Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Understand flood probability, don't mock it

And again, The Times-Picayune takes a whack at understanding and explaining this little bit of mathematics that has the power to doom us all. Wednesday’s paper includes a snarky story titled “Corps study presents 3 options for canals.”

I say “snarky” because of sentences such as this:

“The corps has committed to providing the region with protection from flooding created by a 100-year hurricane, which is obtusely defined as a storm with a 1-in-100 chance of occurring in any given year.”

Regular readers of this blog—indeed, anyone who is around me for more than ten minutes—will know of my passion on the topic of level of protection.

I think it is vital that we discuss how much protection we have and how much we are getting from the government, in real terms. I abhor the use of misleading language and euphemisms, and I maintain that higher levels of protection are warranted when lives are at stake.

I said as much in the pages of this same newspaper.

The Times-Picayune, on the other hand, seems to be more cavalier on the subject. They adore the “100-year” colloquialism and in this edition slur the accurate description of the exceedence probability.

They say such talk is “obtuse.”

Just to be precise, I looked up the definition of “obtuse.” According to Merriam-Webster online, it is defined as, “lacking sharpness or quickness of sensibility or intellect” and “not clear or precise in thought or expression.” An online thesaurus provides these synonyms: dull-witted, simple-minded, imperceptive, thickheaded, stupid and slow. The antonym of obtuse is given as “intelligent.”

Now this seems to me to be completely upside-down. Calling the “1-percent-per-year event” a “100-year hurricane” is clearly less precise. I’m sure we’ve all met people who have incorrectly concluded that the so-called “100-year hurricane” can only happen once per century. This is the real danger of “dumbing down” important information.

And I think it is obvious to even the casual observer that what should be called “obtuse” is the newspaper’s simple-minded use of language that is neither clear nor precise.

But here is what is even more troubling: the apparent attitude of The Times-Picayune that its readers are too stupid and slow to understand what a 1 percent chance per year means.

Yes, of course it is easier conversationally to say “100-year storm” than it is to say “the storm surge with a 1 percent chance of exceedence in a given year.” I do it myself. And what The Times-Picayune has done for many months is use the convenient colloquialism throughout its reporting while providing the accurate description at least once in each article.

But in this instance, the newspaper has seen fit to deride the valid, scientific explanation. They indicate their disapproval, perhaps even mockery, of the intelligent discussion of a grave issue.

Thus they are not merely being non-technical. They are not simply making a common mistake in terminology. No, they are definitely taking sides. They are taking the editorial position that people who seek to communicate with clarity and precision are in fact ineffective and lacking sensibility and intellect.

This at a time when the conversation should be elevated and the population educated about the reality of living in the Crescent City. Now is the time to expand our knowledge and understanding of flood probabilities, not mock it. Shame on The Times-Picayune!

To use the example of the Netherlands, all schoolchildren learn the history of their nation’s struggles with the sea. They are taught about the failures and successes, they are made aware of what the risks are and what is at risk. Is this broad educational program an integral part of their success in building and maintaining a world-class flood protection system? I would say it is.

I will continue to blog and give public presentations on this topic, and I would welcome the cooperation of all who share this belief that an informed citizenry is an empowered and engaged citizenry.


Vicky said...

Education? Not a priority. Flood prevention would be a good topic to cover in our local schools. I was reading in Tikkun about Jena being a wonderful opportunity to teach about racism in the schools, but a wasted opportunity. Why is it so difficult to incorporate these real issues in education? Well...I guess we can't even agree about teaching something as simple as sex education. The only conclusion our leaders have come up with is to teach abstinence, which has been proven to work SO well.

Editor B said...

Well put. Perhaps a letter to the editor is in order?

Ashley said...

I still remember the WKRP episode where Les Nessman was called "obtuse". He looked it up: "blunt, rounded at the free end".

You are indeed correct, sir. Stick it to them.

mominem said...

I think some of their writers are obtuse and ignorant as well. You'd think that some of them might actually want to know something about what they are writing about.

Keep on pluggin away, maybe something will sink in.

Marco said...

Tell it right Tim.