Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Useless Arithmetic

Useless Arithmetic: Why Environmental Scientists Can't Predict the Future

Orrin H. Pilkey
Linda Pilkey-Jarvis
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 248
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Useless Arithmetic
    Book Description:

    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."

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50699-1
    Subjects: Environmental Science, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. preface
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. chapter one mathematical fishing
    (pp. 1-21)

    More than five hundred years ago, fishers from Portugal and the Basque region of Spain began fishing the fabled Grand Banks of Canada. Although many species of fish were harvested from the seemingly inexhaustible stock, the most famous and valuable was the cod. Thousands of vessels sailed back to Spain and Portugal, from the New World to the Old, their holds jammed with barrels of salted cod. Codfish—bacalao in Spain and bacalhau in Portugal—became a food staple for the entire Iberian Peninsula. Salted cod achieved added importance because of the numerous meatless days imposed by the Catholic Church....

  5. chapter two mathematical models: escaping from reality
    (pp. 22-44)

    During World War II, military mathematical modeling, or operational research, became a critical tool for analyzing the war experience. One of the more successful applications of mathematical models resulted in a large increase in the sinking of U-boats by the British navy, after studies suggested new tactics and new settings for depth charges. Operational research was also responsible for suggesting that large convoys of merchant ships were safer than small convoys, the opposite of contemporary military thinking on the subject.

    However, the low point of the military mathematical model may have come and gone during the Vietnam War, when modeling...

  6. chapter three yucca mountain: a million years of certainty
    (pp. 45-65)

    The development and use of nuclear technology began in the early 1940s. Americans grandly entered into a nuclear age that ended a world war and promised permanent supplies of cheap energy. Many cultural images from this time linger with us today: dancing the atomic boogie, drinking atomic cocktails, building backyard bomb shelters, and practicing “duck and cover” drills in schools. Even today the mushroom-shaped cloud remains the high school symbol for the “Bombers” of Richland, Washington, located near the Hanford nuclear plant.

    Over time, our perception of the bright promise dimmed as the hazards and by-products of nuclear use became...

  7. chapter four how fast the rising sea?
    (pp. 66-91)

    Senator James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican and University of Tulsa graduate, has been chairperson of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees legislation that could address the problem of excess production of greenhouse gasses. Our nation spends more than $2 billion a year for global change studies, and he is the most powerful American, short of the president, with regard to the initiation and funding of legislation that would form our response to global warming and climate change, including reduction of carbon dioxide emission. The New Yorker magazine attributes the following 2003 statement to the senator: “With all...

  8. chapter five following a wayward rule
    (pp. 92-113)

    The first high rise on the shoreline of the Outer Banks of North Carolina was built at Whalebone Junction in Nags Head, looming seven stories tall and situated well back from the beach. First a Ramada Inn, it later became the Armada Inn, accomplished by reversing the R and A in the original sign. Today it is a Comfort Inn, minus its restaurant, which was whisked away by storm waves. In a time frame of three decades, the shoreline marched up to the building until a corner of the hotel now sits on the beach extending to the mid-tide line....

  9. chapter six beaches in an expected universe
    (pp. 114-139)

    Delaware’s North Shores is a small, Atlantic Ocean-facing town just south of Cape Henlopen State Park at the entrance to Delaware Bay. Like many other American coastal towns, North Shores has a growing row of expensive houses constructed right next to an eroding beach. In line with Delaware state law, the beach is private, and nonresidents, while allowed to walk on it, must keep moving along. No stopping for a picnic or a swim. Even so, the beach at the engineering groin structure that marks the town’s boundary with the state park is listed on gay beach Web sites as...

  10. chapter seven giant cups of poison
    (pp. 140-163)

    Seventy to 80 million years ago, about the time the dinosaurs were breathing their last, the huge body of granite now known as the boulder batholith was forming deep within the earth’s crust. Seventy miles long by twenty-five miles wide, the mass of once molten magma extends from Helena, Montana, to the highland mountains south of Butte, Montana. When it was still very young, hot mineralizing fluids traveled outward from the molten rock along cracks and fissures into the surrounding solid rock, to deposit a large variety of minerals that contained gold, lead, silver, copper, arsenic, molybdenum, and selenium. Here...

  11. chapter eight invasive plants: an environmental apocalypse
    (pp. 164-181)

    Birds don’t sing in the jungles of Guam. A walk through this tropical paradise is a walk in silence. The quiet is caused by a snake, the brown tree snake (Boiga irregularis). If ever there was an obnoxious invasive organism, this is it (figure 8.1).

    The list of this snake’s loathsome characteristics seems endless. For starters, this thin, seven-to-ten-foot-long creature is said to be more aggressive, though less venomous, than a rattlesnake. It injects its venom while chewing on the victim. It seems particularly fond of newborn mammals, such as puppies and bunnies, and has taken a liking to poultry....

  12. chapter nine a promise unfulfilled
    (pp. 182-204)

    In the preceding chapters, a number of modes of mathematical model failure have been recognized, the sum total of which points to the virtual impossibility of accurate quantitative modeling to predict the outcome of natural processes on the earth’s surface. Physicist-turned-geologist Peter Haff has categorized the fatal flaws in such models, most of which we have at least briefly touched on earlier in this volume. Haff specializes in the study of desert pavement, the rocky surfaces that form upon long exposure of the desert surface to sun, wind, and alternating freezing and searing temperatures. He has long perceived the futility...

  13. appendix
    (pp. 205-212)
  14. references
    (pp. 213-222)
  15. index
    (pp. 223-230)