Science and speculation

I recently read several articles about a visiting baseball player who was subjected to racial hazing in a game at Fenway Park. The sense of these articles is this attitude reflects on the city of Boston, and on America at large. This is an all-too-common tendency today, to extrapolate a statement, an incident, or even data, to have far broader applicability than the evidence warrants.

 

Science is much in the news, with accusations of “science denial” or climate change skepticism, Creationists disputing evolutionary evidence, scientist-celebrities making bold pronouncements, along with front-page scientific studies that were once lauded and have now been refuted (often on the back page).

 

Though the laws of science—gravitation, thermodynamics, the conservation of mass and energy—are fixed, for all practical purposes anyway, the interaction of influencing factors and forces in complex systems like the Earth’s climate, Lake Michigan, even local weather on a given day, can produce a variety of outcomes, some predictable, some surprising. Surprising not because the laws of science have been violated, but because the system, the combination of dozens or hundreds of factors and forces, couldn’t be adequately modeled, or the input to the model (data/design) was flawed or incomplete.

 

I’ve seen my share of bad science and bad data (sadly, guilty myself on occasion). I’ve learned that while we need to rely on data, honest skepticism is an important aspect of the scientific method. On many occasions, scientists—experts—have reached a consensus on something that was subsequently proven to be false. As Matt Ridley wrote in a 2013 Wall Street Journal article, “Science is about evidence, not consensus.” I’m with Mr. Ridley. I don’t care about consensus, no matter how passionate or morally indignant. I want to see the data and the evidence, and how it’s linked to conclusions.

 

Drawing broad conclusions from evidence or evidence-based models has inherent risks. This doesn’t mean we can’t (and don’t) rely on evidence and models, only that we should understand the limitations and risks of doing so. Some years back, The Wall Street Journal published my rebuttal to their news article entitled, Study Finds Global Warming Is Killing Frogs: “When science records what it observes, when it measures phenomena, and when it faithfully and accurately models that data, its findings are valid, useful and reliable. But when scientists…offer speculation…credibility and reliability are diminished, sometimes drastically. Thus, the observation that the frog population worldwide is declining…in combination with models that purport to demonstrate global warming, is not (yet) sufficient to assert the title of your article. This conclusion is speculative, as it is based on the assumption that warmer temperatures at higher elevations in Costa Rica are responsible for…the fungus that is infecting the frogs.”

 

If extrapolation of data/evidence is a problem with respect to the hard sciences, how much more so with the social sciences? What’s needed is a clear understanding of (1) how the evidence/data was obtained; (2) the extent to which this evidence/data applies to the system being studied, along with identification of any gaps or missing pieces; and (3) the extent to which the model faithfully describes the system being studied. Can speculative conclusions, such as Study Finds Global Warming Is Killing Frogs, be justified by the data and evidence? Stephen Hawking recently revised his “authoritative” conclusion that humankind has 1,000 years to escape the planet to 100 years. Hawking is a recognized expert on theoretical physics, but the fate of the planet is far too complex for 1,000 years, 100 years, or any number to be credible. Just because an authoritative individual or institution says something doesn’t make it so.

 

As to that fan, or handful of fans, at Fenway Park, what they said is on them, and based on the evidence, that’s what science would say too.

 

A Roadmap for Disaster Prevention

A company with a sterling reputation for quality and customer service experiences the killing of a child by a wild animal at one of its premier resorts.

Changes in water supply and treatment result in the release of lead from old pipes, producing a public health debacle.

The removal of a brutal dictator from a Middle Eastern country unleashes deadly sectarian conflict and emboldens opportunistic neighbors.

A new jail goes tens of millions of dollars over budget, resulting in project suspension, public outrage, and lawsuits.

In all these disasters, professional, competent, experienced, and honorable people were involved in decision-making and implementation—yes, they were, so how do such things happen?

Murphy’s Law? Karma? The law of averages? Nefarious characters?

Some ascribe such disasters to the theory of black swan events, a black swan being a metaphor for an unpredictable surprise that exerts major effects. Others accuse those involved of negligence or malfeasance, but none of these events meet the definition of a black swan event, they could have been predicted, and while negligence or malfeasance may have exacerbated the problems, most of the people involved weren’t derelict in their duties and didn’t commit crimes.

Another explanation more accurately describes these disasters: Big Picture Miasma, caused by not taking a disciplined and unhurried look at potential perils, along with the human inclination to avoid questions that can’t be definitively answered.

