problem science faces isn't a particular administration, but rather general ignorance about what science is and how science works.  This ignorance pervades the government, the press, popular entertainment, and society at large.  Short of outright saying "let's vote for what's true", it's hard for me to think of a worse way to illustrate how science is than a popular march.  Yeah, I suppose there will be a few signs like this 
    but I suspect there will be a lot more like this
    and if seeing this guy influences your opinion about climate change in any way, that's not science.
  • Marching for "science" is a bit like saying "All lives matter": you risk diluting the legitimate problems by overgeneralizing.  In spite of the generic problem discussed above, the fact is that most scientific research marches forward blissfully unaware of the political maelstroms raging around it.   The truth is that very specific fields of science are facing anti-science attacks, and these attacks tend to align strongly with particular political ideologies. We should be very clear as to what these are. It's true, Republicans tend to be very anti-science when it comes to climate studies,
    They also have a tendency to be anti-evolution, but the Democrats have nothing to be proud about in that area either.
    Speaking of Democrats, they take the lead in being anti-science when it comes to GMOs, nuclear power, EMFs,
    and a whole smorgasbord of "alternative medicine" gobbledygook.  The anti-vaccine movement seems to be a pretty bi-partisan stupidity these days, but liberals still tend to be the most vocal about it
    Each of these things requires a totally different plan of attack. Trying to take them on all at once is - as a colleague of mine likes to say, "moving forward in all directions". 
  • Not political?  Give me a break.  Sure, the website says all the right things about how it will be "non-partisan" and how "both sides are guilty", but there's no hiding the that that this is a reaction to our collective disbelief that someone as disconnected from objective reality as Donald Trump got elected. Believe me, I'm as dumbfounded as anyone, but science has been in trouble before.  Canceling the Superconducting Super Collider was a blow to US science that we have yet to recover from.  We did rally scientists, but there was no generic "march for science".  That's because we all thought of Bill Clinton as a smart guy, even though a lot of his Administration's science policies were extremely short sighted.  Even if people show up with the best intentions, if there are even few signs like this
    then it's a political march, not a scientific one, which brings us to...
  • You can't control who shows up to a march, and protests are invariably remembered for the worst people who come to the party, even if they weren't invited.  I'll bet a beer that most of the people who show up won't be scientists, or people in any way associated with science, and that it won't be just a bit political, it will be very political. I guaranty we'll see a lot of signs like these
    and it doesn't take many to completely de-legitimize the whole thing.  But course, things could get much worse.  Whenever there's a protest, there's a chance these Black Bloc whackadoodles
    will show up, and if they do, no one is going to care that they didn't get an engraved invitation.  It's just not a risk worth taking.

So what can we do? The system really can work, but you have to be specific with what you're asking for.  Back in 1997, a group of Congressmen, led by Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin was moving to cut all US funding to the LHC.  Rather than a generic call for "science", physicists from all over the country went to Washington to educate and lobby Congress and the result was that funding was preserved and remains large today.  Later this month, I'll be part of a delegation that goes every year to meet with Congresspeople. We're not asking them to support "science", we're making very specific requests with respect to one field of science.

The big issue at hand is climate science, so why dilute it by throwing in a bunch of other stuff?

Monday, January 16, 2017

Ft Lauderdale Airport Shooting: Real Lessons from an Imaginary Crisis

Don't worry, I'm not some crazy false flag conspiracy theorist.  I assure you, the shooting at the Ft. Lauderdale Airport on January 6, 2017, which left five people dead, was quite real. I know, because my wife and I were at the airport at the time; however, while the shooting was an unspeakable tragedy for the people involved and those close to them, the fact is that it was a pretty minor disruption for everyone else, including us. The shooter immediately surrendered, passengers returned to the terminal, and flights had begun to take off and land again.

Then, about an hour after the shooting, a panic started over a second shooter or perhaps multiple shooters.  That's what caused the complete evacuation and shutdown of the airport, and that's what turned it from a disruption into a crisis.  In the end, that second shooter turned out to be completely imaginary, and the evacuation and closing of the airport completely unnecessary.  Once Esteban Santiago-Ruiz was in custody, there was no danger whatsoever.  Of all the news agencies, the only one I've found that reported what happened accurately was the New York Times (more about reporting shortly).

We were in another terminal, and we know now that we were never in any actual danger - except perhaps the danger of tripping and hurting ourselves or perhaps having a heart attack, but that doesn't mean it didn't seem real at the time.  In the end, the whole thing was an eye-opening experience in a lot of ways.

Our Story

On Friday, January 6, 2017, my wife and I were changing planes in Terminal 1 of the Ft. Lauderdale Airport, on our way from Chicago to Key West. We were sitting near a window by gate C8, which looked out onto Terminal 2.

Suddenly, my wife saw people running out of that terminal onto the tarmac.  Here's a picture...

