Unreliable Eco Forecasts Produce Unnecessary Fear
By Robert V. Thomann
Robert V. Thomann is currently Professor Emeritus of Environmental Engineering at Manhattan College, Bronx, NY. He was ordained in 1977 as a permanent deacon for the Archdiocese of Newark and has ministered at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Ridgewood, New Jersey. He holds a Doctor of Ministry from Fordham University (2011), a Master’s in Systematic Theology from Seton Hall University (2007), a Ph.D. in Oceanography from New York University (1963), and a Master’s in Civil Engineering from NYU (1960). He is an emeritus member of the National Academy of Engineering and has published extensively in environmental engineering and science.
During this latest period of heightened environmental interest given by a new round of international conferences, hoped for treaties and now also a papal encyclical, there is a rather curious embrace of the predictions of environmental science as forecasts that are to be believed, virtually at face value. “Studies show…”, “predictions indicate…”, “the established science reveals…” quickly place one in a defensive position. Who is in a position to question or reject this science? In the face of a constant call to religiously accept projections and expected outcomes, the only choice seems to be a believing embrace, a clasping of a form of environmental ideology.
This is a curious embrace since our culture is so demanding of evidence and rigorous justification of almost everything else. In fact, the current crisis of faith in a Creator God or in God as Savior or in a God as life-giving Spirit results heavily from a widespread inability to accept what one cannot see or demonstrate through human reason and understanding. Yet we seem to readily accept a wide range of environmental predictions.
We normally base our acceptance on verification of previous predictions; hence, our measure of at least some trust in daily weather predictions. Yet upon reflection, this embrace is not so curious since it is a response out of fear of the consequences of projections that are often perceived as dire. But predictive environmental science is not a kind of laboratory science that permits an acceptable verification of scientific hypotheses. Rather the science of environmental prediction has a nature that is inherently weak and as such is easily prone to misuse and inadvertent faulty representation. Why is this so? What is it that sets environmental science and its associated predictions apart by its very nature?
The management of environmental resources is ultimately given by a framework that seeks to have the maximum difference between the benefits from some proposed action and the costs associated with its control. This objective is deceptively simplistic in its obviousness. Of course, we want to have the benefits, that is, the positive results of our actions outweigh the costs, that is, the negative effects of an environmental control program. More than that, instinctively, we would want the benefits to not just be bigger than the costs but to be maximally better than the costs. But what is central to this desire is that the entire setting is predictive in nature; that is, the “benefits” are what we anticipate, expect, hope for and predict to occur if we in fact complete the environmental project. The “costs” are what we anticipate to be borne by an industry, a city or the population as a result of the action.
In both cases, the benefits and the costs of necessity need to be estimated or predicted simply because the control program has not yet been carried out to completion. In order to provide some basis for assessing the effectiveness or non-effectiveness of differing actions, analyses of the natural and social consequences are conducted using computer models of greatly varying levels of complexity. These models need to be calibrated and verified by comparing forecasts to observed conditions. There are however some key principles that should be followed.
Principles of Sound Environmental Science
We can identify four principles underlying any science that attempts to predict accurate outcomes. The science should be:
- Believable: an analysis framework that is defensible through natural and social theory; such defensibility being verified and attested to by relevant scholars and practitioners,
- Testable: reproducible in an experimental sense; that is, changes can be made in key factors, results measured and compared to theory and then corroborated by a repeat of the experiment,
- Observable; measurements can be made of the present and future environmental reality,
- Verifiable: after some control action is taken, observations can be made to test the veracity of the predictions.