Preposterous Universe

Tuesday, March 15, 2005
Hard numbers

George Musser is an occasional Preposterous commenter, and in his spare time is also an editor at Scientific American. Lacking a blog of his own, he recently contributed to SciAm Perspectives, a blog by Scientific American editors. (Bet you didn't even know they had a blog, did you?)

George writes about his efforts to follow up on a provocative number he found in the January 8th Economist: "The United States Geological Survey reckons that the economic losses from natural disasters in the 1990s could have been reduced by $280 billion by investing just one-seventh of that sum in such measures [as planting trees, building dikes, and strengthening houses]." That's a lot of money we could save! But what happens when you try to chase down the source of the claim?
With the written trail having grown cold, I turned to several experts on disaster preparedness, at USGS and elsewhere, and started going down a chain of contacts. It took nearly a month to reach the conclusion that no such report exists, at least not in the collection of any of the researchers who would have been involved in preparing it. The numbers, instead, appear to have come from a Munich Reinsurance report and it is not at all clear that they prove what they were later claimed to prove.
The sad but unsurprising lesson being that you can't believe everything you read. This is the unfortunate side of the speed with which "memes" can spread in our hyperconnected world -- it's much easier to make an exaggerated claim and get it out there into the meme pool than it is to stamp it out once it's public. And obviously, this is far from the most pernicious example.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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