Sunday, March 02, 2008

We need to know (the weather)

Everyone talks about the weather. Everywhere, whether it’s cold (Ann Arbor) or incredible warm (Mexico City). At any time, whether you just woke up, you are about to have lunch, or simply finding out which bar will keep the night. But not only, everyone talks about whatever it is that’s being extensively publicized: Barack Obama, Castro’s demise, or climate change.

It is difficult to say why something becomes a hot topic. Why is the weather so important for us? Is it really just an icebreaker? Let us assume it isn’t. Let us assume that, for human life at least, it’s important to know about the weather. Even better, it’s important to gossip about it. What about the other topics? Sometimes, the explanation is the same. But does it really work. Is Castro’s demise just as important for human life as the weather? I doubt it is. But even if it were, that’s immaterial here. The important thing is that we have hot topics: things that seem to be so evidently there, out in the public, things we all know, understand, judge, and talk about even if we don’t really know or understand anything about them.

Another, weirder, feature is that we love to mix this topics. We need explanations, we need to know: why not use all our resources to deliver a salad-like account of the world? A very common example of this is the case of climate change and the weather. Weather and Climate are different things. If you didn’t learn this in high school you should complaint. Climate can only be addressed as an average of several (tens or hundreds of) years of information about the weather. By definition, climate cannot change overnight. But the weather can, and we realize that almost every day. The problem is that the latter is more evident than the former. You can experience weather-change, but you would need a long life and a fantastic memory device to experience climate-change. Nonetheless, we love to explain weather-change in terms of climate-change.

I’m not interested in the weather. Believe me. But I am interested in patterns of explanation. I love to see how natural it is for us to go on everyday and explain our experience in terms of the abstract: weather in terms of climate or good speeches in terms of great projects. It’s quite amusing. The question is, then, why? Why do we do this so naturally?

And the answer, as always, comes from the weather guy. Gavin A. Schmidt, a climatologist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in Manhattan said for a recent interview with the NYTimes:
“There is this desire to explain everything that we see in terms of something you think you understand, whether that’s the next ice age coming or global warming.”

In other words, we do this because we can’t help it. We need to know and abstract explanations, at least, make us feel like we know.