Welcome!! My name is Paul Lappen. I am in my early 50s, single, and live in Connecticut USA. This blog will consist of book reviews, written by me, on a wide variety of subjects. I specialize, as much as possible, in small press and self-published books, to give them whatever tiny bit of publicity help that I can. Other than that, I am willing to review nearly any genre, except poetry, romance, elementary-school children's books and (really bloody) horror.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Useless Arithmetic

Useless Arithmetic: Why Environmental Scientists Can't Predict the Future, Orrin H. Pilkey and Linda Pilkey-Jarvis, Columbia University Press, 2007

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.

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