Science and society: The giant earthquake that launched a new era in geologic knowledge

Earthquake(Alaska1964)
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I am a geologist by training and my main interest was natural hazards. I was not able to apply my interest to earthquakes or volcanoes as I’d hoped but I did get to help the public deal with sinkhole hazards that also cause property destruction and occasional loss of life. This short film is worth watching. It was a turning point in science and society – the geologic aspect.

Great Alaska quake

There is little sense in praying to be safe from a disaster but EVERY good reason to study, plan and prepare. The average person does not necessarily have to understand seismology or even basic geology to get a benefit from science, but citizens should CERTAINLY appreciate that our advances in knowledge and, consequently, in safety and environmental regulations are based on a scientific process. You can say that about a lot of areas of life. There have been more than one instance to defund these hazard programs and even the USGS itself. How short-sighted and stupid.

This is my philosophy: Science literacy means science appreciation first and foremost. It’s really important.

Remembering the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake, the largest in U.S. history.

Great Alaska Earthquake 50 years ago today: What it taught science – latimes.com.

Reality Check: We all need it (Book review)

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There are some writers for which you know pretty much exactly what you are going to get. Donald R. Prothero is one of those writers. I expect a well-researched, comprehensive treatment of the topic with a flavor of emotion here and there. That’s what I got with Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten our Future, 2013, Indiana Univ Press.

The core of the book is summed up in the John Burroughs quote given on page 1:

To treat your facts with imagination is one thing, but to imagine your facts is another.

RCOnce you observe the methods of creationists as the classic example of science denialists, you can recognize the same tactics in those that reject climate change. I have also noted the same tricks in environmentalists or those holding contrarian views about vaccines, the paranormal, and various consumer products.

The premise of Reality Check is that when “a well-entrenched belief system comes in conflict with scientific or historic reality” the believers in this system will actively discount, ignore or distort the facts that go against it. They may stop at nothing to defend their belief – they will lie, hide evidence, manufacture evidence, pay people off, bully, harass, discredit, and even threaten the scientists who are  supporting the “inconvenient” conclusion.

The book highlights denialism rampant in the fields of environmentalism, global warming, evolution education, vaccine information, AIDS treatment policy, medical claims, energy policy and population size and growth. Each chapter exposes the hidden agendas of those who reject the scientific consensus and provides the reader with the solid, established evidence.

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Did zoo animals predict the Virginia earthquake? Look closer.

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A day after the east coast earthquake (now forever to be remembered by me as “the best birthday present ever!”), the Smithsonian issued a press release about the behavior of animals at the National Zoo, more than 80 miles from the epicenter of the quake. Some media outlets reported on the news as “animals go wild”, “animals went berserk”. Many said “how animals predicted the quake”.

All of those are wrong.

What really happened? Continue reading

Balticon: Scientifical and Real Mad Scientists

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Balticon is a conference done by the Baltimore Science Fiction Society. I was asked to participate in their new mini-skeptic track that was developed by Marv Zelkowitz of the National Capital Area Skeptics (NCAS). I thought it was a success. Throughout the day I was there, on Sunday, I saw a big skeptical respresentation. But, also, there were many people who hold that critical, thoughtful mindset but don’t associate themselves with that community. I was glad to speak to them.

My talk was on Being Scientifical: Amateur Research and Investigation Groups. I looked at 1000 web sites of these groups in the U.S. who investigate ghosts, UFOs, cryptids, and general paranormal phenomena. By mimicking science, or doing what they think is science (hence “scientifical”), amateur investigation groups appear serious and credible to the public. This image is effective in selling the public the idea that they find legitimate evidence of the paranormal. It’s concerning.

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Warnings of impending danger: Science and Social Factors

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Those who consider prediction* a part of their research and responsibility range from weather forecasters to seismologists and volcanologists. Warnings of impending danger cause predictable social and economic effects that must be considered along with the primary goal which is safety. If a disaster prediction is wrong, several million people might be unnecessarily affected (Olsen, 1989) and the region may suffer economic losses. If it is correct, but delivered inadequately, disaster is inevitable.

