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The solution is constant false alarms until you get it right
June 19, 2010 7:35 AM   Subscribe

"If these people can't predict an earthquake, then what's the point of them?" Italian seismologists accused of manslaughter. (via simon singh)
posted by lucia__is__dada (31 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
The idea that a seismologist could be guilty of manslaughter for failing to predict an earthquake is obviously ridiculous. Seismology is an evolving field of science. It is possible that given a sufficient amount of research, seismology will eventually advance to the point of being able to predict all earthquakes with perfect accuracy. But even if that never happens, it is still better to have some scientific understanding of earthquakes than it is to have none. If seismologists are going to be held legally accountable for earthquakes, then obviously no one will work in that field, ever again.

We can compare this to the practice of medicine. It is generally understood that although doctors can save the lives of some patients, they cannot save everybody's lives, and some patients will die despite the medical care that they receive. If a doctor would be charged with murder simply on the basis that a patient died, despite receiving the best available medical care, then no one would practice medicine. We do the best that we can with our imperfect knowledge in a very imperfect world. We cure some patients and we predict some earthquakes.
posted by grizzled at 7:46 AM on June 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm glad America isn't the Stupid Country of the Day for a change.

I'm sure Sarah Palin will fix that soon.
posted by localroger at 7:51 AM on June 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


If a scientific body predicted an earthquake and no earthquake occured, someone would sue them.
posted by longsleeves at 7:53 AM on June 19, 2010


But I thought women who dress immodestly were the cause of earthquakes?
posted by lexicakes at 7:53 AM on June 19, 2010 [5 favorites]


I remember the story when Gioacchino Giuliani predicted an earthquake and tried to warn people--even driving around with loudspeakers before he was stopped (and nearly arrested) by authorities.

What got me was the Italian seismologists saying that he shouldn't have said anything because 'earthquakes can't be predicted'.

I was struck by the absurdity of this. Weather can't be predicted. The economy can't be predicted. Should we arrest all the meteorologists and economists? After reading all I could find on the Internet, I never got the feeling that the theory of radon gas escaping before an earthquake is nonsense. Perhaps it might be a useful indicator. Not a cut and dried predictor, but at least an indicator that changes the forcast to 'dont' have a clue' to 'might be best to be prepared'.

This indictment is counter=reaction, going after the seismologists who tried to stop him. It is silly, but I hope it has the silver lining of bringing these issues into discussion.

Being able to predict the possibility of an earthquake is a very good thing.
posted by eye of newt at 7:56 AM on June 19, 2010


Being able to predict the possibility of an earthquake is a very good thing.

I predict with absolute certainty that an earthquake is possible. That wasn't so hard, was it? :)

Seriously, though, the radon gas hypothesis is worth following up on. Surely there are graduate students that need a big project to work on.
posted by hanoixan at 8:03 AM on June 19, 2010


I feel the earth
move
under my feet
I feel the sky tumbling down
a-tumbling down...

BUT IT WASN'T PREDICTED!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:05 AM on June 19, 2010


Italian meteorologists should be wetting their pants right about now.
posted by tommasz at 8:19 AM on June 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Even if seismologists had perfect ability to predict when, where, and how strong for an earthquake, there's a limit to the number of deaths they could prevent. It's not like they can also tell you when a building is going to collapse in an earthquake, especially for older buildings.

There's a collapsed church in a photograph accompanying the Guardian article. I wonder when it was built and what the building code (if there was one) and the structural features of the building were. You'd need to know all that to prevent buildings from killing people. Maybe the prosecutors should exhume the church's architect and builders and prosecute them for manslaughter for anyone who died in the collapse, while they're at it.
posted by immlass at 8:23 AM on June 19, 2010


And if they can predict earthquakes, they must be witches. Burn them with fire!
posted by gwint at 8:32 AM on June 19, 2010 [5 favorites]


When the crops fail, or the volcano erupts, or the gods shake the Earth in anger at your tribe, the traditional remedy is to sacrifice to the gods those shamans, soothsayers, haruspices, or priests who failed to predict or deflect the gods' anger.

So it was in ancient Aricia "at the foot of the Alban Mount", so it is today in Abruzzo.
posted by orthogonality at 8:35 AM on June 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


I keep seeing that episode of the Simpsons, where the comet is coming to hit the earth, and at the end, everyone says, "Let's make sure this NEVER happens again! Let's destroy the observatory!"
posted by yeloson at 8:38 AM on June 19, 2010 [9 favorites]


Anti-intellectualism? In my Western culture?

It's more likely than you think!
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:42 AM on June 19, 2010 [10 favorites]


In California, you can be prosecuted for making specific earthquake predictions, unless you are a State Licensed Geophysicist. And of course the standards for licensing are rigorous enough that it weeds out all the crackpots who would make specific predictions. If you make a prediction like "there will be a quake greater than 6.0 near Palmdale in the last 2 weeks of June," you can be hauled up on charges of practicing geology and geophysics without a license. People have been prosecuted under this law.

