We’re gonna need a bigger … data set: Shark attacks and wicked problems

Today’s episode will be a little different than most, we’re going to take a bit of a detour but stick with me and I promise, I’ll bring us back around to data science.

I’m going to take us back in time a little, back to the first time I watched what was to become my favorite movie, Jaws. It was the summer between 4th and 5th grade (probably way too young to be watching a movie about a killer shark) and I was at a sleepover where the next day, after being thoroughly terrified by this movie, we went to the beach where, wait for it, a shark had washed up on shore! Needless to say, I spent much of the rest of that summer playing in the dunes, BUT, it cemented in me an absolute fascination and, let’s be honest, fear of sharks.

So fast forward a couple of decades to this summer, I’m on my morning run through the Pennsylvania woods, far from any beach, and listening to my newest podcast obsession, “Réunion: Shark Attacks in Paradise,” which is about a series of unprecedented shark attacks on the French island of Réunion. All of a sudden, I hear the host mention “the totally fascinating academic journal Management Science.” That’s right, the INFORMS journal Management Science! He’s referring to an article by UC Berkeley professor Charles West Churchman titled “Wicked Problems” and proceeds to lay out the shark attacks on Reunion as a wicked problem! I literally stop dead in my track, I’m texting my coworkers, “The coolest thing ever just happened!” and of course, I keep bingeing the podcast. So needless to say, I am beyond excited to welcome Daniel Duane, award winning journalist and author, and host of my new favorite podcast, to talk about what exactly data science has to do with a series of shark attacks on a small island in the Indian Ocean.

I did a sort of simple calculation for the California coast, and I think what I came up with was this was the equivalent of having 125-150 attacks on the California coast in a single summer and 50 fatalities, just to sort of process the impact on the public mind. I think we’d be calling in the Navy SEALS! I don’t think American life would just say, “Wow, 50 shark attacks, ok well cool! Let’s just shut all the beaches in all of California. So that gives you an idea, so then this raises the question for this society of, “How do we make sense of this?” And that’s kind of what I meant about this being a case study. The real case study here – yes, there is a case study about sharks – but there’s also a case study in a society facing a very confusing and complicated environmental crisis.

Interviewed this episode:

Daniel Duane

Award winning journalist and author

Daniel Duane is the author two novels and four books of non-fiction, including the memoir Caught Inside: A Surfer’s Year on the California Coast. He hosts the Sony Music podcast Reunion: Shark Attacks in Paradise, a co-production of HyperObject Industries and Little Everywhere. Duane has written journalism about everything from politics and food to rock-climbing and social justice, and for publications ranging from The New York Times Magazine to Wired, GQ, Esquire, Outside, and Bon Appetit. Duane won a 2012 National Magazine Award for an article about cooking with Chef Thomas Keller and has twice been a finalist for a James Beard Award. Duane holds a PhD in American Literature from UC Santa Cruz and has taught writing for the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference, University of California Santa Cruz, and the MFA program at San Francisco State University. He lives in San Francisco with his wife, the writer Elizabeth Weil, and their two daughters.

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