Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Castles in the Air

Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal continues to tout his sand berm scheme as a panacea for stopping the invasion of the Louisiana coastline by the BP/Halliburton Catastrophe. Others disagree with his assessment, and the evidence to date appears to bear them out. I'll leave it to the experts to debate the merits of the berms -- although Jindal scorns scientific expertise in particular -- but the entire notion has had a castles-in-the-air aura about it from the get-go.

Software development (which I do know something about) is not civil engineering, but I'd bet an investment banker's bonus that they share two key principles when it comes to scheduling and delivering:
  1. Engineers will provide an overly optimistic delivery date based on confidence in their skills (a confidence that, in my experience, is usually justifiable), a strong desire to develop the project, and the natural optimism that infuses the beginning of any endeavor. However, all of this inevitably results in initial schedule estimates that to succeed require near perfect execution with few unanticipated impediments.
  2. If the project has never been tried -- and on this scale, the berms have not been -- then all bets are off, and I mean all bets. The end result, if the project actually reaches completion, is as likely to be a counterproductive boondoggle as it is to accomplish anything positive. And in any case, it will not live up to its advance billing because the decision-makers will cut corners to avoid further delay.
The optimism of the engineers proposing the project is understandable: It's the nature of the beast. But Boob Bob Jindal has an obligation to be skeptical, to drill down (as it were) on the project milestones, to understand the pitfalls and push the engineers to prepare for them, to seek outside expertise, and -- above all -- to inject a note of realism into the proceedings. On these counts, he has failed dismally (although failure implies a degree of effort not evident in Boob Bob's approach to this project).

It's not like he hasn't been warned. Marine scientist Dr. Len Bahr has publicly questioned Jindal's the berm strategy on nine grounds:
  1. Absence of science
  2. Questionable justification
  3. Opportunity cost
  4. Environmental cost
  5. Changes to natural flow regime: A technical argument that the berms could well suck oil into the estuaries they are designed to protect
  6. Lengthy construction time
  7. Fragility
  8. Dubious benefits
  9. Better use of funds
Jindal originally estimated that the berms could be completed within six-month; now, I believe they are talking about nine months. No matter: This project is a minimum of two years out.

Jindal will blame delays on the federal bureaucracy as surely as a liberal governor would blame BP. But the project itself is always the primary source of delays; that, too, is the nature of the beast. In the case of the berms, the likely source of delay is predictable: Boob Bob's Glenn Beck-like disparagement of science will come back to haunt him and the Louisiana coast.

For a project like the berms, marine scientists and ecologists must play an instrumental role in helping the engineers identify and prepare for setbacks. Jindal has dismissed their concerns. When these concerns are inevitably realized, the engineers will have no contingency plan in place or expertise to fall back on. They'll be groping in the dark, with all of the missteps and delays that that implies.

By then, Boob Bob won't care much, as he'll be too busy running for president to worry about something as insignificant as sand berms.


Roy said...

Have you noticed that science is the bĂȘte noir of conservatives? Jindal pooh-poohs it regarding his berm brainstorm; the corporate shills diss it re: climate change; the anti-vaxxers dismiss the lack of scientific evidence to support their assertions (and in some cases a preponderance of evidence to the contrary); and of course the religious right trying to get creationism/intelligent design taught in high school science classes. The problem is that actual scientific research shows them up as either dumb hillbillies or corporate shills, and they can't have that.

K. said...

The scientific method doesn't make for the most well-chosen adversary, either. Just ask the Catholic Church. At the end of the day, it's like claiming that we're winning the war in Iraq despite the facts of battle. It's obviously futile and no one would ever...oh...

Darlene said...

Realism in politics? That's an oxymoron. After the passage of more of our tax dollars going down the rabbit hole in Afghanistan do you really think that a self serving politician like Jindal cares a fig for science? Whatever sounds good is all he will propose. The future of the Coast, the people dependent on it and science be damned.

K. said...

Plainly, he doesn't care one single Louisiana magnolia for science! But, then, science doesn't care about him, either. As many have said before me, facts are stubborn things and they always bring themselves to bear.

K. said...

His act is starting to wear thin with some people. Bob Marshall of the New Orleans Times-Picayune writes:

"That misinformation is in keeping with the governor's response to this disaster, which has often been a mixture of diversion, fur coat attitude and panic -- all of which is doing terrible long-term damage to our chances of survival on this starving delta."

Foxessa said...

In a faith-based 'system' science is just an opinion.

Like in politics and facts, in politics and science, facts and science are determined purely by ideology.

Which leads to the bridge falling down.

Didn't Swift write a novel about his?

Love, C.

Renegade Eye said...

They not only don't respect science. They disrespect history and logic as well.

They embrace conspiracy theory.

Renegade Eye said...

It looks like BP's fund for people's losses, is paid for by tax credits and selling off businesses.

K. said...

Foxessa: The scary thing about Jindal is that he's a Rhodes Scholar with degrees from Oxford and Brown with majors in political science, public policy, and biology. He entered Brown with a guaranteed place in its medical school. Meaning that he's nobody's fool and should have learned a healthy respect for science. Of course, one of the things about the smartest guy in the room is that he often doesn't respect anything or anybody.

Ren: Seems like I ran into a little of that recently at your blog!

tnlib said...

He might be the smartest guy in the room by education but he's first and foremost a politician and a Republican one at that.

K. said...

I figure that he believes in the berms or he wouldn't push so hard for them. But here's another smart guy engaging in BPTHink: He's thinking only about the advantages and doesn't want to know about the problems, which in this case appear to outweigh the advantages.

Again, it may not be moving faster than a speeding bullet, but every day the government's methodical approach -- which includes considering environmental concerns -- seems more and more the correct strategy. Fools rush in and all.

Anonymous said...

Doc Bahr best watch his mouth eh ? Don't they disappear professors and scientists who buck corporate policy in those parts. Especially when they're by sound scientific data that objectively demonstrates how corporate or corporate owned policies tend to be all bullshit that provide a smokescreen for profit making ?

K. said...

You bring up another good point. Apparently, the dredging business is quite a going concern in southern Louisiana. Guess who stands to benefit economically from constructing the berms?