Red-Teaming the Climate Question


High Rock Canyon, Nevada, photo by the author

Recently, thousands of people, and even a few penguins at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, turned out to protest against the politicization of science.  The protestors insist that policy making in government circles should be evidence based, and that heavyweight decisions on issues such as climate change should be made by reference to scientific fact, rather than deep state politics.

On the surface, that’s hard to argue with.

But not every scientist believes in climate change, and even amongst those who do, arguments rage on endlessly about the genesis. Is it human caused? Are ice-ages and warming trends part of the natural ebb and flow of the planet? Are scientific groups fudging the numbers to boost their research dollars?

For the average citizen, trying to form an educated opinion on the topic, and choosing where to put our loyalties, can be difficult, particularly if one is trying to keep an open mind and avoid being swept overboard by a rogue wave of fad science. Truly, I’m no scientist, and the only contribution I can make to the conversation is anecdotal: it used to snow more, didn’t it? Didn’t that lake have more water in it, once? So, like most of us, I’m dependent on the integrity of scientists and their research to help me form an intelligent opinion.

Enter Steven Koonin, a theoretical physicist and former undersecretary of energy in the Obama Administration. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Koonin recently offered a terrific idea: Red Team it.

Red Teams were probably first brought to the general public’s consciousness by the notorious frogman Dick Marcinko, whose Red Cell unit terrorized and embarrassed the US Security apparatus by, among other capers, breaking into submarine bases, planting bombs near Air Force One, and kidnapping flag officers. They actually did all of those things. The point was to expose weaknesses in the security arrangements, both the obvious ones and the obscure ones, with an eye toward improving them.


Near Shiprock, New Mexico, photo by the author

The embarrassment Red Cell created among the top brass probably cost Marcinko his job, but the point lingered and, as Koonin writes: “The process is now considered a best practice in high-consequence situations…It is very different and more rigorous than traditional peer review, which is usually confidential and always adjudicated, rather than public and moderated.”

What could be of more consequence than a theory suggesting that climate change is going to destroy the planet we live on? Koonin writes that he recently attended a meeting with over a hundred government and university researchers, who challenged each other vigorously in an effort to “separate human impacts from the climate’s natural variability.”

In other words, climate change is far from “settled science”, if such a thing is even possible.

Koonin also points out that documents purporting to be a kind of final word, such as the United Nations’ Summary for Policymakers, “largely fail to capture this vibrant and developing science. Consensus statements necessarily conceal judgment calls and debates and so feed the ‘settled’, ‘hoax’ and ‘don’t know’ memes that plague the political dialogue around climate change.”

Koonin goes on to suggest an innovative idea: take a published report used to help policymakers, such as the US Government’s “National Climate Assessment,” then form a Red Team of scientists to critique the document. Form a Blue Team to “rebut the critique.” Do it again. And again. And do it in full public view, so that average Joe’s, like you and me, might form a better understanding of the “certainties and uncertainties” in climate science. Koonin writes that Red Teaming the discussion in such a manner would “more firmly establish points of agreement…identify urgent research needs…and put science front and center in policy discussions, while publicly demonstrating scientific reasoning and argument.”

It’s hard not to like Koonin’s idea. Every single one of us has a dog in this fight, for obvious reasons, but with so much hair and spit flying around the discussion it can be very challenging to see what is actually going on—what the actual state of the science is. Koonin’s notion, whose outcome is so wonderfully unknown, could only result in making us better informed so that we might then weight our opinions beyond the realm of Facebook memes, fuzzy anecdote, and pure emotion.

So, why not Red Team it? In keeping with Dick Marcinko’s tradition—his team made videotapes of their missions so that there could be no doubt of their success–I might even watch Climate Change debates on television. In fact, if I were a producer, I would pilot a program called “The Real Scientists of Climate Change”, sell some ad time for soap and soda pop, then sit back and pray for ratings.

Thursday nights could get a lot more interesting if edgy scientists were allowed to openly debate their positions–and so inform the world–on what is probably one of the more important questions of our time.

this post originally appeared in The Nugget Newspaper 25 April 2017



Private Tarbox


William Ephraim Morris, later a judge, was wounded in this area, while scrambling back across the river and up these bluffs.   He was 14 during the Battle of the Little Bighorn.  Photo by the author.

Here on the Figure 8, our humble rancho in the ponderosas, we have inadvertently created an interpretive center. That it also happens to be housed in the entryway “half-bath” is merely a side-note. It is, in my humblest estimation, everything that a museum hosted in a water closet should be.