Accuracy of predictions is based on what is possible to observe and data that can be collected. For example, hurricane predictions are very accurate because scientists have extensive weather instruments and well-tested forecasting techniques to use. Volcanic hazard areas and those prone to tsunamis are mapped based on zones identified through historical records – scientists can find geologic evidence that the land was affected by lava, ash or debris flows.

For some forecasted events (such as volcanic eruption and severe weather), there is time to deliver the message and prepare for the event. The worst situation is certainly earthquakes because there are no widely accepted precursors and data-based forecasts are long-term probabilities — relatively unhelpful for short-term preparation. With the potential for large seismic events to kill huge numbers of people, earthquake prediction theories have been particularly problematic and fraught with ethical dilemmas for the scientific community, public authorities and media. Continue reading

The big difference between earthquake prediction and forecasting

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I previously posted about how it’s unethical to endorse dowsing if you are a geologist bound by a professional code that includes using the best scientific procedures and evidence. Condoning a process which is scientifically questionable or invalid is a breach of this code.

A similar argument can be made for earthquake prediction. There have been several instances where scientists (and many more non-scientists) have predicted through various means when and where an earthquake will occur. Currently, there is a storm of criticism leveled at author (not scientist), Simon Winchester after he wrote this article strongly suggesting without evidence that the Pacific coast area is next in line for a big quake due to the strain at “a barely tolerable level” (whatever that means).

These next two blog entries will explore natural disaster prediction. First, it’s important to distinguish between prophesizing, predicting and forecasting. Continue reading

Psychic fail. As usual.

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In a world where we crave the answers to life’s great questions and order from chaos by any means, people love psychic predictions. Too many STILL believe psychics have some credibility. Here is a stark reminder of why that belief is complete and utter nonsense:

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It “appears as if” the world is ending

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Remember that the year began with mass animal deaths? It continued with revolution in the Middle East. And, poor Australia was hit with the wrath of the gods. (What did you guys do? Just kidding.) Now, we have catastrophic earthquakes – one after another – and a wicked tsunami. With all the political turmoil and natural disasters this year, it would appear as if the world is being ripped apart, socially and physically.

“Appear as if” are the important words to consider. It depends on the perspective you take.

People mostly get their news from the media. The media gives attention to unique things, stories that affect certain groups of people or important people. They don’t always cover events that affect A LOT of people if those people aren’t considered important (remote, poor, unknown).

Once a story is in the news, the topic becomes important. I’m calling this the Google Alert effect. Continue reading

Everyone panic. Or not.

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A few weeks ago, I moved my desk next to an upstairs window overlooking a Bradford pear tree. For the past 3 weeks, when I sat at the desk during the day, periodically, a flock of about 50 starlings would swoop in and land on the tree,  devouring the shriveled fruits up like grapes. Then, in a whoosh, they would be off. Sometimes I would hear them clamor on the roof. This has happened no less than a dozen times. They seemed hungry. 

On my way home from work over the past month, I noticed crows arcing across the sky across the interstate from as far as I can see from left to right. This happened for several consecutive days in the same place.

This is the behavior of birds. It seems remarkable but not too unusual.

On December 26, we were on the beach in South Carolina near Charleston. It was snowing. There were starfish embedded in the sand. The south was experiencing record cold. It happens. I felt bad for the alligators in the swamps.

Suddenly, we experience such a Fortean start to 2011!  A massive and suspicious bird die-off in Arkansas on New Years Eve triggers a wave of mystery, speculation and imaginative explanations fed by more accounts of animal mortality events.  The current media sensation of reporting mass mortality events is very interesting in many ways. Shall we count the ways? Yes, we shall, because it’s fun – fun like outrageous speculation about the end of the world! (Well, if you have a hot-air filled balloon of speculative belief about these things, you won’t think this is fun.)

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