Godzilla Versus The Blob

Published: 3:42 AM GMT on August 31, 2015

Godzilla Versus The Blob

Godzilla is such a confusing monster. No doubt, Godzilla crushes buildings, buses, and people. On the other hand, Godzilla has dispatched other radiation-mutated creatures in a way that demands affection. When Godzilla is strolling across Tokyo, there is confused destruction, but it is difficult to predict specifically what will be destroyed. OK, I am convincing myself that Godzilla is a good description of El Niño. After all, El Niño, itself, means the baby boy - not exactly technical.

I’ve been pretty quiet about this year’s evolving El Niño. The forecast is for a strong El Niño event. Last year, when there was a slight hint of El Niño, we immediately had a monstrous description. I took exception to that description, which in the realm of blogger credibility served me well. (August 1, 2014, October 28, 2014, and New York Times)

This year with a forecast for a strong El Niño event, Bill Patzert, an expert in oceanography at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and an honored communicator, has had a lot of press time. In an LA Times article on August 13, Patzert is quoted as saying, “This definitely has the potential of being the Godzilla El Niño.” This quote was rapidly propagated around the world as we know it.

The response to the Godzilla comparison has been interesting. Jason Samenow at The Capital Weather Gang wrote an article that lists a number of meteorologists who objected to Patzert’s use of Godzilla. Samenow goes on to defend Patzert’s use of the monster, saying, “Scientists who are successful in talking to the media and to the public find the sweet spot – where the information they provide is accurate and also creative and memorable. I would say Patzert succeeded with his ‘Godzilla’ reference.”

In Samenow’s article he states that, “I think some feel, due to their education and position, as if they’re the gatekeepers of how weather terminology should be used and applied.” Continuing, “In an ideal world, the people that know the most about some given topic could ‘control’ how it’s conveyed. But, in practice, that’s not how it works.”

It is precisely the fact that once a person makes a statement that control is lost that demands scientists to be careful in their choice of words. I recall a meeting some years ago on scientific communication. There were about 20 of us sitting around a large table, and I said that any public statement that scientists made about climate and extreme weather was political. Most of the scientists in the room disagreed with me; they insisted they made dispassionate, knowledge-based statements. Even it that were true, as soon as stated, they have lost control. Given the hostile environment into which our statements tumble, a political connotation should be expected.

Godzilla. It might be catchy and engaging. It brings attention to meteorology and climate – to some fantastic observations and developing modeling capabilities. Godzilla might run a press cycle and walk harmlessly into the tropical ocean. However, it also provides a potential seed. It could be used to argue that weather and climate scientists are unserious, looking to exaggerate impacts for a variety of interests. If the forecast of a truly extreme El Niño falls short, it helps to fuel the doubter’s machine of deficient models. Even if the forecast proves to be, objectively, spot on, it fuels the qualitative description of extreme events, with the need for the next event to take on the characteristics of, perhaps, some other monster. Plus, I know how to prepare for a strong El Niño. I don’t know how to prepare for Godzilla, except with another monster.

I just finished a series on a press cycle anchored around predictions of a mini ice age. That press cycle was seeded by a press release, where a scientifically unjustified relationship was drawn between a paper in solar physics and the Earth’s climate. I am sure the language in that press release was chosen to garner attention and attract attention to the conference. I don’t see much difference between that case and a Godzilla-scale El Niño.

The political ramifications of statements by meteorologists and climatologists take away the ease of language, perhaps, the playfulness of communication.

This is not a matter of gatekeeping of language by one who might presume to be enamored of education and position. It is consideration of our, scientists, place in the societal clamor of extreme weather and climate change. Such consideration takes us beyond the first use of our words and requires analysis of the potential downstream impacts – impacts that we do not control.

r

Something of a lighter note: My colleague Perry Samson is one of best educators in our field. Zipcar.com says his class, Extreme Weather, is one of the 8 coolest in the U.S. Others include, Kanye vs Everything, and well, A Cultural History of Japanese Monsters.

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About The Author
I'm a professor at U Michigan and lead a course on climate change problem solving. These articles often come from and contribute to the course.

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