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Quacks & Quakes

by Donald Prothero, Mar 30 2011

The great Sendai earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, generated not only huge coverage in all the media, but also brought all the crazies out of the woodwork (as any major earthquake or natural disaster does). I’ve discussed the geophysical and geological details in a separate post, but the storm of misinformation and myths flying around the media and internet was overwhelming. My email box was filled with questions about these events, because I’ve been doing publicity for my new book Catastrophes: Earthquakes, Tsunamis, Tornadoes, and other Earth-Shattering Disasters (Johns Hopkins University Press). There were not only the usual myths about earthquakes, but also an additional layer of apocalyptic speculation and “end of the world” prophecies, plus the crazies who believe the 2012 myth.

Among those that got their 15 minutes of fame during the post-quake media blitz was a well-known crank, Jim Berkland, who got a full interview promoting his ideas on Fox News on March 17 (but on no other network). First, the reporter put up a map of the “Ring of Fire” of volcanoes and earthquakes around the Pacific Rim, pointed at Chile, then New Zealand, then Japan, and implied that this circle of quakes might end in California. Apparently, he never consulted a geologist, who would have pointed out that each of those regions is an entirely different type of plate boundary and they have no tectonic plates in common. Then Fox gave Berkland a full five minutes to spout his ideas, with the same credulous reporter tossing him softball questions, and no rebuttal from any other geologist or seismologist. Berkland rambled on about animal behavior and fish die-offs in California (which have been explained by unusual water conditions), never mentioning that such die-offs are common and not statistically associated with earthquakes (nor is there any plausible mechanism that might link them). He blathered on about how animals sense unusual magnetic fields before the quake, an argument that has been thoroughly debunked. Berkland mentions several other quakes he claims to have “predicted,” with no fact-checking or examination of his overall record of “prediction.” He also demonstrated the classic persecution complex of all cranks and fringe scientists, dismissing real scientists and their “black boxes” when he uses methods with no rigor or peer review. He then used his airtime to boldly predict that a great California quake would happen on March 19, the perigee of the “supermoon,” with a prediction window running to March 26. Well, those dates have come and gone, and we don’t see Fox News interviewing him again to explain what went wrong.

If Fox had bothered to do minimal research about him, they would never have wasted the airtime and panicked people unnecessarily. First of all, Berkland is not a seismologist but a geologist with only a B.A. and some graduate training, who served in several different government positions before retiring in 1994. Berkland is touted as having predicted the Loma Prieta earthquake, something that he uses as his main publicity hook and was promoted on the Fox broadcast. However, there are questions about this prediction. That region had already been targeted a year earlier as a “seismic gap” or one of the most likely areas for the next big quake. According to the University of Washington Pacific Northwest Seismic Network site, “The segment of the San Andreas fault that broke in the 1989 M 7.1 Loma Prieta or “World Series” earthquake had been identified by the USGS as one of the more likely segments of the San Andreas to rupture. Magnitude 5+ earthquakes 2 and 15 months before the damaging earthquake were treated as possible foreshocks, and the USGS issued 5-day Public Advisories through the California Office of Emergency Services.” So it was no great shakes to follow this prediction and pick a date. Berkland just got lucky and happened to mention it to a reporter for a local paper in Gilroy, California, so it was actually recorded in the public record.

Once his complete record of quake prediction is examined more closely, its “success rate” falls apart. It’s a classic case of cherry-picking the favorable data, and also confirmation bias, used by fortune-tellers and faith healers and swindlers of every kind for centuries: people remember the hits and forget the misses. Berkland got one lucky “hit” and most people never bother to check his overall track record. Seismologist Roger Hunter did a careful statistical study, published in the Skeptical Inquirer, and found that his “predictions” were no better than chance.1 Berkland’s claim is that when the tidal forces of the alignment of the moon and sun are at a maximum (a syzygy, as he calls it), they can exert a pull on the earth’s crust and trigger earthquakes. This idea goes back to at least 1897, and has some plausibility, since the tidal attraction does exert some force on the earth’s crust. However, when geophysicists at the UCLA Institute for Geophysics and Planetary Physics conducted a rigorous study, they found no statistical relationship between the two.2 Several other studies have also tested the connections between tides and earthquakes, and found no statistically significant correlations.3 The only possible correlation might occur when tidal forces pull on shallow thrust faults but the faults in Berkland’s March 19 prediction for California are all deep vertical strike-slip faults, none with the type of motion that fit the shallow thrust-fault model. The fault that caused the Sendai quake is a deep subduction zone, not a shallow thrust. The only other possible place where tides might affect quakes is in the rift valleys of mid-ocean ridges, miles under the middle of the ocean,4 and far from the areas that Berkland has focused his predictions.

