Our guest on the show this week (Episode 80) was Dr. Christie Rowe who had a contentious interaction with Simon Winchester about a fear-mongering seismology article he’d written. She gave us permission to repost her letters and his responses for your enjoyment. So do just that, enjoy.
ORIGINAL ARTICLE BY SIMON WINCHESTER: The Scariest Earthquake is Yet to Come
Dear Mr. Winchester,
Your article in Newsweek is indefensible speculation, delivered at a sensitive time to a population which has neither the knowledge or critical thinking habits to identify the deep flaws in your logic. On behalf of geoscientists everywhere, who struggle daily to deliver reliable and accurate information to the public, PLEASE REFRAIN FROM WRITING UNFOUNDED, FEAR MONGERING ARTICLES IN POPULAR MEDIA. We do not have access to the high-profile outlets which you regularly use and it is nearly impossible for our community to counter the damage you do by spreading misinformation and irresponsible predictions.
Dr. Christie Rowe
Earthquake Physics group, UC Santa Cruz
*If you would care to RESEARCH an article before you publish, please feel free to contact us.
Dear Ms. Rowe,
Thank you so much for your letter with which, as you might imagine, I am in complete disagreement.
I believe it is imperative that those of us with a reasonably broad and informed view of the geological world spread the word to a general public which is far better informed and capable of critical thinking than you allow, that there are risks inherent in living on or beside plate margins, and risks that grow as time without activity increases.As Ross Stein is quoted as saying in today’s New York Times, the lack of knowledge among even professional geoscientists is ‘humbling’ and ‘shameful’ – which makes me think it is really little more appropriate for those in your community to criticize lay writers like me than it is for people like me to grumble about the lack of knowledge and real understanding accumulated by people like you. In spite of the very considerable sums of money expended in attempting to gain this understanding.
I am sorry we disagree. But I thank you for taking the time and trouble to write.Simon Winchester
Dear Mr. Winchester,
Thank you sincerely for your response to my email. I heartily agree with your sentiment that it is important to keep the public informed. However, you have actively MISinformed the public by giving wrong information, when correct information – or at least the state of the art, however “humbling” or “shameful” that state may be – is easily available. I would be very surprised if Dr. Stein would agree with your apparent interpretation of his remarks to mean that if science cannot yet answer a question, that popular writers are free to make up the answer. You are correct – considerable sums of money are spent trying to understand these processes, and we have not mastered every secret of the earth as yet. The budget of the National Science Foundation costs $2/household/year in the US, and only a small portion of that money is for earth science research. So “considerable” sums may be better judged by the opportunity cost of NOT spending that money.
I strongly disagree with your argument in the Newsweek article that there should be some type of earthquake “gap filling” on the scale of the Ring of Fire. I know of no physical theory, seismological statistic or geological observation which substantiates this argument. The relative plate motion along different parts of the Pacific rim is variable in rate and direction, and in the degree to which the plate motion is being stored as elastic strain (and thereby, future earthquake motion). Many people are actively studying the effects one large earthquake may have in changing the probability of others, the science of “remote triggering”, and there is a great body of knowledge showing which areas on which plate margins are in a more triggerable state than others. In fact, there is no evidence to support the idea that triggering of earthquakes should be related to shared plates – as the entire planet is effected by the seismic waves from large earthquakes, the next big one might just as well be in the Himalayan Frontal Thrust or the Northern Anatolian Fault.
The San Andreas is certainly not the most dangerous plate boundary around the Pacific Rim, nor is it representative of the northeast corner of the Pacific. The Cascadia subduction zone is capable of much larger and more devastating earthquakes, and creating basin-wide tsunamis on the same scale as the event of last week.
All of these ideas, and supporting data, are easily produced by a simple google search. I am curious about your motivation in writing this article. I respect and support the desire to put make the public aware of the very real risks posed by the San Andreas, especially the Hayward strand. However, the LA basin segments are arguably more dangerous (in possible earthquake magnitude and human impact). Do you have a contact or source in the earthquake research community who is privately advocating for the position you put forth? I know of no one who is doing so publicly.
