The Societal Benefits of Uncertainty/Queering Predictive Geomorphology (AGU 2020)

Uncertainty is almost uniformly protrayed as negative in present-day discussions and methods that increase certainty, such as numerical modeling and prediction, are hailed as necessary for future survival and success of human civilization. In this research, I push back on the Prediction Industrial Complex by investigating the negative impacts of prediction and the positive benefits of uncertainty. One step in this research project was critiquing the role of prediction in geomorphology in a talk at the 2020 Fall AGU meeting:

Queering Predictive Geomorphology

BT Werner, University of California - San Diego, Complex Systems Laboratory; Climate, Atmospheric Science and Physical Oceanography Division, La Jolla, CA, United States


Making a prediction is not a neutral act. Acts of prediction for what will happen and what might happen in various what-if scenarios are political in that they narrow the range of future possibilities for a landscape by enabling specific uses by those with the wealth and power to make use of predictions. A critical, scientific examination of the broader impacts of prediction in geomorphology is especially timely given the growing recognition of academia's complicity in societal anti-Blackness.

Queering is a grassroots and academic critical process that seeks to uncover the hidden and repressed structures and processes underlying normative behavior and institutions, as in the dependence of heteropatriarchy on the marginalization of homosexuality and other minoritized sexualities and genders (Foucault, Rich, Puar, Muñoz, Ferguson, Butler and many others). In the 2003 book Prediction in Geomorphology, the authors (including myself) largely accept implicitly and uncritically the notion that prediction is desirable or neutral. The primary tension running throughout the book pits a process of discovering and understanding the dominant processes operating on a landscape against numerical modeling and quantitative measurements, with which predictions of varying accuracy might be made (~ a Feyerabend vs. Popper dichotomy).

I argue that this tension obscures longer-time-scale dynamical processes connecting geomorphologists making predictions to societal structures governed by a heteropatriarchal perspective that landscapes are to be manipulated, dominated and protected for particular purposes. The impacts of prediction on landscapes, which include linearization, dissipation reduction and enhanced instability, are explored using a dynamical analysis and a meta-model in which predictive, model-making geomorphologists are key agents.

Using this critical dynamical analysis as a foundation, I describe an alternate flavor of the science of geomorphology, a more grounded homo to predictive geomorphology's hetero. Subversive Geomorphology places the geomorphologist within a larger societal system and seeks to leverage that position to undermine structures that foreclose futures and instead open up a broader array of possible futures for landscapes and those who inhabit them.

RECORDED TALK (mp4 15 minutes slides+voice, 143MB): Click here to download.

SLIDES FROM LIVE SESSION (pdf): Click here to download.

'SCRIPT' FROM LIVE SESSION (pdf): Click here to download.