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5.0 out of 5 stars The Best Science Book of 2007 So Far, July 20, 2007
This review is from: Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming (Hardcover)
"Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming" is the best science book of 2007 which I have read so far, and one which clearly deserves all the praise it has earned already. It is an exceptional piece of science journalism which should earn awards for journalist Chris Mooney, the science writer for the Washingtion, DC-based SEEDS magazine. It is even more impressive a piece of brilliant scientific journalism when you realize that both the author and the magazine he works for have a strong liberal bias - which admittedly was quite apparent in his previous book "The Republican War On Science" - and yet, to his everlasting credit, Mooney has endeavored quite well to ensure that his book remains as nonpartisan as possible, treating with ample respect, all of the principal players depicted, from flamboyant Colorado State University meteorologist William Gray - a staunch critic of global warming - to MIT theoretical meteorologist Kerry Emanuel - among those who recognize a potential link between global warming and hurricane intensity and severity - to Georgia Tech climatologist Judith Curry, a co-author of an important recent paper which may support such a potential linkage. Without question, Mooney's book is a revealing, often insightful, examination of Hurricane meteorological research from 2004 to 2006 and of the relevant political and media issues which become associated with it, regrettably in the aftermath of the widespread destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina.

Mooney offers a vivid portrayal of the history of meteorology, emphasizing research on hurricanes, from the early 19th Century to the present, in the first third of his book. From Mooney's perspective, meteorology is seen as an intellectual struggle between empiricists who've relied exclusively on collecting data and modelers willing to employ complex mathematical equations and computer simulations in trying to get a better understanding for current and future climatic trends. This a distinction that is not unique to meteorology itself, but indeed, in much of science, demonstrating how "messy" a business science can be. But it is an important distinction which Mooney has made simply because these two distinct groups of meteorologists and climatologists have shaped not only the scope, but also, regrettably, the tenor of the debates over the validity of global warming and its possible relevance to the formation, relative severity and frequency of hurricances forming in the North Atlantic Ocean and elsewhere around the globe.

As a graduate student of evolutionary biology and paleobiology nearly twenty years ago, I was keenly aware of the raging debates in these sciences from the tempo and mode of evolution - as expressed in assessing the validity of the evolutionary theory of "Punctuated Equilibrium" and the evolutionary implications of stasis - to kin and group selection, and of course, sociobiology too - and last, but not least, systematic biology (cladistics vs. phenetics vs. "evolutionary" systematics). And yet, none of them - with the possible exception of sociobiology - was as replete with the ample harsh attacks on the data, scientific methods used, and personalities involved as it's been amply demonstrated here by Mooney, in the second section of his book, recounting the recent debates between the empiricists led by William Gray and the "modelers" led by Kerry Emanuel and others. Here Mooney truly excels in letting the partisans from both sides speak for themselves, citing both the relevant important scientific papers and the scientific meetings where several debates were held on the implications of global warming to hurricane research, in a section that will especially interest both historians and sociologists of science.

It's only in the third - and concluding - section of "Storm World" where Mooney finally reveals his own personal bias. Here he recognizes that the data does show a trend towards increasing frequency and severity of hurricanes, at least in the North Atlantic Ocean. But he also realizes that this data doesn't demonstrate definitely, the strong possibility that this trend is due to global warming. And yet, he recognizes the importance of acting to minimise global warming, even though our knowledge and understanding of it with respect to hurricane formation and intensity is still quite speculative. He also commends modelers like Emanuel for constructing testable, data-driven models, in stark contrast to others like Gray who have argued emphatically for relying on an empirical approach to hurricane research. Finally, he offers scientists two intriguing recommendations with regards to pursuing research and on how they can successfully communicate it to politicians and others in the public. He strongly encourages scientists to resist the temptation of being wedded firmly to one particular research methodology - alluding of course to William Gray's blind adherence to empiricism - observing that others may yet be equally important in yielding both new data and fresh insights. He also recommends that scientists become better communicators - and educators - so that those who are the ultimate beneficiaries of their research, both politicans and the general public at large, can make sound, reasonable decisions based upon their understanding of what is indeed good scientific research; it's a recommendation that I can strongly endorse too, especially in light of ongoing efforts to introduce Intelligent Design and other flavors of creationism into American science classrooms as "viable alternatives" to contemporary evolutionary biology.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Nov 29, 2007 8:02:21 AM PST
I'm surprised that a scientist's (William Gray) commitment to "empiricism" is somehow considered a flaw. I thought science was based on empiricism.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 23, 2008 11:03:28 AM PST
Gray's empiricism, from my reading of the book, included studying hurricane increases and intensity without resorting to computer modelling. Bunk in Gray's thinking.
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John Kwok
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