Earthquake Prediction?

Earthquake prediction is, predictably, a topic once again. It doesn’t really matter when you’re reading this because it’s almost always a topic, but it becomes especially problematic after large earthquakes. Why? Because earthquakes are scary and people want the reassurance that someone, somewhere, can tell them what to expect.

Earthquake predictors come in lots of different “flavors”. Some have good intentions, many are in it for clicks or money (monetized websites / YouTube channels or the like). All of them cause needless fear and anxiety. Many claim that scientists are threatened by them, or are silencing them. This is not true. But to understand why this isn’t true requires some insight into the process of science, which isn’t always clear. I’ll try to outline it briefly.

When a scientist has an idea they test that idea to see if it supports the observations. They test it over and over to see if it always works, to see if they can reproduce the results. If it does, they write about that idea – the idea itself, the methods used to test the idea and the results. They write about WHY that idea works, the mechanism by which it works. Then they submit that paper to a journal. But that’s not the end!

Then, that paper (but really the idea) is assessed by other people that study the same thing. They TRY and poke holes in the idea. Not because they’re mean, but because they are also testing the idea, looking to see if it actually explains the observations, and how well. They may try and reproduce the results themselves, to make sure that the idea works. They will also look at the WHY – can the proposed reason explain the results? If everything checks out and the experts agree, then the paper is published in the journal where it can (and will) be debated some more by the scientific community at large. If the idea doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, the paper is rejected & the reviewers give comments about the weaknesses of the idea or the why.

This process is tedious but important to ensure rigor and reproducibility in scientific information. Anyone can submit their ideas to journals to be assessed in this way, which is called “peer review”. Let me repeat that – anyone can submit. However, if your idea isn’t reproducible or your “why” doesn’t hold water, your idea will be rejected. That goes for professional scientists or citizen scientists – any and everyone. So when predictors say they’re being silenced or ignored they might mean their idea didn’t pass peer review but usually it means that they have not (or have refused to) go through peer review.

Is peer review perfect? No. But it’s pretty good at winnowing out blatantly incorrect ideas. Does scientific understanding change? Yes! New data sometimes leads to changes in our understanding which can result in a new scientific paradigm. Carl Sagan said it well – “In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day.”

How does this paradigm shift happen? Slowly. And with EXTENSIVE peer review and debate and testing of the new idea. Why? Because extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. So if you think you have an idea that will change how we fundamentally understand the earth, like earthquake prediction, you better be prepared to back it up.

All this to say, so far no one’s ideas about earthquake prediction have been reproducible to the standard of science. They can claim it, but they have yet to back it up.

No one can predict earthquakes.

2 thoughts on “Earthquake Prediction?

  1. For awhile after returning to the Seattle area from Los Angeles, I thought I would have some heads up on quakes because of the U of Wa work on them. Well, not really and all I keep hearing is how deadly the Cascadian Subduction Zone is. Will prevent healthy sleep!


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