In the “Custer Bathroom”, as it has come to be appreciated, are framed collections of bird points and arrowheads—some fabricated from trade steel—collected by my grandfather when he was a boy in the early days of the last century. There is a Cavalry Bugle stationed above the toilet paper, a print reproduction of Edgar Paxson’s “Custer’s Last Stand” on the wall, and historically prescient books—“The Custer Reader”, and “Walter Camp’s Notes on the Custer Fight” among others, for those inclined toward a longer, more leisurely residence. There are also postcard curios of natives involved in the fight, including Low Dog, Curley, Hairy Moccasins, and other Crow Scouts photographed on their return to the battlefield.

Naturally, there is a framed portrait of Custer himself, ensconced above the towel rack, from which he stares at himself in the mirror above the sink, looking velvety and absorbed while striking a pose that is certainly self-conscious, and regrettably smug.

In the grand-scheme, I prefer to think of Custer, the man, as a lesson rather than a gallant.

But most importantly, for my purposes here, there is a framed reproduction of the Bismarck Tribune, dated July 6, 1876. The Tribune, a territorial newspaper whose embedded reporter—Mark Kellogg–also died there, is broadly credited with announcing to the world the fact of Custer’s death and defeat in battle. In point of fact, however, the Tribune did not actually have the scoop–both the Bozeman Times and the Helena Daily Herald beat them to the punch, by several days, but their coverage, for whatever reason, is largely spiked from history.


A reproduction of the sensational Tribune reporting

Call it gravity, or perhaps just a natural line of sight, but for whatever reason my gaze, while utilizing the Custer Bathroom for its erstwhile purpose, seems to fall to that point on the front page of The Tribune–which contains a lengthy casualty roll–where Private Tarbox is listed as killed in action. The call of nature—and dozens of readings of the Tribune front page–have encouraged me to think about Private Tarbox more than, perhaps, I normally would.

Private Byron Tarbox was born in 1852, at Brooksville, in Hancock County, Maine. He enlisted on September 22, 1875, and told recruiters that he was previously employed as a shoemaker. He was 5’6. We know that his father was a man named Valentine Tarbox, and that his parents divorced. His mother was Lavinia Bolton Tibbets Tarbox Morris, who seems to have been—without condemning her circumstances–a serial bride, and who passed from this earth in 1918.

But we learn something else about Private Tarbox, who served in Company L of the 7th Cavalry, which was under Custer’s direct command. Tarbox, who would have trotted out with the Son of the Morning Star along the ridge above the Little Bighorn–and then down Medicine Tail Coulee where he and his comrades would have encountered the most unwelcome surprise of their lifetimes–also had a brother at the fight.

In the coulee, Tarbox would have likely turned his horse and scrambled back up the to the ridge, probably disorganized but not yet panicking, where he would have been ordered into a dismounted, rearguard action. It was here, on Calhoun Hill– while Custer rode north with the remainders to die in infamy—that Byron Tarbox would perish along with his comrades.

One wonders if he thought of his younger brother, fighting somewhere off to his left, in the few minutes he had left to live in the summer dust and heat.

William Ephraim Morris—Tarbox’s half brother, who lied about his age to enlist, was actually 14 years old at the time of the fight, assigned to Company M, under Major Marcus Reno. There is a description, perhaps apocryphal, of a final discussion between the brothers, as the commands were split at Reno Creek. Byron, 24 years old, is alleged to have warned his youthful brother in passing, “Look out for your scalp, Bill, the Indians don’t like red-headed fellows.”

Young Morris survived, though he was wounded in the chest after Reno’s disastrous attack on the south end of the enormous native village—perhaps the largest gathering of Plains Indians ever–while scrambling in retreat, back up the bluffs on the east side of the river. He survived the continuous fighting that followed, and must have surmised at some point that his older brother, somewhere off to the north, was dead.


Comanche.  Lone survivor of Last Stand Hill, and former mount of Captain Myles Keough.  Found after the fight and reportedly shot six times, Comanche walked out to the Far West with others, and in least one case is said to have carried wounded troopers on his back.

Ultimately, Morris was discharged from the Army, but not before participating in the Nez Perce campaign, and only after a drunken brawl in which he suffered a broken arm. His discharge papers describe him as a private of “worthless character.”

But Bill Morris was bigger than the Army’s opinion of him. He went on to become a lawyer, a judge in New York City, and a Captain in a National Guard infantry regiment. He died in 1933.

I don’t know how Private Tarbox and Judge Morris would greet the news that here, in 2017, their stories were related in a column inspired by bathroom decor. But something tells me they might find their way to the irony in it, and I’m deeply hopeful they would offer at least a smile at the consolation, in as much as they were at least remembered, however briefly, 141 years later.

