Earthquake Prediction: You Want Answers, We’ve Got Questions

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.

9 thoughts on “Earthquake Prediction: You Want Answers, We’ve Got Questions

  1. While not technically a seismologist, or any kind of scientist for that matter(no official schooling or degree), I think I fall on your side of the “divide”. I find Seismology to be utterly fascinating and try to find out as much as I can about it. As such I believe that I understand exactly where you’re coming from. I’ve tried explaining these types of things to other people that don’t know and all I get is the blank stare or disappointment. I’ve stopped trying.
    Your description of the situation is about right on. And maybe there is a better way of explaining the science or “Marketing” as you put it, I certainly don’t think you should minimize your excitement on the subject. Never apologize for it.
    I think the problem is a fundamental difference in thinking processes. It’s like trying to teach and apple how to be an orange. You want an apple, plant an apple. We have to change the way people learn about and see the world. I’m going to go out on a limb and be very UN-PC here and say that it has to do with how religion has driven our culture for the past few millennia. People expect someone to have the answers, because, this supposed god supposedly has all the answers. For what ever reason, science has been equated with religion (and automatically assigned as the adversary) so most people think that science, like their god, will have all the answers right now. When that’s not the case. Science doesn’t have the answers, science IS the PROCESS of finding the answers. Science is the process of finding the absolutely fascinating beauty in our world. We need to teach people what Science really is.
    Unfortunately have no idea how to go about that, except to keep on truckin’ and hope it all catches on with the rest or society.

  2. I’m a non-traditional student now pursuing science (geology but not seismology) at the tender age of 38. I bring a lot of life experience with me, a lot of growing up, and a lot of previous (mostly) non-science education. When I was younger, I wanted all of those safe answers to life’s mysteries, too. As the years went by, at some point, I became okay with the unknowns and also became fascinated by the processes as much as the big answers. I also watched a lot of sciencey shows on cable, so maybe had more scientific exposure from devouring those than the average person might. However, what I think really did it for me, and what may be a big part of the divide, is the understanding of deep time. Once I grasped that concept, I couldn’t look at the fast food world with the same eyes, and I was able to accept a myriad of more unknown factors, and that even if something is unknowable in its entirety, it should still be studied, particularly where safety is concerned. I think another part of the divide is simply the fact that there is also a certain type of person who has an overwhelming need for simple, black and white, yes or no answers to everything in life, and all questions must have answers which can be neatly compartmentalized. I remember being that way when I was a very young adult, but I learned to live with, and thrive on, the big complex mysteries that aren’t easily understood. Not everyone gets to that place!

  3. Regarding earthquake prediction;
    If you are not getting getting meaningful answers, are you asking meaningful questions?
    It may be that some earthquakes cannot be predicted, but that shouldn’t stop us trying. Even one correct prediction in three could save many lives.
    Try looking for transient waves associated with the earth Eigenmodes. Tiltmeters have suggested in the past that a link may be there as the earth cycles through it’s twice a day natural tides. As far as I know this hasn’t been looked at in any detail.
    Chris Chapman

  4. April 5th 2010. How long do you think it’s going to be before the plains states are hit with a very large earthquake? It seems to be building and I know we’re on fault lines. Please get back.

    Wondering in Oklahoma.

  5. Referring back to my orignal question about how long do you think it will be before an earthquake hits the plain states. I would like to know what is the best website to gather information about the world map on fault lines, the times and places earthquakes has been recorded, and the magnitude at which they have been messured within the last 100 years.

    Still wondering,

  6. i watched 2012 this movies first start from solar system.sun leave massive energy in space.i read this block 9/12/2010 news papaer metro.and evening standerd.then after next step there is biig demostaration i seen in movie..same thing in uk..there is a big student london…in this rely is violent same thing i seen in 2012 movie,same thing happen…can u tell me is 2012 movie is right or rong..or its immagination..or just story ..for watching movie..thats it.can u tell me the answer plzzzzzzzzzzz

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