How can Big Picture Miasma be prevented? Is it possible, or is mitigating or softening impacts the best we can do?

A Big Picture process to prevent disasters could be deployed on projects or operations—military and otherwise, that are likely to impact health and safety/well being, and on larger projects and operations of any kind that have the potential to produce turmoil (the jail project) if they go upside-down. The process steps are:

  • Early exploration of Big Picture questions, such as:
    • What outcomes are most essential?
    • What outcomes must be prevented?
    • What could go wrong?
  • Making sure this exploration process doesn’t get lost in the details, or become mired in problem solving, an irresistible temptation that must be resisted as it distracts from identifying Big Picture risks, the sole purpose of this exercise.
  • Involvement of subject matter experts with no subsequent involvement in the project or operation, and not members of any of the involved organizations, and whose only role is to prompt, probe, and identify risks, especially disaster-level risks, with nothing off the table.
  • Though the primary expertise of subject matter experts should be health and safety/well being, experts with other specialties might be recruited based on the nature of the project or operation.
  • Succinct, layman-friendly (no legalese) documentation of disaster-level risks, with communication to the highest levels in the organization.

Rarely practiced, even in organizations with sophisticated project management and quality control practices. Why? Because these organizations and their procedures are too detail oriented. I’m confident that if this process had been used on the Flint water project, the disaster could have been prevented. All the cited disasters would likely have been identified with such a process and, once identified, might have been prevented.

Big Picture Miasma can destroy organizations and lives. So why isn’t such an unremarkable process deployed more often? Though problems are experienced on every project and in every operation, big problems are less common, and full-scale disasters even more rare. Disasters are sometimes avoided using traditional procedures, or in fortuitous ways, but what happens when a Flint, Michigan water problem occurs that could have been prevented with this simple process, and instead, thousands of people are impacted and some of those involved are taken down? The situation involving the Middle Eastern country is even worse, and even though only one life was lost at the resort, it was one life too many, and could have been prevented. As for the jail, though no lives were lost, common project management deficiencies were to blame and could have been headed off.

We can do better. We should do better. Most disasters aren’t black swans, or caused by Murphy’s Law or bad people. A Big Picture process can prevent many of these terrible disasters.

Thomas M. Doran, P.E., FESD, has been practicing and teaching project management, and developing PM processes, for 4 decades.

The Environment: Dogma, Domination, and Dominion

Environmental Dogma, Domination, and Dominion Dominion means that we use natural resources prudently, with an eye to being good stewards, while recognizing that it’s morally preferable for human lives to be protected and enhanced than to conserve every last living organism in the biosphere or to leave every natural resource untouched Thomas M. Doran

Source: Environmental Dogma, Domination, and Dominion | Catholic World Report – Global Church news and views

Infrastructure Fractured Facts

A recent Detroit Free Press editorial, “Michigan becoming an infrastructure backwater” echoes the infrastructure bashing we so often hear these days. We’re not maintaining our once robust infrastructure, or so the argument goes. Such calls to action demand a response, and not the hearty endorsement you’re likely to hear from the public and infrastructure contractors.

In summer 2016, The Engineering Society of Detroit’s TechCentury magazine published my article, “A History of Water and Wastewater Treatment in Greater Detroit”, describing how we got to where we are today with respect to our water and wastewater infrastructure, and it’s not what most would imagine.

Before a problem is addressed, in this case infrastructure, it has to be defined correctly. In fact, the vast majority of Michigan’s and America’s infrastructure, invisible to the public when it performs as intended, is performing reasonably well or very well, and quite often, maintenance is not the reason when it isn’t. The fact is much of the public’s dissatisfaction with our infrastructure has more to do with modern (evolving) expectations than it does with maintenance.

