Hurricane Katrina Lessons, Part I: Learning to Live With Scientific Uncertainty

Sheril and I are going to give the blog over to the subject of Hurricane Katrina and its legacy today, in honor (and in mourning) of the two year anniversary. We're going to try to focus on lessons learned in particular, and as this is my particular bailiwick, I'll likely be doing most of the posting. And so I'd like to start off with the central lesson that I think we can take away after two years of the post-Katrina hurricane-global warming debate: science doesn't confer certainty; but scientific uncertainty doesn't justify inaction, either.

I elaborate on these thoughts in much more detail in my latest "Storm Pundit" post at The Daily Green, which is actually an essay-style recap of how Katrina triggered a dramatic flare-up of debate over hurricanes and global warming, leading to much media attention and scientific argumentation but few clear answers. Here's an excerpt:

And so in the weeks and months following Katrina, the media and public demanded definitive answers about hurricanes and climate change that scientists, as a group, were simply unable to provide. Science never confers absolute certainty, and especially not on a subject as novel and complex as this one. The intense hurricanes of recent years -- including last week's Category 5 Hurricane Dean -- may or may not be a smoking gun for global warming. But the debate over them following Katrina teaches something very different: How (and how not) to navigate knotty science policy debates in which the underlying information is hardly definitive, and yet nevertheless of great consequence.

You can read the whole piece here. We will have more Hurricane Katrina lessons as the day progresses. In the meantime, though, a picture is more powerful than any number of words:

i-08a027587e51c308afd54ee5dc22cc6e-mooneykatrina.jpg

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Excellent way of putting it. Over the years I've had experiences on how the media, and even worse in litigation cases, either do not understand, or make it appear as a weakness. Uncertainty and variability are properties that we enjoy in science. In fact, is what keeps us in business.

By Gerardo Camilo (not verified) on 29 Aug 2007 #permalink

Chris,
"Science doesn't confer certainty; but scientific uncertainty doesn't justify inaction, either".
Do you think that the Bush Administration understands this?

"Science doesn't confer certainty; but scientific uncertainty doesn't justify inaction, either".
Do you think that the Bush Administration understands this?

I think that the administration understands the statement quite well - when it comes to issues like terrorism.

Emily,
Absolutely. Allow me to include a quote from Republican War on Science:

"In a 2001 letter to four Republican senators, President George W. Bush highlighted lingering scientific uncertainties as a reason to forestall action to cut carbon dioxide emissions, remarking on the 'incomplete state of scientific knowledge on the causes of, and solutions to, global climate change.' Yet Bush hardly abided by such stringent rules of evidence on other issues. In a caustic 2001 editorial, Scientific American compared Bush's approach to climate change with his support of ballistic missile defense, which most informed physicists doubt can perform its job adequately in current form due to technical shortcomings. 'In one case, the president invokes uncertainty; in the other, he ignores it,' noted the editorial. 'In both, he has come down against the scientific consensus.'"