In addition to Berkland’s questionable methods and lack of consistent success in prediction based on tides, he also uses animal behavior as a guide to predicting earthquakes. His “highly rigorous” method is to survey the newspaper for an unusual number of lost dog and cat reports in the classified ads section. The idea that animals can predict earthquakes has been carefully analyzed and has failed the test again and again. Animals may be more sensitive than humans to the P-waves, which are the fastest seismic waves and arrive several seconds before the destructive S-waves in regions far from the epicenter—but this gives warnings of only a few seconds in any place that is likely to experience strong shaking. If animals are sensitive to other disturbances in the earth’s crust that happen more than a few seconds before the quake itself, it has never been reliably corroborated. In addition, this method runs into the same problem that most short-term earthquake prediction methods have encountered: no two earthquakes are alike. Some have precursors, and others don’t. Thus, if animals did act strangely before a particular quake occurred (just as some geophysical precursors have been observed on some quakes), there is no evidence that they reliably predict most quakes (just as many quakes don’t have precursors).

This leads to the bigger issue: the best geophysicists in the world have been working hard on short-term earthquake prediction for decades, but most would concede that we are not much closer than we were fifty years ago. We are very successful at giving long-term warnings of months to years in advance for regions that are overdue for a big quake (“seismic gaps”) and these predictions have worked reliably. But short-term prediction has always foundered on the maddening problem that no two faults behave in the same way. Back in the 1970s, dilatancy theory about ground deformation found a series of precursors, and led to the successful prediction of the Feb. 4, 1975, Haicheng quake in China. But just 17 months later, there were no precursors for the July 28, 1976, Tangshan earthquake, and about half a million people died. Since this failure, seismologists have become much more cautious about short-term earthquake prediction. Most will candidly admit that there will probably never be a reliable method of short-term prediction. This leaves room for quacks like Jim Berkland to step in, brag about his questionable Loma Prieta “prediction,” and get free media attention. Then he can rely on the fact that reporters these days do no research into his background, nor do they confront him after each failed prediction to ask him what went wrong. As Charles Richter himself said, “Only fools, liars, and charlatans predict earthquakes.” You can be the judge of which category best fits Berkland.

References

  1. Hunter, R. 2006. “Can Jim Berkland predict earthquakes?” Skeptical Inquirer 30 (5): 47–50.
  2. Kennedy, M., Vidale, J.E., and Parker, M.G. 2004. “Earthquakes and the moon: syzygy predictions fail the test.” Seismological Research Letters 75 (5): 607–612.
  3. Hartzell, S., and Heaton, T. 1989. “The fortnightly tide and the tidal triggering of earthquakes.” Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, 79: 1282–1286. Vidale, J.E., Agnew, D.C., Johnston, M.J.S., and Oppenheimer, D.H. 1998. “Absence of earthquake correlation with Earth tides; an indication of high preseismic fault stress rate.” Journal of Geophysical Research, 103: 24567–24572.
  4. Tolstoy, M., Vernon, F.A., Orcutt, J.A., and Wyatt, F.K. 2002. “Breathing of the seafloor; tidal correlations of seismicity at Axial Volcano.” Geology 30:503–506.
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18 Responses to “Quacks & Quakes”

  1. feralboy12 says:

    A very nice dismantling of Berklund, served up nice and cold.
    Just one criticism: I don’t think “fools, liars, and charlatans” are mutually exclusive categories.

  2. tmac57 says:

    Nice post Donald,and welcome to Skepticblog. I will take exception to one of your assertions though:

    If Fox had bothered to do minimal research about him, they would never have wasted the airtime and panicked people unnecessarily.

    I think that Fox’s record would show that they really don’t care about whether or not a story is factual (or whether they cause panic).They want eyeballs and sensationalism,and they seem quite unapologetic about it.I assume you were giving them the benefit of doubt,but it is not warranted.

    • Michael MacInerney says:

      Interesting how the other media are left out and the focus is on Fox.

      Berkland has been a guest many times on the late-night radio program Coast to Coast AM, created by Art Bell. On television, he has been seen on Frontline, Sightings, Strange Universe, Town Meeting, and many other programs. He was also the subject of the 2006 book by Cal Orey, The Man Who Predicts Earthquakes: Jim Berkland, Maverick Geologist–How His Quake Warnings Can Save Lives (Sentient Publications) ISBN 1-59181-036-1.

  3. Robo Sapien says:

    Around the office here, we lovingly refer to the network as “Fucks News” as they routinely do exactly that to journalism.

    • Yes, I considered mentioning the tendency of Faux News to run junk, but I figured it was better to stay out of that fight, and let the science speak for itself.

  4. MadScientist says:

    I’d put Berkland in categories (A) and (B); if I read reliable reports to support placing him in category (C) as well, I’ll do so.

    Fox is quite happy to play Beck crying and making quack predictions and making claims that god talks to him, so Berkland is in familiar company.

  5. Trimegistus says:

    Kind of depressing how the comments on an interesting article about earthquake quackery turns into a hate-Fox session. Was MSNBC’s coverage any better?

