January 13, 2001
5:25 PM   Subscribe

This and this aren't exactly what you'd call urgent breaking news. (Respectively they're about the Ring of Fire and historical earthquakes.) So why couldn't the BBC take enough time on them to get their facts right? [More inside]
posted by Steven Den Beste (8 comments total)
In the first article, they say In the past 25 years, scientists developed a theory called plate tectonics...

Only problem is that the theory of plate tectonics was proposed in 1915 by Alfred Wegener (who didn't live long enough to see his radical idea vindicated).

Worse, though is the second article, which starts by saying improvements in technology have only slightly reduced the death toll.

Actually, improvements in technology have radically decreased the death toll -- but only where they've been used. Consider, for instance, the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989. It was Richter 7.1 and the epicenter was only 25 miles south of San Jose, and yet only 68 people were killed. Compare that to the Tangshan quake at 7.8 which killed half a million people.

The difference was building codes. For 75 years there's been a strict building code in all earthquake-prone areas of California which has made everything built since then quite resistant to earthquakes. In particular, you're not permitted to use brick or other masonry here; everything has to be wood or steel-frame construction. The difference is that wood and steel buildings can flex without falling apart. (Older buildings made of masonry were required to be strengthened.)

And they didn't bother to mention that we in SoCal had a 7.2 in 10/1999 and hardly anyone was even hurt by it.

I expected better of the BBC.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 5:44 PM on January 13, 2001

Just another interesting point: the second article contains a bit of parochialism in as much as it uses some space to make sure to document the UK's worst quake at Richter 5.5, even though they admit it did hardly any damage. BFD.

25 hours ago, as I write this, there was a 5.4 off the northern coast of California. It didn't even make the news.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 6:10 PM on January 13, 2001

Technically, Steven, Wegener merely proposed the idea of continental drift. The mechanism was left to later generations to uncover, and the term plate tectonics didn't come into use until the 1960s when seafloor spreading was confirmed. (That still leaves the BBC off by at least 8 years.)
posted by dhartung at 6:52 PM on January 13, 2001

Hmm.. I wonder if they had quotas to fill and just slapped articles together.
posted by tiaka at 6:53 PM on January 13, 2001

Small point of difference: Wegener didn't create plate tectonics, but he did anticipate it and was vindicated by it. He proposed the idea of continental drift. Plate tectonics--the theory of crustal plates, seafloor spreading and subduction--was developed by J. Tuzo Wilson and others in, what, the late 50s? Definitely longer ago than 25 years. Maybe the Beeb is thinking 25 years since it became widely accepted?
posted by rodii at 7:10 PM on January 13, 2001

(Dan and I overlapped, if you're wondering.)
posted by rodii at 7:21 PM on January 13, 2001

It's the weekend; the BBC's internal market means that Online has to pay to get the science correspondent to scribble a few hundred words; it's regrettable.

Incidentally, the first real study of earthquakes began in the middle-1700s, especially after the Lisbon quake of 1755. For many people, such as the antiquarian William Stukeley, the earthquake was the last manifestation of God's direct influence upon His creation. Stukeley kept a fascinating scrapbook of newspaper reports, and presented a paper to the Royal Society entitled "The Philosophy of Earthquakes", arguing that EQs happened after a build-up of electromagnetic forces, rather than tectonic shifts.
posted by holgate at 2:23 AM on January 14, 2001

And Steven: it's not that parochial for the BBC to talk about the UK's pathetic little quakes, because at least it shows that we're not immune to them. Think of it as the equivalent of mentioning that deserts have the odd rainstorm: BFD.
posted by holgate at 2:26 AM on January 14, 2001

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