Sunday, April 18, 2010

Finding Fault

“The grapevine reported that the California Institute of Technology
in Pasadena, home to the premier seismology laboratory in the area,
had ordered its employees to leave town. Underground water tables
were said to be dropping, a sign that the Big One was about to hit.

“Caltech received so many panicky telephone calls that seismologists
working for the university and the United States Geological Survey
called a press conference on Thursday to squelch the rumors.

"There's no reason to think that there's still some accelerating level of
stress" on the San Andreas, said Dr. Thomas Heaton, a seismologist at
the Geological Survey's Pasadena office.

“Dr. Heaton assured reporters that no one was predicting doom, no one
had been told to flee and no water tables had dropped. In any case,
he added, falling water levels are not known to be harbingers of
earthquakes. "You may have noticed that we're not able to predict
earthquakes," he said dryly. "And if we were, we'd certainly be
telling you."

--- New York Times, 1992.

I’d like to say in the 18 years since that story appeared we have
developed a healthy skepticism towards earthquake predictions.

But I’d be wrong.

This paper reported this past week that rumors spread like wildfire
on the Internet and via text messages about an impending earthquake,
triggering a rash of calls to Caltech, the U.S. Geological Survey and
the Pasadena Fire Department.

It was dismissed as a hoax. "It's a rumor that Caltech is predicting
a major earthquake and sent all employees home - not true," said Jon
Weiner, director of media relations at Caltech. "We can't predict
earthquakes, and we're not sending employees home."

So much for healthy skepticism.

The difference between now and 1992 is that rumors spread by nut jobs
now have an audience in the tens of millions thanks to the Internet,
texting and networking sites, the same folks who have given the world
unfettered access to political wackos, porn stars and spam.

Just to underscore the point: There was a rumor making the rounds on
the Internet several years back that Zero Population Growth
boobytrapped men's toilets with razors set to castrate the

I rest my case.

The quake rumor was reportedly spread on Twitter, a networking tool
whose seriousness of purpose is reflected in its name.
One such text message read, “WARNING: State of California has
released a statement that there is a possible 8.4 earthquake within
24hours. Pray, inform and be prepared. please forward this.”

An e-mail version went something like this: "My buddy's wife works at
the seismology dept. in L.A. and they called everyone in today and
said get your kids out of school and stock up on water because there
is going to be a major quake within 24 hours."

There is no seismology department in the city or county of Los
Angeles of course, and the last time I checked, the state wasn’t in
the quake prediction business. Even if it was, it would have been the
victim of budget cuts by now.

To set the record straight, anyone who predicts that an earthquake
will strike California on any given date is going to be 100 per cent
correct. We have quakes --- dozens of them --- everyday. It’s the
nature of the state we live in and the planet we live on.

It’s when predictions specify locales and magnitudes that it gets

Search the Internet and you’ll find dozens of sites run by people in
the earthquake prediction business. They claim psychic powers, or
insight based on physical ailments such has headaches or back spasms
or predictions based on the behavior of chickens, dogs or goldfish.

I had a woman call me on the city desk of the Los Angeles Times some
years back to tell me she often suffered bouts of diarrhea shortly
before an earthquake struck. This was after the Northridge quake
almost leveled our entire operation so I called her methodology into

None of this is intended to minimize the threat of a major earthquake
in our area. It will happen eventually and we should be prepared for

But when you hear a prediction, run don’t walk in the other direction.

Susan Hough, of the U.S. Geological Survey, when asked in an
interview if we will ever be able to predict earthquakes, said, “I’m
inclined to doubt it, but I think it’s possible. The question is: Are
we ever going to be able to identify something in the earth that
tells us—unmistakably—that a “big one” is coming. It’s worth keeping
the lines of investigation going, but there’s been an awful lot of
work and we haven’t found anything yet.”

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