Monday, June 18, 2007

L.A. Times Touts Junk In Quake Prediction Story

One of the great costs of the buyouts generated by the Tribune Co. at the Los Angeles Times is that institutional memory, another way of saying expertise, has been lost, and there was a powerful sign in Sunday's Opinion section over just how much has been lost. The Opinion pages used to have three Pulitzer Prize winners on staff before the former editorial page editor, Andres Martinez, who was finally forced out in a sex scandal himself, got rid of them all.

Perhaps if those prize winners were still on staff, the L.A. Times would not have printed as it did yesterday a spurious story indicating that five individuals, none of them active earthquake scientists, and, for all we are told, four of them not even scientists, had been able to predict major California earthquakes.

Two of the five examples cited were not earthquake predictions at all, and two others were dumb luck. Somebody having heart pains is simply not a guide to predicting earthquakes.

For a quake prediction to be valid, it has to state the time, place and magnitude of an earthquake and get all of these more or less right.

So for Marian Campbell to predict a 5.0 quake near the 40th parallel and then to have a 6.4 quake occur in the Gulf of California is not a prediction. Not only is a 6.4 nearly 40 times more powerful than a 5.0, but the earthquake that occurred was at least 800 miles away from where the prediction said a quake would be. The 40th parallel is near Eureka. The Gulf of California is nowhere close.

Not even as accurate was Jerry Hurley, who says he predicted a 5.0 or higher quake on June 14, 1995, off the California coast, and two days later, a 6.7 occurred. Not only would that quake be 70 times the size of a 5.0, but there was no such quake anywhere near off the California coast or anywhere in California on June 16, 1995. Hurley is making things up, and the Times should have checked him.

Similarly, Zhonghau Shou didn't actually make a "Bulls-eye prediction" when he said in August, 1999 that a major quake would hit east of L.A. A magnitude 7.1 quake did strike in the Mojave desert in October, 1999, but the "cloud patterns and shapes" that Shou said he used in making his prediction had no possible connection with an earthquake, and Shou simply had dumb luck in making the prediction. He probably knew that quakes as large as 7 occur in the Southern California desert every few years, and this one he predicted, but not through any causative knowledge.

The fact is, California has a lot of quakes, so every once in awhile, someone is going to be right with a prediction. But they haven't told us how often they were wrong about one.

Charlotte King says she felt severe heart pains in December, 1993 and predicted the 6.7 Northridge earthquake that occurred a month later. Baloney. Her heart pains had nothing to do with the earthquake.

Jim Berkland was closer to having a basis for predicting one, when, according to the Times, this "former geologist" predicted four days before, there would be a "world series quake," and then, the Loma Prieta quake occurred just before an Oakland A's-San Francisco Giants World Series game. Berkland apparently used observation of tides, lunar cycles and animal behavior to make the prediction. All these phenomena have sometimes been associated with earthquakes, but the links have not been scientifically confirmed.

The Times story, by Swati Pandey, says a "L.A. psychic," who is not identified, has predicted a 6.5 to 8.0 quake would hit Los Angeles by the end of the month.

We'll see. I'll pay $1,000 to a fund for drinks for Tribune Co. chairman Dennis FitzSimons, if there is such a quake.

The main thing is that the Times should never have run such a story, and would not have when I was reporting earthquakes in the years before I retired, without checking with real earthquake scientists to see whether they considered the five examples given to be real earthquake predictions.

If they had checked, they would have found the scientists saying the Times was being bullshitted, as it is all too frequently these days.

I'm having cantaloupe for breakfast this morning. That has nothing to do with future seismic behavior in California.



Blogger Tim McGarry said...

The "Opinion" piece was pointless and stupid -- and that's putting it generously.

I pretty much got my education in seismology from reading your stories, Ken. The Times has not covered the subject well since you left the beat. It was depressing to see the Pandey piece, yet another signal of LAT journalistic decline.

6/19/2007 11:57 AM  
Anonymous Jon Healey, Los Angeles Times said...

Jeez, people, lighten up! The Opinion section always includes at least one piece that's supposed to make you laugh. That's what this one obviously was. You don't need to check with "real earthquake scientists" to tell that these people are nutty! That's the point! Go ahead and critique the humor, but it defies credibility to argue that the Times is scraping bottom because we run a brief on whacky earthquake prediction methodologies amid longer pieces on Sheriff Baca, global crime rates, Watergate's enduring impact, gun control, the move to recall councilman Jack Weiss and local labor activist Madeline Janis.
One more thing: what does "someone called Swati Pandey" mean? Ken, why not just phone the Times and find out who Swati is? Isn't that what a reporter would do?

6/19/2007 3:42 PM  
Blogger Tim McGarry said...

Jon, if it was wit, it was pretty low-grade stuff. Was Pandey's use of "prediction" tongue-in-cheek? Here's one reader who came away with a definite sense that Pandey really doesn't understand how the word is used in science

Then again, perhaps you meant that Pandey's column was humorous in the way Joel Stein's columns are said to be "humorous."

6/19/2007 6:31 PM  

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