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Duke geologist's book assails unrealistic mathematical models

DURHAM, N.C. -- Using equations to forecast the specific behavior of complex natural processes such as beach erosion and long-term nuclear waste storage creates a false sense of security, according to a new book by a retired Duke University geologist and his geologist daughter.

In a preface to "Useless Arithmetic: Why Environmental Scientists Can't Predict the Future," Orrin Pilkey and Linda Pilkey-Jarvis write that relying on such mathematical models has "done tangible damage to our society in many ways."

Among their examples, the pair charge that faulty mathematical models contributed to the collapse of a prime North American fishery. They say such models also are predicting unreachable margins of safety at a planned national U.S. high-level radioactive waste repository and have given coastal communities overly optimistic expectations about the endurance of beach nourishment projects.

"We make this point again and again: if your basic assumptions are wrong, it doesn't matter what the math does," said Pilkey, a retired professor at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences.

"Since scientists now have computers on their desks that can do all kinds of sophisticated calculations, they have been saying 'give us enough money and we'll come up with a good model,' " he added. "And they have failed miserably. We scientists have to hang our heads in shame. We should have, long ago, admitted our weaknesses."

The authors focus their criticisms on quantitative mathematical models, which they define as those attempting to make specific predictions about natural outcomes by answering the questions "when," "where" and "how much."

In the case of the now-collapsed Grand Banks cod fishery, the authors argue that Canadian scientists used unrealistic quantitative models of total allowable catch to determine harvesting levels. "According to these models, the Grand Banks should still be full of fish," th
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Contact: Monte Basgall
monte.basgall@duke.edu
919-681-8057
Duke University
25-Jan-2007


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