Screen capture of the MSNBC website on February 27, 2010 at ~5:30 PM eastern time.
Most of you have probably already heard about the magnitude 8.8 earthquake that struck today off the coast of Chile. This becomes one of the most powerful earthquakes on record and so far, the death toll has been relatively low – in the hundreds – especially compared to the horrific disaster of the Haiti earthquake from earlier this year. My thoughts go out to all in Chile recovering from the earthquake.
However, I am a little appalled at some of the coverage I’ve seen for this earthquake. MSNBC has become the vanguard of sensationalist drivel and shoddy science reporting – specifically, the article posted today titled: “Is Nature out of control?” (also seen with the headline “Big quake questions: are they getting worse?”) This type of headline is irresponsible, reprehensible “journalism” that the worst hacks should be ashamed to print. I feel like I don’t even have to justify it with a response, but honestly, two big earthquakes hours apart in Chile and Japan (or if you want to get bigger, two earthquakes months apart with Chile and Haiti) does not “out of control” make. No geologist would ever even imply this idea – yet somehow MSNBC finds it necessary to use this sensationalist garbage to promote their website. As of Saturday afternoon (2/27), no other major media outlet had such a headline on their front page.
Earthquakes happen, and they happen in a random distribution (more or less), meaning sometimes we get more, sometimes less. Spend any time looking at the USGS earthquake feed and you’ll see sometimes we have lots of M3+ earthquakes in a day, sometimes we can go a day or two without really any around the world. More importantly, looking at any of these earthquake patterns in a short timescale (geologically – which means in a human lifetime, maybe two lifetimes) is not sufficient to understand the pattern. MSNBC found one scientist who said that in the last 15 years (relative to the 20 years before that), “the Earth has been more active” – whatever that means – and have blown it up into an armageddon-like story. What does “more active” even mean? Does it mean more total earthquakes? More big earthquakes ? More total seismic energy being released? Does it include volcanoes? What about landslides? Hurricanes? That sort of throwaway line is the sort of thing that feeds the doomsayers and gives science a bad name.
Honestly, I sometimes think I need to go on Cafe Press and get t-shirts made that say “Correlation does not mean causation”. Humans perceive connections and patterns in events even when none are there – think about the so-called “Face on Mars“. Yes, we’ve had a number of large earthquakes in the recent past, but have we had a Toba-scale volcanic eruption? Have we had another New Madrid earthquake? The Earth is a big place with a lot of active tectonic margins and even more faults that gather stresses and periodically release them. Sure, they may have some connection broadly speaking, the same goes for the volcano-earthquake connection. However, we have no conclusive proof that these systems are directly related – that is to say, they are not the same as turning your key to start your car engine. Complex systems have many inputs – maybe the volcano that erupts next week would have erupted with a magnitude 4 earthquake, maybe it would have erupted without an earthquake at all. To connect the two merely because they are temporally juxtaposed is not scientifically sound. There is evidence that there could be an effect on nearby volcanism after large earthquakes in some settings, however, it is far from proven.
The point here is that the Earth is an active place – and we have very short experience with seeing events on a global scale. Reckless speculation the likes of which MSNBC (and LiveScience) partook in should be a warning of how the media still has a long way to come when it comes to reporting the facts rather than the hysteria of the natural world.