Useless Arithmetic: Why Environmental Scientists Can't Predict the Futureby Orrin H. Pilkey
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Noted coastal geologist Orrin Pilkey and environmental scientist Linda Pilkey-Jarvis show that the quantitative mathematical models policy makers and government administrators use to form environmental policies are seriously flawed. Based on unrealistic and sometimes false assumptions, these models often yield answers that support unwise policies.
Writing for the general, nonmathematician reader and using examples from throughout the environmental sciences, Pilkey and Pilkey-Jarvis show how unquestioned faith in mathematical models can blind us to the hard data and sound judgment of experienced scientific fieldwork. They begin with a riveting account of the extinction of the North Atlantic cod on the Grand Banks of Canada. Next they engage in a general discussion of the limitations of many models across a broad array of crucial environmental subjects.
The book offers fascinating case studies depicting how the seductiveness of quantitative models has led to unmanageable nuclear waste disposal practices, poisoned mining sites, unjustifiable faith in predicted sea level rise rates, bad predictions of future shoreline erosion rates, overoptimistic cost estimates of artificial beaches, and a host of other thorny problems. The authors demonstrate how many modelers have been reckless, employing fudge factors to assure "correct" answers and caring little if their models actually worked.
A timely and urgent book written in an engaging style, Useless Arithmetic evaluates the assumptions behind models, the nature of the field data, and the dialogue between modelers and their "customers."
Steven R. Carpenter
- Columbia University Press
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The reliance on mathematical models has done tangible damage to our society in many ways. Bureaucrats that don't understand their limitations often use modeled predictions agencies that depend upon project approvals for their very survival (such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) can and frequently do find ways to adjust models to come up with correct answers that will ensure project funding. Most damaging of all is the unquestioning acceptance of the models by the public because they are assured that the modeled predictions are the state-of-the-art way to go."-from Useless Arithmetic
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Meet the Author
Orrin H. Pilkey is the James B. Duke Professor of Geology emeritus and director emeritus of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment. He has written numerous books, including A Celebration of the World's Barrier Islands, and is the editor of the twenty-four-volume series, Living with the Shore.Linda Pilkey-Jarvis is a geologist in the State of Washington's Department of Ecology, where she helps manage the state's oil spills program.
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Government administrators and policy makers use quantitative mathematical models to form future environmental policies. The authors of this book assert that these models are basically useless, that they lead to policies that make things worse, not better. These models are filled with assumptions, suppositions and several pure guesses. "Fudge factors" are included to come up with an acceptable answer. Politics is frequently involved. An example is when the Canadian government said that the Grand Banks fishing area was in good condition, when "collapse" was a much more accurate description. The EPA has required that the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal site must be safe for the public for the next 10,000 years. Based on current models, that is absurd enough, but, in 2004, a federal appeals court ruled that the safety of the repository must be assured for up to one million years. Really? That is longer than Homo Sapiens has existed, and there will be at least one major advance and retreat of glaciers, with corresponding huge changes in climate. Open pit mines are frequently dug beneath the level of the local groundwater. Constant pumping of water keeps the mine dry. When the mine is abandoned, the local water, filled with all sorts of chemicals from the mine, fills the pit. How to predict things like the balance between inflow and outflow of water from the lake, acid production, and chemical reactions within the new lake? Perhaps it would be better to say, for instance, "Given current conditions, the ocean level will rise over the next hundred years" instead of "Given current conditions, the ocean level will rise by (a specific number) over the next hundred years." Researchers freely admit that the models are full of flaws, but, until someone comes up with something better, they will continue to use them. Written for the non-scientist (like yours truly), this book is very thought-provoking, and injects some much needed skepticism. It's a must-read of a book.
I highly recommend this book for engineers and modelers of natural systems who have dwelled too long in the world of fabricated realities and conflicted interests. You may not agree with everything the Pilkeys say - I didn't - but the book is sure to take off your rose-colored glasses and get your feet headed back towards the ground. This book encourages me, an ecologist who analyzes estuarine monitoring data, to keep questioning the assumptions and 'data' of fisheries and ecosystem models.