Hurricanes, History, and Writing

spaghetti graph

Hurricane Florence has left us dazed, confused, and waterlogged. As bad as it was, the shifting forecasts and endless revisions of the storm’s projected path only made it worse. Florence was supposed to march through North Carolina and douse Raleigh, instead, it hit Wilmington and slowly churned its way through South Carolina, spinning off tornados and flooding low-lying areas. Here in Charlotte, trees are down and many roads and yards are under water. Now comes the clean up. Yuck.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Back in the heady days of the Enlightenment, learned individuals imagined they could predict and control both man and nature through science. French scholar Pierre-Simon de Laplace assured fellow scientists they could one day predict the exact movements of tides and storms — in fact, he went so far as to claim that the movement of every atom could be calculated.

Now we have both private industry and government departments armed with Cray supercomputers that can guzzle meteorological data from all over the world, digest it faster than Laplace ever dreamed, and spit out detailed predictions.

Problem is, those details are often wrong — just as we’ve just seen with Hurricane Florence.

A long, long time ago, I worked in the insurance industry as an analyst and project manager. Pretty handy with a computer, a long-time weather buff, and an instructor of statistics, I served on the North Carolina Rate Bureau’s Property Committee a number of years, where I studied long-range weather forecasts. Our mandate was to recommend and justify future rate proposals based on expected weather patterns. To make a long story short, I learned quickly that despite all our efforts, we were only guessing at future trends.

More famous experts have performed as badly, even worse. Barbara Tuchman’s “The March of Folly” chronicles the greatest miscalculations in history, including America’s conduct of the Vietnam War. Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson, was a whiz kid with a degree from Harvard Business School. Here’s how Tuchman summarizes McNamara’s mindset:

“Precise and positive, with slicked-down hair and rimless glasses, McNamara was a specialist of management through ‘statistical control’ … his genius for statistics left little respect for human variables and no room for the unpredictable.” (p. 285)

The military establishment Secretary McNamara guided was all too receptive. The commander of the US forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, the years of escalation and certain victory, was William C. Westmoreland. Though later denounced as the “most disastrous American general since Custer,” Westmoreland was not ill-prepared for the job. He’d graduated West Point with the highest rank possible, first captain, and was America’s youngest major general ever. And he’d studied statistics at — Harvard Business School. In fact, his reliance on “kill statistics” overstated American success in Vietnam, setting up both the American military and public for a nasty confrontation with reality.

If US leaders had listened to historians rather than statisticians, and recognized that Vietnam’s ancient animosity against China precluded Communist Chinese control of an independent Vietnam, they could have avoided a tragedy. Instead, they relied on the dehumanizing scientism of B.F. Skinner to “stress” the Vietnamese into acting “rationally.” Despite the odds, first against the French, and then the Americans, the Vietnamese prevailed.

Sadly, those who would reduce people to a logical, globalized, and disconnected existence aren’t going to let a few tragic failures stop them. But no matter what they say or do, numbers alone cannot define humanity or nature. Humans stubbornly refuse to surrender purpose, identity, and emotional fulfillment. And we are not without weapons. Literature is a wild, throaty howl of defiance to those who would reduce us to formulas or pawns in their ideological schemes. And that’s a fact we can be sure of.

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29 thoughts on “Hurricanes, History, and Writing”

  1. Great post, Mike. While my area (the Upstate of SC) largely escaped Florence’s wrath, others weren’t so fortunate. One again, Nature trumped man’s best scenario.
    In 1967 I proudly marched off to Vietnam as an 18-yr.-old US Marine to “save our nation from the horrors of communism.” Vietnam promptly punched me in the mouth. In 1968 at 19 I returned home flat on my back, much wiser but also much worse for wear. I’ve been a cynic of our government ever since.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It is terribly complicated. Ocean currents, lower and upper atmosphere shifts, barometric highs and lows duking it out over land, fluctuations in solar radiation — then throw in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and who knows what can happen? Maybe a little humility is called for.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I wonder if undersea volcanoes arent part of the mix. Being a statician and analyst sounds like great fun, though I wish I’d become an architect or urban planner, trying to solve the great mysteries of beauty and human happiness, not to mention adding in local character, in an urban environment.

        However, one time you wrote praising the early chaotic, unplanned, growth of Charleston, and I think you were largely right to.

        Nevertheless, geniuses and perfectionists do exist, sometimes do achieve the near impossible. It’s just rare, selecting and empowering such people, too difficult. I hope no genius ever masters the weather. It’s comforting to have something above man.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I always have said and continue to say that writers artists and poets must have free expression. If this is possible all if right with the world and mused can continue to inspire. You reminded me of the quote I love from the movie “My Fair Lady” – in Hertford, Hereford, and Hampshire hurricanes hardly ever happen…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So well said. I wish we didn’t have to keep learning the same lessons over and over again, but that’s what happens with limited lifespans and perspective, I suppose. As for statistics, I’m sure you’re familiar with the saying: “There’s lies, there’s damn lies, and then there’s statistics.”

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Masterful segue from Florence to McNamara to Literature’s capacity to save the world. I too have some experience with numbers and statistics and while they do have value, often the gut instinct is of greater predictive value. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Well said, Mike. I think people are just an unpredictable as the weather. That sounds simple, but it’s not. People cannot be pigeonholed, because everyone is unique. And the same goes for Mother Nature. Every event is new and different and can change at any time..

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Really interesting post – thank you. I’ve always believed there’s a qualitative and a quantitative component critical to most big decisions – focusing too much on either component tends to increase the chances of a bad outcome. BTW – there’s a good new book out about Vietnam by Max Boot – The Road Not Taken. Cheers, Brian

    Like

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