We had no idea what had happened, and assumed it was a fire or possibly a bomb threat.  There was a buzz about a shooter, but we didn't take it seriously until we started to see it on the news feeds.  At that point, there was an announcement in our terminal that there had been "an incident", but that it was under control and had been fully confined to Terminal 2. We were assured we were in no danger, and that flights would resume shortly.  We watched passengers return to Terminal 2, and when the tarmac was cleared, flights began to take of and land again.  We estimated that we would have a half hour to an hour delay, so we headed to the bar and started watching the story on the news, grimly watching the death toll rise from one to five.

Suddenly, as we were watching the television, the CNN live feed showed the SWAT team running back into the building.  At that moment, we saw passengers from Terminal 2 rush back onto the tarmac.  We barely had time to register this when we heard screaming, and saw people running down our concourse, shouting that there was a shooter following them.  We thought we heard shots, and honestly believed we might die.  We jumped behind the bar, abandoning my phone and our carry on bags.  

We saw a way to get to the exit door without exposing ourselves, so along with all the other passengers, we evacuated to the tarmac.  We had our wallets and my wife's phone, but decided not to risk exposing ourselves to grab the other stuff.  We used the phone to contact our family, to let them know we were OK, but things weren't over.  Later, they moved us to a far corner of the tarmac, where we spent the next five or six hours waiting, with very little information.  The airport was entirely surrounded by police cars.  There were also SWAT teams, helicopters, fire trucks, and a whole lot of ambulances coming and going.  All the indications were that there was still a least one active shooter, and we were very puzzled that the news wasn't saying anything about it.

Eventually, they told us they would not be opening the airport, we would not be allowed to retrieve our items, and that buses would be arriving to take us to the port, at which point we would be on our own.  We used some of our small amount of remaining phone battery to text my stepdaughter and have her make a hotel reservation for us near the port.   We were told that our belongings would be gathered by a contractor and returned to us over the next several days.

The evacuation was complete chaos.  At first, they told us the FBI wanted a record of all of our names, which they tried to do by having two police officers mingle among the people with legal pads.  When it became clear this would take all night they simply gave up.  Buses picked up a few people, then they announced that the pickup would be moved to the other side.  We were walked through the airport to the front, where we realized how many other people had been squirreled away in other parts of the airport.

They had conscripted all manner of buses: airport buses, city buses, and even sheriff's buses with little slit windows, used for transporting prisoners.  There was no crowd management at all, so it was by sheer luck that we made it onto the next round of buses.  As we exited the airport, it looked like the evacuation of Saigon.  There were thousands of people still waiting, and would guess it was early morning before all of them got out.  The roads were so crowded that our bus got completely stuck in traffic for a half hour, at which point we got out and walked the last half mile to our hotel.  Lucky we had reservations, because by that point, everything was sold out.  When we turned on the television in our room, they showed huge crowds still stranded at the airport. 

We got a flight out the next afternoon.  Miraculously, our luggage made it with us, and we had a wonderful vacation in Key West.  They did finally identify the belongings we left behind, and shipped them back home, where we picked them up at the local FedEx office the day after we returned.  In the end, all that was lost was a $10 portable charger, which is not bad, all thing considered - particularly when you remember that five people who lost their lives.

Lessons Learned

Although the second shooter turned out to be completely imaginary, we still learned a lot of interesting things that day...

  • A disaster can happen anywhere and at any time: The moment when we thought a shooter was coming down the concourse will be forever seared into my memory.  It wasn't real, but it could have been, and we genuinely believed we might be about to die.  When I finally got my phone back, I found I was in the middle of a FaceBook post when it happened.  That could have been my last act.  I'll probably never go to a public place again without mentally formulating an exit plan in case something terrible happens.
  • It takes very little to cause a panic: How did the panic start?  Did someone think they saw a gun or a bomb? Was someone freaked out when they heard a foreign language?  Did someone make a bad joke?  As far as I can tell, no one knows, and what's more disturbing, no one really seems to care.   We've seen the video of the real shooter over and over on the news, but nobody seems to be interested in studying the surveillance tapes to see how the panic started, to figure out how to prevent something similar from happening in the future.  Sadly, we see videos of shootings all the time, but it would be really interesting to see the spontaneous creation of a panicked mob on this scale, because that represents a genuine risk, for which the authorities need to prepare. 
  • Imaginations are really powerful: I could swear I heard gunfire.  Lots of other people I talked to swore they heard gunfire.  Some claimed heard glass breaking. A guy who claimed to be a cop and "know what gunfire sounds like" said he heard gunfire.  There was no gunfire. The courts know witnesses are unreliable.  Now we know that, too.
  • The authorities are much better at handing real crises than imaginary crises: As I said, the real shooter was dealt with quickly and professionally, and airport operations were rapidly returning to normal.  In contrast, they were obviously completely flummoxed by the fact they couldn't find a cause for the panic.  They ended up doing a complete sweep of the airport, looking for bombs, even though it was obvious a bomb didn't cause the panic.  They even blew up a "suspicious package" in the afternoon, which at least broke the monotony.  When they couldn't find any danger, they made the somewhat perplexing choice to completely close the airport for the rest of the day.
  • You never know how people will behave in a crisis until it happens:  Given the fact we believed were being shot at, I think my wife and I behaved in a pretty sensible manner.  We took cover, I didn't expose myself to get our belongings that were in the open, we identified the safest path to the exit, and we kept down as we ran for it. If the shooter had been real, I don't think we could have done any better. Not everyone was so logical.  Some just froze up and had to be dragged to the door.  One woman inexplicably decided we shouldn't be going out the emergency exit, and started piling chairs in front of it.  I had to pick up a little girl who was screaming because she couldn't get over them.   
  • Panic turns to boredom really fast: When we were evacuated to the tarmac, we could see a unbelievably massive police presence all around us, so we still very much believed there was an active shooter, or perhaps more than one.  We also realized that out there in the open, we were basically a shooting gallery.  In spite of that, we pretty quickly relaxed, joke, made small talk, and waited for the time to pass. I swear, when we got out of the terminal, my first thought was "Now I guess I won't have to pay for those drinks.".

