While driving to give a lecture on earthquake prediction to a large class of non-science majors, I remembered the Radio Shack sales pitch, “You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers.” It seems to me that this quote captures the cultural divide between seismologists and the public regarding earthquake prediction.
Based on my interaction with the public regarding earthquakes (particularly after significant earthquakes occur), and on my experience with courses that I teach at Boston College, I have come to the conclusion that there is a great divide between seismologists and the general public on the topic of earthquake prediction. The public wants answers but what characterizes seismologists (and scientists in general) more than anything else is their intrigue with the process of finding answers to questions, rather than the answers themselves. In the words of Richard Feynman, we are driven by “the joy of finding things out.” Sure seismologists sometimes get egotistical about their latest earthquake prediction-related “discovery”, acting as if they are close to finding some ultimate “answer” about earthquake predictability (and I am certainly at times guilty of that egotism myself). And sure we get cynical as we get older and start to feel that we have lost the “naive” enthusiasm about a life of “exploring the unknown” that we had in graduate school or earlier. But, my experience with seismologists (and other scientists) of all ages is that, if you “scratch the surface just a little bit”, you will find that we are still in our hearts living the ideal that drew us into the world of science in the first place: We love to think about the big unanswered questions, and we love the challenge of trying to figure out the answer.
When non-scientists meet me, they are often thrilled to find a real seismologist who will be able to finally give them answers to earthquake-related questions they have been thinking about all of their lives. After a short while, I can see their disappointment when they find out that they want answers, and I’ve got questions. So much so that I don’t think it is too much of an exaggeration to say that they would rather hear me say, “Yes, there will be a magnitude 8 in your backyard tomorrow morning…” than to hear me say, “Well, that’s actually a big and fascinating question that seismologists don’t know the answer to and are actively investigating…”
Another aspect of this cultural divide: Most scientists I know are convinced, with good reason, that this curiosity driven science is precisely what leads ultimately to real and useful answers in the long run. However, that argument is usually not very compelling to a public that is hungry for immediate results and for certainty in an uncertain world. I think it is precisely the interplay between what is certain and what is uncertain that makes science fun, and that ultimately does yield answers to important questions (although sometimes to different questions than the ones we were originally seeking to answer).
So, where does this leave us? It leaves us with a big mismatch between what the public wants, and what we love to provide. At times I despair that this divide will never be bridged because the public has very little interest in this unending “quest for truth” that draws us into careers as scientists.
I am curious to hear what other seismologists and non-seismologists think about this divide. Do you as a seismologist have this same experience? Do you as a non-seismologist find it frustrating that seismologists are not providing the answers you are seeking?
If you do think that this is an accurate description of the situation, what do you think we can do to make the situation better? Is this a matter of scientists learning how to tell our story in such a way that we more effectively market whatever answers we have (incomplete as they may be)? Is it our obligation as public servants to focus on what we do know and minimize our excitement about the mystery of what we don’t know?
Thoughts, comments (or maybe even some “answers”) on this topic are welcome.