A reader asks the NYT Science Times (in C. Claiborne Ray's "Q+a" column on July 13):
Q. How does the weather service determine whether it was a tornado that caused the kind of destruction that recently occurred in Bridgeport, Conn.?
Before I go on, step back and ask yourself what sort of answer the reader was expecting.
If you're like me, you took the question to be about whether it was a tornado or some other kind of weather event that happened in Bridgeport. That, in turn, asks how meteorologists label storms as tornadoes or something else. So we'd expect an answer that distinguished tornadoes from, say, (severe) windstorms, thunderstorms causing wind damage, nor'easters, gales, hurricanes, or cyclones; a good answer would sketch the evidence meteorologists use to make these classifications.
Ray's answer starts out encouragingly enough (though there's some crucial stuff missing):
When a tornado is reported, the National Weather Service may send out a team of investigators to determine how closely the patterns of damage match the aftermaths of past tornadoes.
and goes on:
The levels of damage on the generally accepted Fujita scale are consistent with winds of different speeds. The scale runs from F-0 to F-5.
The Fujita scale, it immediately becomes clear (in case you didn't already know this) provides a list of six levels of tornadoes, each with characteristic damage and wind speed, all succinctly summarized in Ray's column.
Ray has skipped over the question asked and is on to a different one, which presupposes that we know we're dealing with a tornado.
We're used to such unresponsive answers in other question-asking contexts, notably in press conferences by and interviews of public figures, who regularly dodge an unwelcome question by answering some possibly related question they're more comfortable with (or just making a prepared statement somewhere within the subject area of the original question), even persisting through several iterations and reformulations by the questioner, so that the questioning comes to look like badgering nastiness and the questioner gives up (or is cut off).
That's not, I think, what Ray did. Somehow, he assumed that the prior question, of tornadohood, had been settled and went on to the natural follow-up, about degrees of tornado strength. No mention of a rotating column of air, with the (usually, but not necessarily, visible) funnel cloud in contact with both the ground and a cloud above (so that a rotating pattern can be expected in the damage at ground level), nor of the usual association with thunderstorms.
Ray's answer is unresponsive, but honestly so.