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Book Review: “Numbers Rule Your World” by Kaiser Fung

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I am working in a statistically inclined workgroup at the University of Stuttgart, hence the title of the book naturally attracted me. Kaiser Fung tells stories in five chapters in his book “Numbers Rule Your World: The Hidden Influence of Probabilities and Statistics on Everything You Do” on the daily use of statistics. By “daily use” I mean the use in settings or for cases that are directly applicable or even influence our daily lives.

What are examples of such stories? People across the USA got sick, and it was unclear why. How do you find out what the source of the illness is? How can you find out, that the source was one spinach field in California? If you live in a city, and you rely daily on driving cars to get to work, you would be quite happy to know that somebody is making sure that your travel time is as short as possible, right? How is that travel time minimized?

When teaching statistics or subjects with statistical basis, I find that newcomers to the field of statistics, or even people who don’t use statistics on a regular basis are not used to “statistical thinking”. This lack of use or lack of being used to frequently results in hesitation against using or even in refuse to use statistics. Hence I think hearing about those very applied stories helps a lot for getting used to statistics. “Statistical Thinking” is a term actually used by Kaiser Fung when he explains why he wanted to tell these stories.

Particularly, there are two topics that play a significant role in Kaiser Fung’s stories which I want to expand on in two upcoming posts:

• what problems arise when dealing with magnitudes of extreme (weather) events
• statistical testing tends to be an unliked topic, but one of Kaiser Fung’s stories puts a current and rather interesting perspective onto testing: how do you find out if somebody has used substances that increase his or her physical ability when doing sports. Especially, Kaiser Fung explained in great depth the issues of “false positives” and “false negatives”.

Before I will expand on these two issues, let me tell you that I really loved reading those stories. They are well written, I think well understandable for somebody who is not experienced or even trained in “statistical thinking”. Finally, a big plus is a longer than normal “conclusions” section, where Kaiser Fung tries to put the underlying basic thoughts of each story into almost all the other stories’ context.

Written by Claus

May 1st, 2010 at 11:26 am

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Bottlemania

This is the first book review at planetwater.org. The title of the book reviewed is “Bottlemania” (hard copy, paperback) and was written by Elizabeth Royte who was so nice to provide me with a copy of her work. Please feel free to check out her excellent blog “Waste Water Whatever” on current water-related issues, as well as the website accompanying the book.

Bottlemania is a great and comprehensive even though brief introduction to the problems related to drinking water supply in general, and to the problems related to bottled water in particular — according to the Times, a somewhat current problem. Consequently Elizabeth Royte tells two interwoven stories in Bottlemania. Let’s call one story “Local Water”, because it is about the drinking water situation in a small town in the state of Maine, USA. In that town, a private company (more info here) wants and gets drinking water from the same source, the same aquifer, as is used for public supply. Subsequently, this company fills the water into bottles and sells them for huge profits leaving the town with a number of problems. As the story of Local Water unfolds, Elizabeth tells a second story, the story of drinking water supply in general. Let’s call this second story “Global Water”. Before getting into the two stories of Local and Global Water, Elizabeth sets a few terms which need to be made clear when talking about drinking water:

Drinking Water

If you think about the water you drink, the first thoughts should be about making sure that there is enough water available and about making sure that the water that is available meets certain quality standards. Certainly there shouldn’t be contaminants in drinking water. Deciding if there is contamination in drinking water is not always easy, since there are “emerging contaminants” which are not regularly tested for or whose long-term effects on human bodies are unknown.

A second criterion of drinking water are its sources. The two classic sources of drinking water is groundwater or surface water. After the quality of the water is checked and improved by treatment if necessary, the water is pumped through water mains to the user or is filled into bottles and sold. However, other possibilities exist nowadays: Some companies take groundwater, surface water, or even tap water whose quality is really good, and remove all mineral or other content from the water, just to put an individual mixture of minerals later back into the water before it is bottled and sold. The most common examples for such water are the ones sold by Coca Cola or Pepsi. Technically, it’s possible to remove literally all contents of water except hydrogen and oxygen. Hence it’s possible to make drinking water out of effluents of wastewater treatment plants. Elizabeth Royte gets back to this option at the end of her book, and so will I at the end of this review.

A final criterium for drinking water is its taste: taste comprises the degree of bubbles water contains, its carbon content and mineral content, its “freshness”, and possibly other criteria.

Problems

In “Local Water”, problems start to arise when private wells used for bottling water tap into the same resource as other wells used for public supply for the people in the vicinity. This is not an exception, but usually the case. If there are competitors for a limited resource, the competitors have to prove who is taking how much of the resource and from where.

Bottlemania

The problems that become so evident at the local scale are generalized throughout the book for a bigger scale:

“I’m really starting to think about this whole water thing as an environmental justice issue. Nestlé is pretending they’re small and local” — indeed, Poland Spring’s regional identification is essential to its popularity: its slogan is “What it means to be from Maine” — “but they’re indifferent to the needs of people they’re affecting. It’s a corporation versus individuals, real people and local communities.”

