Useless Arithmetic

Why Environmental Scientists Can't Predict the Future

Orrin H. Pilkey and Linda Pilkey-Jarvis

Columbia University Press

Useless Arithmetic

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Pub Date: June 2009

ISBN: 9780231132138

248 Pages

Format: Paperback

List Price: $29.00£25.00

Pub Date: January 2007

ISBN: 9780231132121

248 Pages

Format: Hardcover

List Price: $80.00£67.00

Pub Date: January 2007

ISBN: 9780231506991

248 Pages

Format: E-book

List Price: $28.99£25.00

Useless Arithmetic

Why Environmental Scientists Can't Predict the Future

Orrin H. Pilkey and Linda Pilkey-Jarvis

Columbia University Press

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."

Using concrete examples, the authors of Useless Arithmetic cut through the scientific jargon to show how and why many aspects of the environment are under threat because of the slavish adherence to misleading mathematical models by their technical and political advocates.

Victor R. Baker, University of Arizona

In a complex, imperfect world quantitative models feed the delusion that society can predict its way out of its environmental dilemmas. The corrosive result is that politics and science have become inextricably interwoven to the considerable detriment of both. This engaging, wise, and far-reaching book diagnoses the causes and costs of our quantitative hubris, and in so doing points the difficult way toward a more productive relationship among science, democracy, and the vexing challenges of environmental stewardship.

Daniel Sarewitz, director, Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes, Arizona State University

Useless Arithmetic is an important book for those of us who believe that environmental science and policy should be self-correcting on the basis of experience. Written for lay persons, it draws attention to a broad range of sobering experiences typically ignored in the over-promotion of quantitative models for predictive purposes.

Ron Brunner, Center for Public Policy Research, University of Colorado, Boulder

Orrin H. Pilkey and Linda Pilkey-Jarvis argue that many models are worse than useless, providing a false sense of security and an unwarranted confidence in our scientific expertise. Regardless of how one responds to their views, they can't be ignored. A must-read for anyone seriously interested in the role of models in contemporary science and policy.

Naomi Oreskes, professor, Department of History, University of California, San Diego

This book is a welcome antidote to the blind use of supposedly quantitative models.

Carl Wunsch, American Scientist

This is an easy and persuasive read.

Fred Pearce, New Scientist

Useless Arithmetic dispels many myths and is a 'must read' packing in case studies and insights on faulty thinking.

The Midwest Book Review

[This] readily accessible book should be read by any activist who's ever had to face off against the opposition's engineers.

Earth Island Journal

A concise, powerful, and readable book.

Steven R. Carpenter, Issues in Science and Technology

This book should be in every library... Essential.

Choice

Useless Arithmetic will surely excite any reader.

David Simberloff, BioScience

CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title, 2007

About 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.