Monday, October 22, 2012

I Successfully Predicted Four Earthquakes This Week! And Why Events in Italy Today are Chilling

Before anyone gets excited about today's headline, read the following disclaimer:

NOBODY CAN PREDICT EARTHQUAKES IN THE SHORT TERM THAT IS IN ANY WAY  USEFUL FOR PROTECTING LIVES AND PROPERTY!

Allow me to repeat myself...

NOBODY CAN PREDICT EARTHQUAKES IN THE SHORT TERM THAT IS IN ANY WAY  USEFUL FOR PROTECTING LIVES AND PROPERTY!

Now...let's read this together out loud in unison...

"NOBODY CAN PREDICT EARTHQUAKES IN THE SHORT TERM THAT IS IN ANY WAY  USEFUL FOR PROTECTING LIVES AND PROPERTY!"

Good. Let's move on...
Last week was Earth Science Week, and on Thursday we in California did emergency drills for earthquakes in the Great Shakeout. In conjunction with the Shakeout, I revised a previous post about the myths and misconceptions about California and earthquakes. It was quite long, so you may have missed that I predicted a couple of earthquakes in one of the later paragraphs. They were as follows:
  • 200 earthquakes will occur in California,
  • Of these, there will be a magnitude 4 quake in southern California, most likely in the Colorado Desert near Salton Sea.
  • There will be a magnitude 3 earthquake in northern California, most likely north of the Bay Area, somewhere around Clear Lake.
  • There will be a larger quake at the Vanuatu Islands in the Pacific Ocean, quite possibly in the magnitude 6 range.
  • There will be a magnitude 5 earthquake offshore of Japan.
So, how did I do?

Source: http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/recenteqscanv/
How about that? Five for five. 100%. So I am an earthquake predictor par excellence, eh? No. Not at all. I did what any charlatan or fake psychic (and they're all fake) would do: I played the odds. Take a bit of geologic knowledge and set the parameters wide enough, and you will almost never get an earthquake "prediction" wrong. Earthquakes happen in particular regions, and the "background" seismicity will always include some slightly larger temblors.  "Psychics" have been predicting quakes for years to pad their scores on the yearly list of predictions for the new year. They are depending on getting enough easy predictions right so they sound like they have those "special powers" even though they get practically everything else wrong.

Here's what's wrong with this...they act with impunity, knowing they will never pay a price for being wrong. They will scare people without fear of arrest for causing worry and panic.

So what was the chilling news out of Italy today? It was this: six geologists were convicted of manslaughter for failing to predict a terrible quake that killed 309 people. They were scientists who were convicted for not foreseeing the unforeseeable.

This is a huge issue. Self-styled psychics and con artists can act with impunity without fear of punishment, while responsible seismologists and other scientists are put on trial for not being able to predict something that has never been successfully predicted. Something is very, very wrong in Italy, and I hope the geologists are cleared on appeal.

People who are caught in tragedies will always need some way of understanding what has happened to them. They will often turn to a scapegoat as a way of avoiding tragedy in the future. In ancient Israel, a goat (a "scapegoat") was symbolically loaded with the sins of the people and banished to the wilderness. In the culture of the day, when the gods ruled the heavens and controlled the natural disasters that affected society, it almost made sense to do this. In this modern era, it makes no sense at all to make scapegoats out of the scientists who are doing all they can to protect lives by understanding the patterns and probabilities of earthquakes.
We can't make short-term predictions, but we can certainly make long-term ones. This is a map of the probabilities of damaging earthquakes in California over the next 30 years. Should we arrest the geologists if a quake on this map turns out to be bigger than predicted?

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