Daryl Ilbury

Tornadoes: science vs religion

In Eish!, Fools, Science on May 24, 2013 at 11:30 am
Oklahoma tornado

Image: PAUL HELLSTERN/AP

As a journalist who writes about the interface of science and society, and how it’s covered by the media, there are few better events to cover than natural ‘disasters’.

Of course, there’s no such thing in nature as a ‘disaster’. ‘Events’, maybe, but not ‘disasters’. Even then, what is an ‘event’? Tornadoes, hurricanes, floods and volcanic eruptions are part of nature, and are as much of an ‘event’ as a flower opening its petals to greet the early morning sunshine.

However, given the scope of the impact of tornadoes on the natural, built and social environment, it seems fair to refer to them as ‘events’. What I do find interesting though is that we only use the phrase ‘disaster’ when such events impact on humans in a way that we consider them ‘disastrous’.

The tornado that swept across the city of Moore, in Oklahoma on Monday 20th May is a wonderful example, as it unearthed a typical social reaction to such a part of nature, as well as the role the media usually plays in shaping such reaction.

As news broke of the tornado, various (mainly Western) media outlets scrambled to collect information and disseminate it in a balance of fact and emotion that would (hopefully) unleash a torrent of consumer reaction without sacrificing what’s left nowadays of ‘journalistic integrity’. News anchors (feigning dramatic shock) attempted to get closer to the action and grab increasingly qualified commentators with the hope of breaking a story before their competitors; while TV news cameramen and photographers captured visuals that would hopefully carry a suitably impactful emotive tone, all the time praying to be there when a rugged fireman plucked a quivering puppy from the debris of a destroyed home. CBS managed to capture the closest to this.

And there is that word: ‘praying’. There seems to be a lot of referring and appealing to a god during such events, and the media – both mainstream and social – capitalise on it; from witnesses of the tornado saying on the TV news how they prayed to be spared; to survivors who claimed it was because they prayed that they were saved (even though their home was utterly destroyed); to amateur video footage of the tornado on YouTube, complete with shocked ‘Oh my God’ commentary; to the inevitable Twitter follow-up hashtag #prayforOklahoma.

So what’s wrong with this? Everything really.

Firstly there’s the claim that there is some form of sapient god – even though there’s absolutely no evidence thereof outside of the wildly divergent and irreconcilable claims by a broad spectrum of warring religions – and that this sapient god is omnipotent and therefore the guiding hand behind all events in the world – including tornadoes – and therefore he/she/it requires constant subservience/respect through prayer. The danger of this unquestioning and uncritical belief is that it is easily hijacked by religious zealots with twisted agendas and pliable followers.

Secondly, there’s the assumption by survivors that because they were not killed or injured by the tornado after they prayed, it is evidence of a god, and his/her/its benevolence because they prayed. However, to quote a cornerstone of scientific research: a perceived correlation is not evidence of causation. And when survivors of the Oklahoma tornado look to the sky and claim they were ‘spared by God’, I just hope they will have an opportunity to repeat it to the families of the children who were killed, and whom, it’s fair to say, would also have prayed.

Furthermore, I find the embracing of such selection-by-a-god logic by supposedly critical individuals such as seasoned journalists unbelievable (if you excuse the pun). Cue seasoned CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer getting his graceful comeuppance.

Thirdly, the proponents and supporters of #prayforOklahoma seem to think that tweeting a message is going to help somehow. Outside of providing a bit or moral support to those who need it and who are for some reason biding their time on Twitter, firing off a free tweet doesn’t actually do anything. It may be a very public portrayal of an act of caring, but it certainly doesn’t help the survivors. Donations of money, food and supplies do. And if you think praying (through Twitter) is going to encourage a god to help heal those who are injured; remember what happened when Pope John Paul II was ailing and millions around the world prayed for him – he still died!

Finally, and this is what really angers me, there’s the seemingly complete denial by such god-fearing people of the real evidential role of science in mitigating the possible catastrophic impacts of tornadoes. Here’s the wake-up smack: The only reason more people don’t die from tornados is because of the work of scientists studying tornadoes to understand how they form and move; the tracking of tornadoes by the incredible technology of weather-monitoring systems and the experienced teams who operate them; the active role the media (including social media) has in disseminating information about tornado activity and any necessary warnings;  the myriad official (and unofficial) evacuation systems put in place by various authorities; and of course the hundreds of trained medical professionals who treat the injuries of those who are injured.

‘God’ has nothing to do with it.

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