    • Max says:

      This interesting article is a response to Berkland’s Fox interview, so it focuses on Fox.
      Articles about quackery on HuffPo focus on HuffPo.

    • The point being that Berkland got NO free air time from any other network except Faux. It’s irresponsible journalism to run a fringe character like Berkland on TV without a background check in to his reputation, and Faux did not do this. And I wrote this a week ago–STILL no report by Faux checking on his new failed prediction, which would also be the responsible thing to do

      • Michael MacInerney says:

        Fox did an interview, not a debate. Did you check on PBS to get their remarks concerning their show on Frontline?

  6. Karla McLaren says:

    Hi Dr. Prothero and All,

    I’m posting as myself and taking a big risk here.

    As an editor, I’d red pen some parts of this article that detract from its seriousness. Right away, there are epithets: “crazies, crank,” etc. I realize that we’re in a social domain where antagonism is an acceptable (and even celebrated) behavior, but I’d really like to see something new from a new blogger who is also a working scientist.

    I had expected a particularly informed voice which was also mature in its approach to these issues. Your information is exciting and worthwhile, but the packaging makes it unpalatable, and I don’t think (or hope) that’s what you meant to do.

    Dr. Prothero, I’m not picking on you personally, because you’re not doing anything out of the communal norm here. Actually, I’m choosing this situation carefully and intentionally, because you’ve been through editing and peer review; therefore, I suspect you won’t be unduly offended by my critique.

    For Dr. Prothero: Were you pitching directly to this audience in being openly antagonistic and demeaning to entire swaths of humanity?

    For the audience: Would you have been offended if Dr. Prothero’s language had been more circumspect, or if he had presented his rebuttal in a way that “showed” the incorrectness of opposing views rather than “telling” you right out that his opposition were crazies and cranks?

    I’m really, deeply concerned by the increasing insularity and tonal inaccessibility of skeptical information. With some relatively minor tweaks, an article like this could have had some chance of informing not just the insiders who already agree with its premise — but it could have been a useful tool for the many people who have been frightened by the seeming tsunami of recent ecological and geological catastrophes.

    Here on the coast of California, I know many excellent people who are being continually pelted with forwarded e-mails about iodine, supermoons, radiation maps, bogus earthquake survival tactics (triangle of life [facepalm]), and who knows what else.

    We’ve all seen that media is not responding well or responsibly. Quality science journalism is increasingly hard to find, and even proper news outlets are putting out science stories that are, frankly, pathetic. That e-mails are being privileged over news outlets is sad, but not surprising at all.

    The time for critical thinking skills to be more — not less — available to the public has long since passed.

    So when you have a chance to present a privileged insider’s view of science in a public forum like this, would it hurt to do some simple editing and make it tonally accessible to everyone? This is not a rhetorical question.

    I’m asking this openly to all of you: Would it hurt to edit your approach so that the very people who are being harmed by misinformation could access your work, learn about critical thinking, and benefit from it?

    • Point taken, Karla. However, it’s not just the skeptical community that regards him with disdain–he’s called even worse names by scientists, who hate seeing him scare the TV viewers with his garbage while no one interviews REAL scientists. Scientists regard it as a part of their task to root out bad science and quack science and medicine to warn people who might otherwise be snookered.
      And judging from the emails I received praising him, his audience is anti-science and largely creationist and unreachable anyway

      • Karla McLaren says:

        Thanks for the reply, Don. I’m not sure if other people doing it is a sterling defense? How can these real scientists increase their readership if they merely fling a kind of unprocessed anger at people who are misguided or perhaps deluded? True science education cannot be about insulting people who do not know what you know. Such an approach may win a battle, etc.

        I have questioned and will continue to question why “capital S” skepticism needs to be a war, when the focus is (purportedly) to help people develop their own critical thinking skills? In this article, you aren’t giving me the chance to make up my own mind about who your opponent is: you tell me how I need to think about him, and you give me permission to dehumanize and belittle him. My critical thinking skills tell me to question this approach.

      • Key says:

        I don’t get it. Why is exposing the cranks and theirs lies a less effective strategy than playing nice and affable? Do we have reasons to believe that people are that overly sensitive and even a teeny bit of name-calling will turn people off when you have rock solid facts, science and logic to back you up? Will playing hardball necessarily lead to a reduction in readership when you’re competing with the mainstream media which is already in bed with cranks for audience? I don’t think the skeptical movement is a war at all, but I do think we need to make our points loud and clear instead of being wishy washy.

    • Phea says:

      Karla,

      If you’re looking for debunking “light”, you might try Cecil Adams’ “The Straight Dope”.

  7. What really erks me is the fact conspiracy idiots and cranks almost instantly began the perpetual motion machine of bullshit by making allegations of weather modification, HAARP, NWO and 2012 being the cause of the quake. It really pisses me off when I see people pissing on the memory of the victims by making such ridiculous, speculative claims. These couch dwelling, pretend play revolutionaries should really consider choking on a chicken bone.