Peter Griffin is the head of the Royal Society's Science Media Centre, home of Sciblogs, among other resources. This article is syndicated from Sciblogs.
The furore over John Campbell’s interview with earthquake predictor Ken Ring this week really exposed a strong anti-science vein running through New Zealand that even we here at Sciblogs, seasoned from hand to hand combat with the anti-vaccination lobby, homeopaths and evolution deniers were surprised at.
As one commenter on Sciblogs put it, Ken Ring’s predictions and his methods have a “pleasant intuitiveness” to them that makes them sound plausible and offer comfort in the face of hard science, often explained in complex, unemotional or even arrogant terms by scientists.
America's quake prediction panic attack
Well, this week’s turn of events reminded me of a 20 year-old Science article I was sent in the wake of September’s earthquake (hat tip to Lynley Hood) that paints some striking similarities between Ken Ring and another earthquake predictor who has long since passed, Dr Iben Browning.
Dr Browning was a self-taught climatologist with a Ph.D in zoology who in late 1989 predicted the serious likelihood of a major earthquake striking the Mississippi Valley during the first week of December 1990.
The media jumped on the prediction and widely publicised them. Why? According to Science:
Browning’s successful scare was based on classic ingredients: a predictor with apparently solid credentials, a prediction method that sounds scientific, and unsupported claims of previous prediction successes.
Does all of that have a familiar ring to it?
According to Browning, who at the time was a business consultant in Albuquerque, the subtle bulging of Earth caused by the gravitational pull of the sun and moon – was to peak on 3 December 1990 which meant there was a 50 percent probability of a magnitude 6.5 to 7.5 earthquake sometime between December 1 and December 5. Browning identified the New Madrid fault as the likely break point.
As the day approached, Midwesterners were in consternation and on the day itself, schools and factories closed and “…groups such as the Red Cross wasted precious funds in their efforts to calm the public”. The period passed with no earthquake on the New Madrid fault, people sheepishly drove back into town.
Why were numerous media outlets so eager to promote this bogus earthquake prediction? The answer has many parallels with the seismic situation we find ourselves faced with in New Zealand.
Throughout the 1980s, the authorities in the Midwest of the US had been warning the population about the risk of earthquakes, pointing out that the New Madrid fault beneath them had produced three of the country’s most devastating earthquakes in 1811 – 1812. While there have been few serious earthquakes on the fault ever since, the risk remains – a lot of research is underway in the New Madrid Fault Region to learn more about the state of the fault as a high magnitude earthquake in the region is expected to result in massive damage and significant loss of life.
Like those Midwesterners, many of us live in close proximity to a major fault line – in my case, its the Wellington Fault cutting a path through the city half a kilometre from my office. For those in the South Island, it is the Alpine Fault that traditionally has had them worried. There has also been a recent, fairly destructive quake in the form of the September 4 7.1M event – on a previously unknown fault. In October 1989, weeks just prior to Dr Brown making his prediction, there was a large quake in northern California (Loma Prieta) killing 63 people in the San Francisco Bay Area.
So you have a: an area of the country riddled with faults that scientists says could rupture and cause massive earthquakes b: a recent high magnitude quake that has put earthquakes squarely in the public consciousness and c: a guy who comes along and says he can predict when and where the next one will happen.
Throw on top of that the fact that scientists actually have been, over the years, checking out the possibility that tidal forces can trigger earthquakes, and the lack of credible scientists loudly proclaiming Iben Browning a quack, and you have the perfect conditions for Dr Brown’s theory to take hold.
There was also something else seemingly compelling – Dr. Browning was reported as having predicted that earthquake that struck the Bay Area. The San Francisco Chronicle reported:
He missed by just 6 hours hitting the Oct. 17 San Francisco quake on the nose and by only 5 minutes in an update a week before the disaster.
However, when December 1990 had passed with no quake on the New Madrid fault, scientists went back and looked more closely at his predictions.
His claim to have predicted Loma Prieta was baseless, a video and a transcript of two of his talks showed that he had not even mentioned California – he had predicted nothing more than vague geologic unrest around the world. And his claimed 5-year-long record of prediction success was no better than chance.
You may have read fellow Sciblogger David Winter’s piece Ken Ring can’t predict earthquakes either which looks in detail at Ken Ring’s “prediction” of the Feb. 22 quake in Canterbury and whether it stacks up.
It all came crashing down for Dr Browning in 1991, according to Science when it was revealed that one of his biggest supporters, geophysicist Dr David Stewart revealed that be believed “psychic phenomenon is [sic] a fact”.
Again, some parallels with Ken Ring author of Pawmistry: How to Read Your Cat’s Paws. More on that and Ken Ring’s lack of formal scientific qualifications at Silly Beliefs.
Scientists did a lot of soul-searching in the wake of the Ibsen Browning debacle in 1990. They were criticised for not getting on the front foot and debunking Dr Browning sooner in the piece, before the media frenzy had whipped up hysteria. One scientist quoted in the Science piece explains the approach that is often taken by the scientific community in such cases:
The hope is that if we don’t respond, people will forget it and it will go away. If we do respond it gives the prediction a certain amount of credibility.
Scientists responded strongly this week to debunk Ken Ring’s claims as an earthquake predictor. Maybe they should have done that sooner, but I have seen the reluctance outlined above in operation here too and for good reason – look what happened on Campbell Live.
In the end the parallels between the shonky earthquake predictor who terrified the US Midwest in 1990 and Ken Ring currently putting a ring around March 20 on his calendar are incredibly strong. The question asked by US scientists back then was why hadn’t they learned their lesson about pseudoscientific earthquake predictions.
After all, there had been at least three of them in the 1970s that had attracted widespread publicity – surely the scientific community wouldn’t let a fourth gather steam? Well it did and the rest is history… and there’s a lot we could learn from that history when faced with earthquake predictions of this nature in our own country.