Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Global Warming and Scientific Uncertainty

Recently with the global warming issue getting hotter and hotter, a term which is being used and misused a lot to prove or mostly disprove the global warming concept is "Scientific Uncertainty." This term has been in use in the scientific world ever since scientist started to predict anything. Mathematical models are very popular tools to simulate most of the physical processes. These simulations are conducted to predict how a system will behave in future under different conditions. Now, these predictions always have some amount of uncertainty in them and it is very different than being wrong or inaccurate. There are several reasons for this uncertainty but the major reasons can be classified as knowledge uncertainty and stochastic variability. The knowledge uncertainty is due to the improper understanding of the system and stochastic variability is the natural property of the system being modeled.

The knowledge uncertainty can be decreased with improved understanding of the system, whereas stochastic variability can only be quantified. In the Department of Biological Systems Engineering, we work on several hydrologic and water quality models. The predictions from all of these models have some inherent uncertainty due to above stated reasons. The scientific community acknowledges this uncertainty and a lot of research are conducted to reduce it and/or quantify it. The truth however is that a scientist, especially working with natural systems, cannot take into account all possible reasons of uncertainty. In spite of this uncertainty in predictions from these models, these predictions are widely used. For example, the predictions from hydrologic models are used in designing hydraulic structures, the predictions from water quality models are used in preparing watershed management plans and so forth. The hydraulic structures help in water management, flood control, water supply and so forth. Watershed management plans help in reduction of pollution, improved ecological conditions, increased productivity in watershed etc. If we start giving more thought to the uncertainty in modeling and stop building these structures and making plans, where would world be? As an example, if we had given more weight to the concept of scientific uncertainty than its worth then the waters in United States would be still be polluted.

Similarly, if we give more weight to uncertainty of ten, twenty or thirty percent in the predictions of global warming then we will miss the big picture। The truth is "Globe is Warming," and there are higher chances of humans to be responsible for that. I would go for that higher chance and act as if I am responsible for Global Warming, and I need to fix it no matter how miniscule my effect may be. Moreover, whatever needs to be done to reduce our carbon footprint in nature falls in the purview of common sense as well. Doesn't it?


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