I am also rather horrified by the tone of your article. It seems a case of simple fear mongering to me. No one has ever suggested the San Andreas is capable of more than about M8 earthquakes – simply limited by the near vertical orientation of the fault, and the depth to the plastic transition. Being onshore and strike-slip, it is not capable of causing a deadly tsunami. Why would you suggest that “the Scariest Earthquake is Yet to Come”?
Again, thank you for your reply to my comments.
Earth& Planetary Sciences, UCSC*********************
Simon Winchester’s next column appeared in the Daily Beast:
On Mar 25, 2011, at 3:21, Christie Rowe <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
Dear Mr. Winchester,
I read your piece in the Daily Beast with great interest, and am copying the editors of both Newsweek and Daily Beast on this email. You clearly misunderstood my points, as well as those of Harold Tobin, and you misspelled both our names. You also misused Ross Stein (as quoted in the NYT article), by implying that he was being humbled by some hostile scientists when his quotation clearly implies that he is humbled by the challenge of the shear number of faults to be discovered and mapped. You also misappropriated the quote from Chris Goldfinger. To be clear: the geophysical community is in agreement that faults influence one another, by both direct and indirect means. However, you alone have made the leap to say that the Japanese quake of last week will cause a larger earthquake on the San Andreas Fault.
No-one is enraged by the discussion of earthquake triggering, but I for one am upset by your fear-mongering and baseless predictions. The ideas of triggering and clustering are neither new nor revolutionary. Both concepts are demonstrated in small scale areas, and on certain time scales. Clustering and triggering are not the same thing. There is abundant literature on these topics. You have not “ignited the debate”, you are not a protagonist in this debate, as you are completely unaware of the debate, because you have failed to avail yourself of the literature, and I have seen no evidence that you have contacted anyone with expertise on these topics, as you continually recycle quotes from other popular sources instead of doing your own interviews. You have clearly not done your fact checking, and apparently your editors are not doing so either.
You seem to have misunderstood the intention behind legitimate criticism of your scientific inaccuracies. If you have not seen it already, I suggest you look at the IRIS website’s outreach page (http://www.iris.edu/hq/retm) where they provide to the public the actual data on earthquake frequency and location: the data you obliquely suggest must exist in your article. You seem to simultaneously attribute global temporal coincidence of large earthquakes to “clustering” and also insist that stress transfer across a single plate must play a role (in your choice of the San Andreas as the “next big one”). You are unaware that the Chilean earthquake occurred on the boundary between the Nazca and South American plates, not on the Pacific Plate?
Direct triggering occurs when the seismic waves from one earthquake pass through another distant area, causing small ground accelerations which can trigger earthquakes. Hydrothermal areas are particularly susceptible to this phenomenon (e.g. the Yellowstone example which you cited). However, there is no clear mechanism for one earthquake to trigger another long after the waves have passed- even years after. That is why it is necessary to use statistical approaches to test the two hypotheses – a) that large earthquakes are randomly distributed in time, and probably not causing each other, vs. b) that they are non-random, and more likely to occur in clusters. As I spelled out in my last email to you, the issue remains that the time-series of very large earthquakes is not long enough at this point, because of their relative rarity, to establish certainty. Even if the statistics imply that they occur in clusters, this does not necessarily mean that they are causing each other; it is also possible that there is a common cause for all of them.
Why don’t you admit to your inaccuracies? Why don’t you do your research before publishing? The Newsweek article was embarrassing, to repeat and defend your mistake is inexcusable. Judging from your comment in the Daily Beast column, many members of the geophysics community have written to you and offered information and assistance. We desperately want to see accurate and useful information spread to the public. We have the data and you have the platform.
On 3/25/11 7:10 AM, Simon Winchester wrote:
The spelling errors are being taken care of. The rest – I am just going to have to let it play out and, if I am so wrong, take my lumps.
Sent from my iPad
Class act, I’m sure you’ll agree.
See Christie’s public note on Facebook and read her response blog post in Scientific American: Earthquake triggering, and why we don’t know where the next big one will strike.