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

Popular Science
CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title, 2007

By: Orrin H Pilkey (Author), Linda Pilkey-Jarvis (Author)

230 pages, b/w photos, b/w illustrations, tables

Columbia University Press

Paperback | Jul 2009 | #178082 | ISBN-13: 9780231132138
Availability: Usually dispatched within 5 days Details
NHBS Price: £17.50 $21/€20 approx
Hardback | Feb 2007 | #170815 | ISBN-13: 9780231132121
Availability: Usually dispatched within 5 days Details
NHBS Price: £51.99 $64/€58 approx

About this book

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. Useless Arithmetic 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 problems.

"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."

"Useless Arithmetic will surely excite any reader."
– David Simberloff, BioScience

"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

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Orrin H. Pilkey is the emeritus James B. Duke Professor of Geology and director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment. He has written several books, including A Celebration of the World's Barrier Islands (Columbia), and is the editor of the twenty-four volume series Living with the Shore. He lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

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. She lives in McCleary, Washington.

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