    Of course, some people were a little more shook up, but others were quick to comfort them and try to calm them down.  All in all, everyone was very well behaved.  If I'm ever involved in a real shooting, I hope I'm with as pleasant a crowd. 
  • Don't put too much faith in "disaster plans": Like all airports, Ft. Lauderdale had a federally approved set of disaster plans.  I can't speak for other airports, but whatever "plan" the airport had, it was pretty clear they were mostly just winging it.  You don't have to an expert to realize that above all else, a disaster plan needs a clear chain of command, and a way to disseminate information.  They had neither.  In the six hours on the tarmac, they never managed to round up a megaphone or PA system to make announcements.  Information was passed in a game of telephone from one person to another.  A lot of things that happened were clearly because individuals simply took initiative.  Southwest started to hand out snacks and drinks, and I believe it was a Southwest pilot who convinced operations that they really needed to get some port-a-potties onto the tarmac, after they had blocked access to the ones on the construction area that people had been using. That man is a true hero. 

    It's also clear that the communication problem extended to the authorities themselves.  At the very least, the TSA, police, and FBI were involved, and they were all saying different things.  The sheriffs told us we could go back to the terminal to retrieve our belongings, but when we tried, a heavily armed FBI agent blocked our path.  We tried our best to be well behaved, but it did get very frustrating. 
  • One person's crisis is another person's opportunity:  We were told that our belongings would be collected by "a professional contractor specializing in this sort of thing".  A moment of thought will make you realize how ridiculous that description is.  They used a company called "BMS CAT", who advertise themselves as a "professional cleaning service" - not really "this sort of thing" at all.  Basically, they were just a company with the chutzpah to step up and say "Yeah, we'll do this" - and then try to figure out how to do it.  Don't get me wrong, I'm glad someone stepped up to do it, and we did eventually get our stuff back. On the other hand, there's no evidence they brought any unique expertise to the table.  They couldn't set up a call center adequate to handle the volume, even four days after the incident they couldn't give any indication of the time scale of the effort, and more than a week later, there still isn't a status website.  Here's how they packed our belongings.  When the FedEx guy picked it up, our bags fell out the bottom, so it's lucky we got them at all.

  • (Most) news services will gladly sacrifice accuracy for the sake of a good story: Let's make one thing clear: like us, the first responders believed there was a shooter, or perhaps more than one shooter, in the airport.  The difference is that while we ran out, they ran in.  That takes courage, and the fact the shooter turned out not to exist doesn't change that one bit.  On the other hand, it doesn't make a good story, so most news services finessed the story to play down the fact that it wasn't the real shooter, but the imaginary one,  that caused all the trouble.  This article at CNN is pretty typical.  There's a brief mention of the imaginary second shooter, but no indication that that's what caused all the problems.   Like I said, as far as I can tell, only The New York Times got it right.  Even the Wikipedia article isn't accurate yet, although I plan to work on that. 

    In the future, I'll read reports on every tragedy with a large grain of salt.  At the end of the day, news is primarily entertainment, and well they may not lie outright, they'll certainly massage the story to get a better narrative. 
Above all, I learned that the end can come at any time.  For a moment, we thought "Something terrible is happening, and we might die".  It tuned out to be a false alarm, but just an hour earlier, some other people had had the same thought, and not only did they tun out to be right, but it ended up being their last thought on this earth.  Of course, it's unlikely that such a thing would happen in so dramatic a fashion.  Sudden death is more likely to be a car accident, a sudden heart attack, or something else that wouldn't make the news.  Still, we should do our best to make sure that if it does happen, we have left as little as possible undone.