A gentle (and constructive) rebuke from a friend

“It is better to heed a wise man’s rebuke than to listen to the song of fools.”                  Ecclesiastes 7:5 (NIV)

Yesterday, Roger Pielke, Jr. commented as gently as he could about a factual error in my post on disaster losses. [You can find his comment there.]

I’d asserted in the post that disaster losses were rising more rapidly than the world’s GDP. Roger called my attention to a very careful analysis published by Eric Neumayer and Fabian Barthel in the journal Global Environmental Change (February 2011) which concluded the opposite. They found no statistically significant evidence that economic losses were rising more rapidly than GDP, either globally or when examined region by region.  I published Roger’s comment as quickly as I could and thanked him for it.

But this error — that natural disaster losses are rising more rapidly than GDP – is one I’ve made more than once. And the nature of the error is more a misstatement of fact than it is an opinion (for the distinction and the implications of this, check out the Darwin quote on the homepage of the blog, and my first post.

For that reason, I didn’t want Roger’s comment and my response to be buried in the comments section. Hence today’s quick post, to give the Neumayer and Barthel a little of the exposure it deserves.

A couple of quick comments about that paper and its conclusions. First, the authors were focused on whether careful analysis would cull out a climate-change signal. They were unable to do so. Given the rapid growth in population and property exposure along coastlines and other hazard-prone areas, it will likely prove difficult to see any such signal for some time to come.

Second, the fact that the rise in disaster losses is only matching the growth in GDP is no cause for complacency. The reality is that disaster losses of any amount signal non-sustainability. [Remember that pointy-headed discussion about the second law of thermodynamics and the inexorable rise of disorder in the universe?] Society’s goal should be to drive these losses down as a fraction of GDP. As also stated in this blog more than once, this is precisely what the aviation community does. That’s why yesterday’s crash of a jet charter flight carrying a hockey team in Russia was tragic but increasingly rare, while the flooding throughout the eastern United States and dangerous wildfires in the south and southwest are tragic and all-too familiar and repetitive. [A sidenote; the headline on the Russian jet crash link mentions the search for the flight recorder. There are some efforts here in the United States to learn from experience with respect to so-called natural hazards. I hope to be saying more about those perhaps as early as next week.]

But for now…back to the false fact. Thank you, Roger, for taking the time to read the post in the first place…and then taking the time to comment. You had to weigh that against the opportunity to do other things!

This is not the first time over the past year that I’ve been confronted with a factual error; see  my mistake! Posted back on May 11. Unfortunately, if I keep going, it won’t be the last.

Until next time….

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2 Responses to A gentle (and constructive) rebuke from a friend

  1. Tim Cohn says:

    Bill, no need for self-flagellation. Roger pointed out a factual error and you quickly and gracefully acknowledged and corrected it; no harm done.

    This episode makes me wonder again if Darwin was right about false facts being more injurious than false views. In a healthy scientific environment, both get identified quickly and dealt with — the scientific method works well in this situation. In a less healthy (i.e. more contentious) environment, however, it is not clear at all what will happen. For example, what I observe in climate science is that false views persist well past the time when factual issues have been settled. Apparently the “invisible hand” of “salutary pleasure in proving their falseness” does not, by itself, ensure that misguided individuals correct their views.

    • William Hooke says:

      Wow.
      Well said, Tim. I’m going to lose sleep over that one! Viewed through today’s lens, Darwin was living on a different planet.

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