People have been killed due to sheer panic and pandemonium after specific quake predictions. It is a subject of serious debate in the seismology world as to whether predictions should ever be made public, even if someday they become accurate enough to give a specific time frame. The panic is always worse than the quake itself, unless it's The Big One and in that case, no warning will stop the massive destruction and loss of life.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:06 AM on June 19, 2010 [6 favorites]


P.S.

Seriously, though, the radon gas hypothesis is worth following up on. Surely there are graduate students that need a big project to work on.

Yeah, they did. The radon theory was discredited in the 1980s.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:10 AM on June 19, 2010


I bet Virginia's AG is wishing that he'd thought of this first.
posted by a small part of the world at 9:19 AM on June 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Blaming seismologists is insane. It's like blaming the weatherman for unpredicted rain if you live in a house with no roof.

Preparation is more important than prediction.

Most deaths occur when a) buildings collapse, and b) things start to burn.

The key is to have building standards that a) minimize the chance of buildings collapsing, and b) minimize the chance of heating and cooking appliances catching fire.

If the building standards were not up to snuff, blame the government officials in charge of those standards. If building standards were up to snuff but contractors didn't follow them in order to save money, blame the contractors. If you are living in a old building built before tough standards were implemented or if the earthquake that hits is, as charlie don't surf said The Big One, then you really can't blame anyone.

When possible, use electric heating/cooking appliances over gas. If that's not possible, have a gas supply that will cut itself off when things start to shake. Some other things you can do is to have a flashlight and shoes by your bed. After a major earthquake, your floors will be covered in broken glass and it will be a while before electricity is running again. Also, having a few cases of two-liter bottles of water and a few boxes of dry shampoo stashed somewhere wouldn't hurt, either.

Prediction would be wonderful but useless unless it's 100% accurate. Even if you could predict earthquakes with 95% accuracy, you could never make that information public. As longsleeves mentioned above, if you predicted an earthquake that never came you'd be sued out of existence.

Another key to preparation is emergency response services. Make sure that earthquake prone areas have adequate fire trucks and water supplies in surrounding areas. Make sure that the military (or self-defense forces) can bring in clean drinking water immediately and emergency food rations soon after that.

Unless prediction is 100% accurate, the only role I could see it ever having is this: to temporarily move key government resources (some emergency services and some key politicians) out of the affected area and temporarily move emergency response services from remote regions around the country to areas closer to the affected area (or have them on emergency standby ready to deploy on a moments notice).
posted by stringbean at 9:36 AM on June 19, 2010


Prediction would be wonderful but useless unless it's 100% accurate. Even if you could predict earthquakes with 95% accuracy, you could never make that information public.

Really? Maybe your 95% is different from my 95%, but 5 false predictions out of every 100 seems acceptably accurate to me.
posted by The Potate at 9:46 AM on June 19, 2010 [5 favorites]


If this is true it is rather insane. I can't imagine how it could possibly stand up in court. The seismologists don't have a legal duty of care covering everyone in the region do they? Such a duty would be illogical unless seismologists were the instigators and controllers of earthquakes. They didn't sign a contract to protect people from earthquakes did they? It seems weird, if this is actually true.
posted by rubber duck at 10:21 AM on June 19, 2010


But they do predict earthquakes, all the time, and it does save lives. We know that in the next 100 years there will be several 7.0 or greater earthquakes in populated areas of California, which is why building codes there are written to make sure buildings do not collapse under those conditions. We know there will be a big earthquake which could cause a tsunami in the Pacific Northwest, which is why there are marked tsunami evacuation routes near the coast. It's like a weather report, but with longer timescales: 80% chance of earthquake in the next 10 years. It might not be useful for, say, evacuating an area, but it does save lives.
posted by Nothing at 10:39 AM on June 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


(To extend on the weather analogy: you will probably never find a weather report accurate enough to let you avoid rain entirely. That is, to always leave an area before rain starts. (barring moving to the Atacama.) But you will be able to plan for the eventuality of rain somewhat better.)
posted by Nothing at 10:42 AM on June 19, 2010


tommasz: Italian meteorologists should be wetting their pants right about now.

Is that your official prediction?
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:17 PM on June 19, 2010


The radon theory was discredited in the 1980s.
--charlie don't surf

Is this how they discredited it?
"There isn't a definitive link between radon gas measurements and earthquake occurrence," said Brian Baptie at the British Geological Survey. "Sometimes people have measured radon gas and no earthquakes have occurred, and vice-versa."

Earthquakes, like the weather and the economy, has enough chaos involved that it is probably near impossible to ever get high accuracy, much less 100% accuracy. If radon gas escaping occurs more often then not before earthquakes, then it is very useful.

