Black Swans, Wicked Problems, and Scientific Thinking in Hydrology

Victor R. Baker, Regents’ Professor of Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences

Abstract for Weekly Colloquium on Thursday, March 2, 2017 at 4 pm in Harshbarger 206 ~ Refreshments at 3:45 pm

Recent flooding disasters portend increasing challenges in dealing with “Black Swans” and “Wicked Problems.”  “Black Swans” are seemingly surprising extreme-impact events that exceed expected possibilities, and “Wicked Problems” are unique, seemingly endless questions without true or false answers, that get viewed from conflicting perspectives, and whose “solutions” lead to yet more wicked problems.

These issues are commonly associated with failures at achieving wise policy outcomes when science gets misconstrued as an authoritative method for fixing belief.  The use of abductive inference in scientific thinking, as a complement to the current overemphasis on inductive/deductive modes of inference, can provide the key element for achieving a kind of truly scientific thinking and societal engagement that can make progress on many issues of current societal concern, ultimately leading to improved pubic understanding and appropriate political action.   These are ultimately philosophical issues that are commonly alien to conventional scientific thinking.