April 15, 2008

Book Review - Useless Arithemetic

Useless Arithmetic: Why Environmental Scientists Can't Predict the Future
Orrin H. Pilkey & Linda Pilkey-Jarvis
TD 171.8 .P55 2007

This book is about mathematical models, particularly those that are used to generate data and make predictions about environmental concerns. The authors assert that mathematical models are often based on unrealistic assumptions or flawed information, and may in fact use "fudge factors" to generate "correct" answers. Using numerous examples across the discipline of environmental science, they demonstrate how models are used to generate compelling data. At the same time, they show how this data has been used by both the scientific and policy writing community, resulting in unmanageable disposal of nuclear wastes, poisoned mines, and fear of imminent rising sea levels and shore erosion. They differentiate between data generated by models and that collected by scientists working in the field, pointing out the limits that any scientific method has in predicting the future. This is a provocative book written for a general audience, but it will probably be best appreciated by those with interests in math or environmental science.