“Can I Visit the Richter Scale?” and Other Seismology Questions

No, earthquakes aren’t caused by global warming. But popular confusion about them provides a rare opportunity for science to conduct meaningful conversations with the public.
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: What are the greatest misconceptions that the public has about earthquakes?

Arthur Lerner-Lam:  Well, you know, obviously the public has a great interest when an earthquake happens and so we do our best… best we can.  The questions tend to be repetitive.  Almost always we get a question from somebody about whether they can come see the Richter scale, do we have an example of the Richter scale.  The Richter scale is a mathematical calculation.  In fact, seismologists don’t use it anymore.  The only reason we give a Richter magnitude frankly is for the press and the media, but we have much better ways of measuring the energy of an earthquake now.  But the second question that has cropped up and it’s fascinating in its own right is that the first time I heard it I thought it was a fluke, but I’ve heard it so many times since Haiti that I wonder what is going on and that is, “Are these earthquakes related to global warming?”  I’m serious about that.  I’d say that most of the press and most of the public that have called in that didn’t have specific domain knowledge has asked us that question.  We also get questions whether, you know, 2012 is coming a couple of years early.  We get that sort of thing.  “Is this the end of days?” 

But I think it speaks of something more interesting, which is that earthquakes and major disasters have a certain impact on the public consciousness and I think earthquakes more so or even volcanic eruptions more so than anything else.  You know we get a major hurricane, a few major hurricanes ever year or we get floods every year.  They’re major disasters that cause an enormous amount of economic damage and casualties, but yet we hear about them relatively often and so we kind of think of that as kind of background.  This is what the earth doing to us, but earthquakes, especially major ones are relatively rare.  We get a few major ones a decade, particularly ones with huge numbers of casualties and the concept of an earthquake, that it shakes the firmament, that it removes your footing, that it could destroy everything in a blink of an eye and that it is unpredictable, that it just happens, even if your rational in a scientific way, even if you’re rational in even a theological sort of way you get a… it has to have some impact.  You know the response, the scientific response to the Chile earthquake although modulated a bit by the damage and by the casualties still was this is a major earthquake, we’ve got to look at this as well as we can because we only get a couple of shots a decade to look at this, so now there are teams of scientists and lots of instrumentation going to Chile, but when you get down to Haiti or something like Haiti.  When you get a direct hit on a capital city.  When the bulk of the nation is affected where you have damage that far exceeds their economic ability to come back, coupled with the fact that an earthquake literally moves the ground on which you’re cited you started asking basic questions like: “Should I even be here?  Should I be living here?  Do I have to move?  What is the future of my country?  What is the future of my city?”  And those are the sorts of questions that I think have such a big impact on the public that by necessity I think we’ve got to talk about them.  We’ve got to talk about what it means. 

I think science is somewhat ill equipped to do that.  We quantify everything.  We enumerate the energies, the displacements, the ground motion.  We have technology and we have lingo, but none of this relates to somebody who is asking the question, “My house was destroyed.”  “Where should I move?”  It relates of course in a very quantitative scientific way, but how do you approach that person?  How do you assure them that the situation has a rational response?  And I don’t think we have a good way to deal with that, so a lot of the questions we were getting and a lot of the thinking that generated had to do with the central questions of what does this mean particularly for the future of Haiti, but what does this mean when we talk about taking steps to mitigate against future tragedy, future disasters, not just for earthquakes, but for the other major natural disasters as well and to me that… and to many of us I should say, it’s not that we haven’t thought about this before, but it seems to me to be an area not just of research, but of sort of a way to link directly to the public, directly to the people who need to understand what it is we’re doing as scientists. 

You know, I can make the same sort of argument about climate change, for example, but earthquakes serve…  I use a phrase and I don’t mean to use it lightly, but earthquakes serve as training days for the major environmental disasters, major environmental stresses that our planet faces and if we can begin to address how we relate to the public, now we provide assurance, how we help the public to understand what it is that is happening to them.  If we can understand how to do that for major earthquakes or major hurricanes then perhaps we can do something about stuff that is even more major, more in the future, more emergent, more probabilistic where we actually might have a chance in modifying our behavior to do something about it. 

So what I’ve taken away from this interaction from Haiti and Chile, and I must admit it’s not new to this earthquake.  We’ve had it before with the Indonesian earthquake and the Indian Ocean tsunami.  We’ve seen it in earthquakes going as far back as the '80s and the '70s in places like Armenia and China and so on, but what we’ve taken away from this is that there is a conversation that scientists have to have with the public that the public will regard as deeply meaningful, which means we can’t just throw our results over the fence.  We can’t just stick with our technical journals.  There has got to be some other mechanism and in my view, I think universities where we ascribe to liberal thinking, the small-L liberal, you know, that ought to be a good place to do it, and I think the universities have that kind of role to play beyond the roles that governments and other social institutions play.