Going Solo


Carrying the standard.  The author’s daughter, winging us back to KRNO.

One of the more reliable signs of spring is the return of the redwinged blackbirds. No matter what the calendar says, it’s only when I see them down in the meadow below our place, the males singing on a fenceline, or ganging up on ravens to chase them off the nesting territory, that I’m ready to call it spring and actually believe it. Redwings are a migratory bird, and can travel up to 800 miles from their summer homes to winter in better climes.

Lucky bastards.

Last week my wife and I completed our own migration of sorts, travelling south to watch my daughter’s first airplane solo at Stead Airport, near Reno.

As parents, there may be nothing finer than watching our children consumed by fruitful and productive passions at a young age, and to watch their confidence and maturity grow as they commit to excellence and mastery of a study, or a skill, or a task. This is especially true if they can build a career around it, and find a lifetime of rewarding challenges, experiences, and relationships, in the offing.

My daughter’s passion for aviation is perhaps genetically inevitable, and it has infected her with something of the same irreverent zeal enjoyed by the infamous Mme. Pancho Barnes, legendary barnstormer, stunt pilot, and patroness of the Happy Bottom Riding Club, who told the world that “Flying makes me feel like a sex maniac in a whorehouse with a stack of $20 bills.” Pilots are nothing if they aren’t colorful, vibrant, and understandably impious. My daughter is becoming all of those things, and I couldn’t be happier.


The Aluminum Overcast

Stead Airport, which is home to the famous Reno Air Races, is also an airport I have flown out of countless times with my father, who kept a hangar there, and where ultimately, on a perfect day for flying, he unexpectedly, and tragically, drew his last breath. Seven years after his death on the same airfield, it was difficult to avoid the notion that his Quiet Birdman soul was in a pattern somewhere overhead, his chest filled with pride as his granddaughter—who he took on her first airplane ride as a small child—kicked her instructor out of the plane and greased an extended series of solo touch and go’s.

Those thoughts, which I indulged to some length as we stood out on the tarmac anchored with joy and memories and cameras, engendered a kind of deeply rooted emotional migration. Watching my daughter lift off into the sky alone, I thought, and it was something more like a revelation, that it was only after my father died that I ever truly solo’d as a man in the world. My accomplishments were my own, as were my failures, but he had always been there, his hands and expertise not exactly on the controls, but somewhere reliably near them, and then suddenly he wasn’t there at all, and I was flying truly alone for the first time.

That’s brutally honest. Maybe too much so. But it’s also at the heart of relationships, particularly when they are good ones, the kind we don’t celebrate enough when they are active, and mourn deeply when they are lost.

My father had a long running obsession with World War 2 heavy bombers and, in joyful coincidence, there happened to be a B-17 on the ramp. It was the Aluminum Overcast, which is a kind of airborne living-history museum, and makes numerous stops around the country each year so that pilots and history buffs can fly in it, or tour the aircraft’s storied compartments on the ground. Delivered to the US Army Air Corps in May, 1945, the Overcast didn’t see action in World War 2, but flies on today informing the imagination of thousands.

After the solo, I jumped in the backseat of the little Cessna 172 and flew with my daughter and her instructor back to Reno, sharing the sky for a moment with that B-17, which departed just before us, and finally landing beautifully on runway 1-6-Left, where my own father and I had also landed hundreds of times, in all kinds of weather.

Taxiing back to the hangar, and frankly, gloating, I felt somehow that I had just officiated a kind of spiritual change of command ceremony, as if I had taken the unit’s colors from my father, saluted him and his memory smartly, and handed them over to my daughter, who will now carry them forward into the future.


On her own.  First solo flight.

What I felt was pride. Immeasurable pride, but also, inescapably, an abiding sorrow that the old man wasn’t around to see his granddaughter, who he loved, take up the standard.

For now, it’s allegedly spring, though yesterday it was snowing at our place. The redwings aren’t here yet, but when I close my eyes I can see them, somewhere between south and north, winging their way in our direction. They are flying back to the meadow down below the hill, where they will spend the summer. They will lay their eggs down there, in that perfect Cascade habitat, and a mere fifteen days after they hatch, those newest birds will take to the sky by themselves, truly alone for the first time in their lives. And while we are busy doing what we do into the fall, one day they will fly up, mostly unnoticed, enter the pattern, and continue the timeless cycle, drawn inexorably to their own migrations.

And may it ever be so.

This post originally appeared in The Nugget Newspaper, 11 April 2017.