Tastes like shoddy engineeringUPDATE: National Geographic has taken down the video of Bob Bea putting gutter water into his mouth. The story remains at their web page, and the link button is still there, but it links to a different video now. Perhaps they realized how foolish and dangerous it is to taste gutter water, and perhaps they understand how irresponsible it is, especially for a man of science and someone who claims to be an engineer, to set such a poor example. The edited story is here.
The last few days have not been good for those of us working to protect New Orleans from future disaster.
First, we get college professor Bob Bea, a man who purports to believe in the scientific method and rational engineering, performing a “taste test” of gutter water as an alleged engineering assessment of a nearby floodwall.
I am not making this up. Bea bent over and dipped his fingers into a puddle of water at the edge of the roadway and put them into his mouth—twice—in order to determine the salinity of the water. He then announced he had determined, by the taste, that the water had come from the nearby Industrial Canal. Bea concluded that the newly constructed wall in the Lower Ninth Ward was being undermined and was thus doomed to failure.
It’s all on the video from National Geographic News.
Bea did not indicate what ASTM standard he used to perform the taste test. Neither did he say when was the last time his tongue had been calibrated for salinity testing. But nonetheless, here he is, on video, putting dirty, perhaps biologically infested gutter water into his mouth.
Shame on Bea! What kind of scientist performs taste tests on dirty water? What kind of engineer sets such a poor example by putting potentially disease-filled water into his mouth? Notice in the video that the reporter immediately follows Bea’s despicable example. Let’s hope this does not inspire people around New Orleans to taste the gutter water near their homes as they mimic this alleged expert.
Second, we have John Barry, a member of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority East board, repeating--as if it were well-established science--the unfounded but popular claim that a mile of marsh will “absorb” a foot of hurricane storm surge.
Barry wrote an excellent piece in The Washington Post this week about why we need New Orleans, and why America owes its brothers and sisters at the mouth of the Mississippi River the best hurricane protection we can afford.
He starts off on scientifically solid ground, recounting how the river built south Louisiana with sediment from the north. Barry goes on to explain how the river no longer carries the mud necessary to continue its work.
But then he repeats the myth of marsh as hurricane protection, stating as fact that “Each land mile over which a hurricane travels absorbs roughly a foot of storm surge.”
The best research to date indicates that each mile over land reduces a hurricane storm surge by about 3 inches. And mind you, even this is really not all that conclusive—it could be much less.
Why is this important? Why would I want to knock Bea and Barry, who are obviously allies of New Orleans and who are out there fighting for a safer future for us?
Because the way I see it, shoddy science and ill-considered engineering are what got us into this mess in the first place. We don’t need any more of that.
If we’re going to have a safe and secure future, we have to proceed with the best information, the most accurate and scientifically valid information available. We need engineers and scientists to wear out their pencils working on this problem, and we need them to develop a rational, methodical plan to get us where we need to be.
What we don’t need is rumors, myths, new-age pseudo-science, and stunts. And unfortunately, that’s what we recently got from Bea and, to a lesser extent, Barry.
Let’s hope Bea doesn’t contract dysentery, and let’s hope he starts to act more like an engineer and less like a carnival side show act.