The Free Press said, “In short, our unwillingness to pay to maintain the fabulous infrastructure we’ve built in Michigan means we can’t enjoy much of it for much longer”, and they supported this assertion by citing the Flint water crisis, basement flooding incidents, sewage overflows to rivers and lakes, and deteriorating roads. In fact, the Flint water problem had nothing to do with poorly maintained infrastructure, but was due to a decision to use lead pipe years ago and a recent decision not to treat the water to prevent corrosion when the Flint water plant was reactivated. The rare flooding in our basements is caused by conscious decisions to size pipes for storms of a certain intensity and duration, and to accept flooding (somewhere) when it rains harder than this, as building to handle any imaginable storm means pipes can double or triple in size. Almost all of the sewage “dumped” in our lakes and rivers is a result of a conscious decision decades ago to combine storm and sanitary sewers, at that time to flush deadly sewage from Detroit streets and alleys, and in recent years we’ve made progress in reducing these overflows. Even the lifespans of our roads is a conscious decision, tacitly endorsed by a cost averse public that expects German-like road performance made possible by an America that has paid for much of Germany’s defense since World War II. Many of the infrastructure problems the public experiences are not the result of poor maintenance, or “unwillingness to pay to maintain the fabulous infrastructure we’ve built”, but past or present conscious decisions, and new expectations. Until we get the narrative correct, how can we make the progress the public desires?

What 40 Years In The Environmental Trenches Has Taught Me

tonquish-creek-photo

The environmental narrative we’re fed goes like this: toxic chemicals are lurking in our drinking water and streams, habitats are being destroyed, our air is laden with dangerous pollutants, things keep getting worse. We should be very worried.

After 40 years working on environmental projects—not at think tanks, policy institutions, ivory towers, or in government offices—I have a perspective on the environment that differs from most Americans. In those four decades, I’ve been privileged to help design and build dozens of water and wastewater treatment plants, big and small, and have worked on many projects that cleaned up sites, habitats, rivers, and lakes.

In robust democracies, the environment is cleaner than it’s been since the early days of the Industrial Age.

Many died from disease-bearing drinking water right into the 20th century. Now, the overwhelming majority of American water systems are safe and healthy. Today, some wastewater treatment plants produce treated water that’s better than their receiving river or stream, thereby improving the water in the stream. The Detroit River, once a repository of industrial wastes and untreated sewage has undergone a remarkable transformation, now hosting game fish, bald eagles, and peregrine falcons, and this is common nationwide, including waterways and habitats within our big cities. Some American companies have manufacturing plants with virtually zero water discharge to the environment. We have the technology to affordably convert toilet water into drinking water. Notwithstanding high profile environmental calamities, similar progress can be cited for our air and for almost every facet of the environment.

Then, why do so many have the perspective that the environment is deteriorating? Perhaps because the loudest voices belong to those with a financial interest in keeping funding spigots wide open, and to the zero risk crowd, and because the level of detection for many chemicals has been improved from parts per million to parts per billion or trillion, levels at which chemicals may be detected without any demonstrated health risk.

While most of us recognize that our daily lives fall far short of perfection, and though we engage in many activities—driving and competitive sports for example—that have far from zero risk, in environmental matters we all-too-often apply the standards of perfection and zero risk, rather than acknowledging the dramatic progress we’ve made, and continue to make.

When I attended Purdue University, Dr. James Etzel used to argue that robust democracies have cleaner environments than state controlled societies because democracies have an empowered citizenry that’s affluent enough to be able to clean up the environment, and keep it clean, affluence produced by free markets. Though often shouting at and disparaging one another, both environmentalists and free market advocates are responsible for the remarkable progress that’s been made in the past half century.

An abiding memory is a wastewater plant I worked on in Mexico City in the 1990s that treated wastewater flowing into a canal people were using as a water source. I remember them walking to the canal several times a day to clean clothes and collect pails of water. Though the water discharged from the new treatment plant wasn’t perfect, the quality was light years better. The knowledge that I helped provide those people with better water is a highlight of my career. In loud democracies at least, situations like the one that prompted this treatment facility are no longer socially acceptable. Furthermore, in authentic free markets these situations shouldn’t be acceptable either, as the total cost incurred by a banana cream pie producer isn’t reflected in the price of the pie if banana peels are thrown over the fence, as Etzel also asserted.

All these improvements came about because American citizens demanded a cleaner environment, because our free market economy made it affordable, and because our companies, entrepreneurs, and universities kept innovating to meet the desired outcomes. The end result is cleaner water, cleaner air, and cleaner habitats. For the most part, we’re also getting better at targeting dollars and human resources as compared to the scattergun approach we took in the 1960-1990s. You wouldn’t know this by the fiery rhetoric we’re subjected to, but at ground level you can see the effects.

Unfortunately, whenever an environmental subject is introduced, many Americans have already locked into a viewpoint, rather than stepping back, keeping an open mind, evaluating the issue on the evidence, and heeding theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, who said: “I’d rather have questions without answers than answers that can’t be questioned.” Questioning popular answers is how the environment has been, and continues to be, improved.