El Niño, Science, and Politics

Dr. George S. Philander came a long way to becoming one of the world’s preeminent oceanic and atmospheric scientists. Born and raised in South Africa, he received his bachelor of science in applied mathematics from the University of Cape Town in 1962. At that time in South Africa, practically all of the scientists were white (and the vast majority still are). As a black man in South Africa, Philander had to cope with apartheid’s brutal white-supremacist system on his path to becoming a scientist.

Achievements and Opportunities

Pursuing his academic aspirations, Philander left South Africa for Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he received his doctorate in applied mathematics in 1970. He spent the next year as a postdoctoral fellow at what was then the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Meteorology (now the Program in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate), also in Cambridge. In 1971, Philander left to become a research associate at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey. He is now the director of Princeton’s Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, a position he’s held since 1990.

Along the way, Philander spent time in Geneva, Switzerland, as a consultant to the World Meteorological Organization and a visiting professor for the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, France. A recognized authority in oceanic and atmospheric sciences, Philander is a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, as well as a Member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Pioneering Education and Scholarship

When it comes to major environmental problems such as global warming, he believes that our ability to cope depends on a broad-based educational push for earth sciences, of the kind we already have for biology and public health. Whereas most people have a basic understanding of the human body (and hence appreciate the need for hygiene, a healthy diet, and exercise), Philander is distressed that most “people have no idea why the earth is habitable and see no connection between the way they live and the state of the environment.”

One reason for this is that the environmental sciences aren’t taken as seriously as many of the other sciences, he feels. In some high schools in New Jersey, he noticed that most of the top students ignored pursuing environmental sciences. “There’s almost a stigma against it in schools,” Philander shared. The goal of several of Philander’s articles and books is to correct that state of affairs.

Besides steering the field’s educational pathway, Philander has helped steer its scholarship as well. He has been a pioneer in transitioning atmospheric/oceanic sciences from a descriptive study to one using more quantitative methods. Philander has used mathematical techniques to better explain the actions of ocean waves and currents. This has created a broader understanding of what causes climatic shifts and a greater appreciation for the ocean’s role in global weather patterns. He has also been instrumental in studying and explaining one weather phenomenon that has helped define the ocean’s role as a major factor in global climate: El Niño.

Politics and Science

Philander’s 2004 book, , gives some insight about the man who wrote it. Although the book is for the everyday person, it isn’t dumbed down. Instead, it is strewn with astute intellectual observations and literary references.

“The purpose of this book is to help improve communications between scientists and nonscientists by taking advantage of the interest everyone takes in El Niño,” Philander explains. That is because during his lectures, he noticed that many of his students had less trouble with the strictly logical science than with the wrenching ambiguities of human affairs. In the book, Philander addresses how our perception of El Niño and global warming–as well as other scientific phenomena–depends on politics, the media, and other nonscientific factors.

Philander explains that the problem with global warming is that it has both scientific and political aspects, which are treated entirely differently. The science is straightforward: What will likely happen? But the political aspect is less clear: What will we do, knowing what we do? Philander uses an analogy of canoeing toward a waterfall to further explain the difference. The scientific question is, What is the distance to the waterfall? The political question is, When is the best time to get out of the water? Consequently, he said, “I feel the real problem with global warming is not a scientific one, it’s a political problem.”

Philander also explains that scientists are sometimes just as guilty as nonscientists for creating these political problems. “For science to flourish, scientists must have a skeptical attitude toward their own results, constantly questioning and testing apparent solutions to problems. They have to adopt a very different attitude when trying to persuade potential clients that their results are useful.” This difference can sometimes cause scientists to create political problems by being overly confident about a possible result they find within the range of their research.

Studying El Niño and people’s reactions to it has also taught Philander about human nature. “Instead of acknowledging that it may be our responsibility to accommodate ourselves to nature, we choose to change our perception of nature,” he noted. Philander has noticed, that although El Niño–once considered as a blessing–hasn’t changed, people and their perception of the occurrence has changed. The increase in our population and our wealth has made us more vulnerable to natural disasters, he adds ominously, so he hopes that perhaps one day politics will do a better job in using scientific results to cope with environmental problems. He hopes that his native country, now that it has emerged from its turbulent past, will flourish with the benefit of sound scientific information. He already finds the peaceful way South Africa has dealt with its awful history of race relations as miraculous.

Clinton Parks is a writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at .

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