Legal issues are one type of problems. There are also social, political, technical, economical, as well as health-related problems. I can’t list them all here, but Elizabeth Royte does a wonderful job in explaining them and putting them into context with each other. I’m just going to mention one aspect laid out in Bottlemania: advertisement, because as an engineer I am not trained to acknowledge the power of advertisement; nevertheless, the points Elizabeth makes are a great example of how powerful advertisement seems to be, how it can influence society. Elizabeth explains that advertisers have somehow achieved in the US that bottled water now has an image of being pure (as if tap water wasn’t pure) and being something for the individual. Carrying a bottle with you seems to be so important, that Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Inc., used to have a bottle with him on stage while presenting new products. Where does that leave society? The Romans spent a lot of effort to have public fountains running in the city which provide drinking water for everyone, including slaves. Where have the water fountains gone? What does it mean for society, if people carry their individual, expensive bottle of water? Even more, that bottle, after it is empty, causes more problems, such as storage of the waste and leaching contaminants out of the waste. Sure, drinking enough is important, but can there be too much drinking? Drinking when you were thirsty has worked well enough in the past.

Solutions

Throughout the book a lot of effort is undertaken to explain the problems related to drinking water. Towards the end, Elizabeth tries hard to come up with suggestions for solutions to all these problems. Elizabeth recommends to pay more for tap water, to impose a tax for bottled water, and to drink re-purified water (which means drinking wastewater that has been engineered to fulfill drinking water standards).

I think these are good and necessary proposed actions. As an engineer I would have to agree that any type of water theoretically can be treated and it would afterwards meet regulations. However, as a human being, I am not sure if any regulation and any treatment system built to match that regulation could treat every imaginable contamination. And even if, I am not sure if I would like to drink such an engineered water. Why not save the money and equipment and instead make sure that there is enough drinkable water in the water cycle? Why not undertake some efforts to protect the zones that are used to extract water for drinking purposes?

Thoughts on Environmental Modelling

I want to point out some of Elizabeth’s thoughts related to environmental modelling, because they relate very much to my daily work. As mentioned before in this review, problems start to arise when private wells used for bottling water tap into the same resource as other wells used for public supply for the people in the vicinity. In such cases,

… it’s extremely difficult to prove without a doubt that groundwater pumping [of a bottling company] has dried up a well, river, or wetland. It’s easy to blame drought, another pumper, beavers, a snowless winter, or anything at all. Wells and ponds dry up even when there’s no commercial extraction. […] “It’s classic defense — you can’t prove a proximate cause”

For the environmental engineers and hydrogeologists, this is not a new dilemma. However, Elizabeth Royte has some interesting thoughts: The necessary predictions are based on (numerical) models, which need data because those models are made to mimic “reality”. She points out very strongly that even with a lot of data such models remain a representation of reality, but can never be identical to reality. Hence, the predictions based on models can never be taken as certain predictions of what is going to happen in reality. That is why I think it is necessary to quantify the uncertainties in numerical models. This should not be news to professional environmental modellers, but I think Elizabeth puts it nicely and clearly:

For months after the pump test, the hydrologic team will continue to measure stream depth and flow rates, plugging real numbers into their computer model. In theory, the more numbers that go in, the stronger the model. But still, a model isn’t reality. No hydrogeologist can say with absolute certainty what this magnitude of extraction will mean for the environment years or even decades into the future. (And attorneys don’t like to take cases that depend on proof ten years down the road.) The literature of hydrogeologic modelling is peppered with such words as optimization, probabilistic, and conceptual. And the history of dried-up springs and salt water seeping into sweet water is littered with models that predicted adequate flow.

References

Here are some links to books that sounded somewhat intersting which were used by Elizabeth Royte for Bottlemania:

This movie is mentioned numerous times: Thirst: Fighting the Corporate Theft of Our Water

My Thoughts

As a trained hydrogeologist, the fact that the issues described in Bottlemania exist, is nothing new to me and neither are the related technical aspects. What I found really interesting is how Elizabeth Royte explains all the other problems besides the technical ones, like legal, political, economical, or health related problems. Sometimes, it’s important to see where and how the niche you’re in relates to the rest of the world! I totally agree with the reviewer at the New York Times:

By the time I finished “Bottlemania” I thought twice about drinking any water. Among the risks: arsenic, gasoline additives, 82 different pharmaceuticals, fertilizer runoff sufficient to raise nitrate levels so that Iowa communities issue “blue baby” alerts. […] The privatization of pristine water is part of a larger story, a tragic failure to steward our shared destiny. And if you think buying water will protect you, Royte points out that it too is loosely regulated. And there is more — the dangers of pipes and of plastic bottles, the hazards of filters, and yes, that “toilet to tap” issue. But there is slim comfort: Royte says we don’t really need to drink eight glasses of water a day. Drink when you’re thirsty, an expert says. That’s refreshing.

Written by Claus

July 1st, 2009 at 3:05 pm

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