Useless Arithmetic

By Orrin H. Pilkey & Linda Pilkey-Jarvis, 2006, 221 pages, amazon

Or why environmental scientists can’t predict the future?

The answer given by the authors is simple. Because the scientists are trying to find exact answers to quantitative questions using models in which many parameters and interactions are still unknown. They demonstrate this using various examples from fishing industry, sea-level rising, weather prediction to very interesting one about  nuclear waste depository. They also suggest a remedy – ask qualitative questions and adapt the models on the go.

I heard about this book in one of our regular Friday Applied Math Colloquium talks. The speaker criticised it a lot (that’s what made me read it actually). Now I understand why. The book contains no mathematical models (except for the very brief appendix), but slowly describes them and points out their weaknesses. So far so good, makes reader aware that not everyting can be modelled and even when modelling things that can be, one should be extremely careful about the assumptions and reliability of the answers.

However, the undertone of the book (which was also so offensive to our colloquium speaker) is that you can’t model anything. I doubt this is what the authors had in mind, but it can be felt. Another drawback of the book is that it is extremely “slow” and you have the feeling that you are reading the same argument over and over again.

Would I recommend it? Maybe just skim over it in the library (and read the passage on Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage). The best words you’ll find in the book, don’t even come from the authors, but from C. S. Lewis:

We all want progress, but progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken the wrong turn, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road. And in that case the man who turns back the soonest is the most progressive man.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.