I completely reject this 100% or nothing argument. You don't have to put out this panic-inducing statement that there's may be an earthquake this weekend. You can have maps, as the US Geological society used to put out before they chickened out, giving the risk as a color. During periods of high risk (radon gas escaping, earlier earthquake, or whatever), you make sure that emergency crews and communications are ready. This can make a huge difference in lives saved.
posted by eye of newt at 3:44 PM on June 19, 2010


In California, you can be prosecuted for making specific earthquake predictions, unless you are a State Licensed Geophysicist.

Really? I happen to be in California this weekend. I am not a State licensed geophysicist. And I predict a 3.2 earthquake on December 21st, 2194 at 4:34PM.

Come get me, pigs.
posted by mreleganza at 3:46 PM on June 19, 2010


They keep electing Berlusconi, and this. Italy, WTF?
posted by rodgerd at 4:33 PM on June 19, 2010


If the Pope can talk to God, he needs to be held responsible for not warning us about earthquakes, floods, fires and lightning in advance. Imprison the Pope!
posted by klangklangston at 5:49 PM on June 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


Imprison the Pope!

There you go! Get him behind bars on a Natural Disasters Negligence charge, since we can't seem to lock him up on the pedophile coverups. Kinda like putting away murdering gangsters on tax fraud charges!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:15 PM on June 19, 2010


Earthquakes, like the weather and the economy, has enough chaos involved that it is probably near impossible to ever get high accuracy, much less 100% accuracy. If radon gas escaping occurs more often then not before earthquakes, then it is very useful.

No, it's not. There is no correlation. At all. The release of radon is close enough to random that it is no more accurate than flipping a coin to predict earthquakes. I happen to know this because I worked at the USGS Seismo labs in Golden, CO back in the early 80s, crunching numbers on their computers. This is one of the projects they worked on.

And that leads me to..

Really? I happen to be in California this weekend. I am not a State licensed geophysicist. And I predict a 3.2 earthquake on December 21st, 2194 at 4:34PM.

Come get me, pigs.


You should be careful. I have the reporting forms, and I have used them. But you are pretty much immune because you didn't specify a location, and there are 3.2 quakes along almost every fault line in California every hour, sometimes more than once an hour. And basically you have to make a serious prediction of a dangerous quake that is sufficient to cause panic, and yours obviously isn't. But don't push your luck.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:43 PM on June 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


Is there any corroboration past this single article? I'm doubting even the Italian authorities could be this stupid.
posted by ged at 9:53 PM on June 19, 2010


Imprison the Pope!

:(
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:22 PM on June 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Is there any corroboration past this single article?

There is, and there's not. It's getting quite tiring to rebuke every single piece of LOLItalians published. Not that we don't deserve it, mind you.

The short of it is: the scope of the inquiry is not:
"hey you bad, bad scientists, you weren't able to predict the earthquake, a few hundred years ago we'd have burned you at the stake, now let's see if we can at least throw you in the slammer because WE HATE SCIENCE!", but rather: "has everything that was in the realm of possibility been done to prevent (not predict) this tragedy?"

Because all signs up till now point to a big, fat NO, including the fact that before the devastating earthquake of Apr. 6, 2009 the city had been enduring a 6-months long seismic swarm with minor but sizable quakes and not even an alert had been issued. There have been studies*, there has been a specific dossier about the seismic swarm, there was a study from the National Research Foundation denouncing the very high risk of a major earthquake there, and these were discussed in a less than an hour long meeting, just a week before the earthquake.

What hurts the most in this, is that the head of the L'Aquila tribunal, as far as I could get from the interviews I saw, is a calm, quiet elderly guy who found himself in a situation much bigger than him, with hundreds (308) victims, more than a few of which could have been avoided**, and -as usual here- he's opening a Pandora's vase.

* and please let's lay this Giuliani thing to rest. The guy is -in the best of cases- a deluded idiot. The romantic story of the lone researcher that could have saved the day makes for lots of journo fodder. That's not how science works. If you have results, you can publish them and see if they hold. 99 out of 100, your results weren't and you're back to square one. But even if he's that lucky 1 out of 100, and he got the potential for actual results and techniques and procedures to effectively prevent earthquakes, and he's not publishing them, then he's no longer an idiot, he's a criminal.

** it's one thing that your house falls on you and kills you because it's 500 years old and built of stone and wood by your great-great-great-great (etc.) grandfather. If there was an earthquake then, you died, act of God, no biggie. If you didn't, it was a miracle.
It's an entirely different thing if it's a reinforced concrete university dorm, or an hospital that literally vaporizes on you, built no more than 15 or 20 years ago and -as people denounced- already rotting at the pillars (one of which was missing in the dorm building, by the way) and foundations because someone embezzled money and the concrete was mixed with sea shore sand.

posted by _dario at 11:38 AM on June 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


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