Our “Folly of Prediction” podcast made these basic points:
Fact: Human beings love to predict the future.
Fact: Human beings are not very good at predicting the future.
Fact: Because the incentives to predict are quite imperfect — bad predictions are rarely punished — this situation is unlikely to change.
A couple of recent cases in point:
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted a particularly bad Atlantic hurricane season this year but, thankfully, were wrong, as noted by Dan Amira in New York magazine. It is hard to imagine that many people are unhappy about that.
Very interesting backgrounder on Stephen Salter, the British scientist who, in the course of trying to turn ocean waves into electric power, discovered a potential way to prevent, or at least limit, the impact of hurricanes:
Devastating tropical storms of the kind that battered the U.S. last week could be weakened and rendered less deadly using a simple and cheap technology based on a surprising component – old car tyres.
One of Britain’s leading marine engineers, Stephen Salter, emeritus professor of engineering design at Edinburgh university and a global pioneer of wave power research, has patented with Microsoft billionaires Bill Gates and Nathan Myhrvold the idea of using thousands of tyres lashed together to support giant plastic tubes which extend 100m deep into the ocean.
Wave action on the ocean surface would force warm surface water down into the deeper ocean. If non-return valves were used, he says, the result would be to mix the waters and cool the surface temperature of the ocean to under 26.5C, the critical temperature at which hurricanes form.
Miguel Sancho, a senior producer with ABC’s 20/20, writes in with a question I’ve often wondered myself but cannot answer. Can you?
A thought – every hurricane season we see headlines ascribing blame for lives lost on a given storm. “Hurricane Irene Blamed for Five Deaths in North Carolina,” etc. Certainly when people drown, are killed by floating debris, or die because they can’t make it to the hospital, the statistic sounds logical. But it occurred to me that perhaps, in the interests of fairness and accuracy, we should also give Hurricanes “credit” for lives not lost thanks to the interruption of normal human activity. How many homicides, vehicular fatalities, or drug overdoses didn’t happen [last] week in New Orleans, for example, because people were otherwise occupied protecting themselves from Hurricane Isaac? Just wondering if anyone has ever studied this, comparing average morbidity rates in hurricane zones to the stats during the times when hurricanes roll through.
This is not to suggest that overall, hurricanes are a social good. Bastiat’s broken-windows fallacy and all that. But perhaps in this one particular metric, we aren’t seeing the whole picture.
Please don’t judge Sancho’s observation as insensitive to the death and destruction caused by the hurricane itself. I can assure you he is not.
Parts of the East Coast are still recovering from the destruction of Hurricane Irene. The storm wreaked havoc, causing more than 40 deaths and billions of dollars in damages. One thing that is striking about hurricanes is that, even after years of study, all we really know how to do is deal with the symptoms; we don’t actually have a way to treat the disease itself.
So what if there were a hurricane “vaccine”? Read More »
By last Friday, New York City was in full-on hurricane panic mode. Public transportation was scheduled for a Saturday shut down, stores were selling out of batteries and flashlights, windows were being taped, sandbags stacked; three-hundred and seventy thousand people were evacuated. This was going to be bad, the local media kept telling us. Really, really bad. Even the number-crunching, data-driven Nate Silver got in on the action, posting an extensive piece on his fivethirtyeight blog that if Hurricane Irene got close enough to New York City, it could be the costliest natural disaster ever. And by Friday, it was heading straight for the Big Apple.
By midnight on Saturday, things (in the words of NBC anchor Brian Williams) were “getting a bit sporty” in NYC. Wind was gusting, rain was coming sideways. The streets were empty, save for dozens of intrepid local TV news reporters deployed throughout the city, standing ready to report on the impending damage. Which, remember, was going to be bad.
The center of Irene hit New York around 9am Sunday. Winds reached 65 mph, the strongest in 25 years. By 10 am, the worst was over. No hurricane-shattered skyscraper windows, no preemptive power outages, no real flooding to speak of. The general tone among New Yorkers Sunday morning was, “That’s it?” But to watch the local TV news on Sunday, the storm had been epic. Rather than call in their battalion of reporters stationed around the area, the NYC TV news media kept reporting. All day. Read More »
A weird week in New York City is only getting weirder. On Tuesday, for the first time since 1884, earthquake tremors were felt in the Big Apple; which, not surprisingly, came with no warning from earthquake prognosticators. Now, NYC is bracing for its first hurricane since 1985. (Any readers game for trying to calculate the odds of NYC getting hit by an earthquake and a hurricane in the same week, I’d love to see your estimates.) As I write, I’m watching out my window as people in the building across the street tape their windows. Which reminds me, I need duct tape!
Now that the MTA has announced that all NYC public transportation will be shut down beginning on noon Saturday, people are out in force doing some last minute hurricane shopping. So we decided to venture out and do a little reporting on what’s left, and what’s not. Read More »
A new study argues that the moisture levels and landscapes of cities influence hurricane movements. Professor Johnny Chan’s research team claims that “cities impose greater friction on the swirling flow because of the tall buildings . . . tropical cyclones tend to be ‘attracted’ towards areas of higher friction.” Read More »
Hurricane Ike has been a disaster for Texas (although thankfully Austin escaped essentially unscathed), and it has had an interesting side effect on me. One of the treats of being in Europe is the ability to buy Cuban cigars, particularly Cohibas, which are, in my view, the best cigars in the world. Ike hit Cuba […] Read More »