The snake-oil salesmen of “earthquake prediction”

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Earthquake weather

Earthquake predictions are going viral online — and spreading dangerous conspiracies along the way.

For Inverse:

In 1990, an eccentric Texan named Iben Browning appeared on the national stage with a dramatic prediction: On December 2 or 3 of that year, a major earthquake would hit the New Madrid fault in southwestern Missouri.

Professional earthquake scientists mostly declined to even give the prediction any attention, and — to their total lack of surprise — Dec. 3, 1990 came and went without a tremor. Nevertheless, Browning’s prediction sent a number of people into a panic, who built “Browning bunkers” and brought news crews to the small town of New Madrid (pronounced in a typically American fashion as “MAD-rid”). The non-event even inspired a 1993 song from the southern Illinois alternative country band Uncle Tupelo.

On its face, predicting an earthquake in New Madrid doesn’t seem too far-fetched. On Dec. 16, 1811, a tremor struck the town large enough to change the course of the Mississippi River and create the illusion of making the water flow backward. The young city of St. Louis was heavily damaged, and New Madrid itself was essentially destroyed. The New Madrid region even experienced a magnitude 4.7 quake in September 1990, which lent a little credibility to Browning’s claim in the public eye. The area has around 200 low-magnitude quakes annually, and disaster-preparedness experts are concerned that infrastructure is not robust enough to handle larger events.

But knowing earthquakes have happened at a particular site and are likely to happen again in the future is not the same thing as being able to predict them. Browning based his “forecast” on weather patterns and other phenomena, but never fully revealed his methodology for others to evaluate. (His primary motivation may in fact have been selling videocassettes explaining his theories to a panicked population.)

[Read the rest at Inverse]

“Peanuts”, vaccination, and the limits of persuasion

In my new comic with Maki Naro, we go meta: using a comic to talk about a comic! Specifically, we comics’ed about one of the most beloved comic strips of all time, Charles M. Schulz’ “Peanuts”. While the strip mostly steered clear of the issues of the day, occasionally Schulz did include topical material. One of those stories is still relevant today: vaccinations.

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

When “Peanuts” Went All-In on Vaccinations

Charles Schulz used his culturally monolithic comic strip to advocate for public health. But his approach had some serious shortcomings.

panel from "When 'Peanuts' Went All-In on Vaccinations" comic by Maki Naro and me

This panel includes a true fact as well as a bad pun. What else are comics for? [Credit: Maki Naro (art)/moi (words)]

I’m a lifelong fan of “Peanuts”, and occasionally binge-read old stories. A little while back, I noticed Schulz ran multiple pro-vaccination cartoons — nothing overt like saying “vaccinate your kids!”, but definitely normalizing the practice and not-so-subtly nudging his readers to vaccinate. My latest comic with Maki Naro takes a look at where “Peanuts” fits into the wider landscape of vaccine advocacy, including how methods of persuasion can fail badly. Suffice to say that, much as I love “Peanuts”, the strip is incredibly lacking on issues of race.

P.S. Do you like this comic? If so, please pledge to Maki’s and my forthcoming comics collection Who Owns an Asteroid? (from Unbound), which will include many such nonfiction science comics in full color!

When physicists go bad

My latest comic with Maki Naro addresses the instances where certain physicists abandon scientific ethics to promote dubious causes: eugenics, climate change denial, and so forth. Since this issue is a bit fraught, I’ve included notes and references at the end of this post. Journalism, y’know?

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

When Good Scientists Go Bad

Science doesn’t make you magically objective, and it’s not separate from the rest of human experience.

Albert Einstein wearing a "Black Lives Matter" shirt next to William Shockley carrying a tiki torch

Albert Einstein obviously died many years before the Black Lives Matters movement, but he was a strong anti-lynching advocate. William Shockley similarly never waved a tiki torch at a neofascist rally, but he did hang out with Ku Klux Klan financiers. [Credit: Maki Naro (art)/moi (words)]

There’s a common myth that scientists are objective participants in the world, applying the same rigorous standards to life outside the lab as they do within it. However, everyone’s biases affect our interactions with the world (and the practice of science itself is less objective than many people would like to believe). In some instances, when scientists leave the world of research, they still pretend that’s not the case, using scientific credentials to make statements beyond their expertise. In this new comic with Maki Naro, we looked at a few cases where right-leaning physicists endorsed outright pseudoscience: eugenics, questionable weaponry, and — most prominently today — climate change “skepticism”.

References for the comic:

  1. Elizabeth Catte. What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia (Belt, 2018). This book is where I first found out about William Shockley’s attempt to implement IQ-based eugenics in Appalachia, and the original inspiration for this comic. It’s also a well-sourced and -researched antidote to Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.
  2. For more on the meeting between Shockley, Harry Caudill, and KKK financier J. W. Kirkpatrick, see this excellent report from the Lexington Herald Leader. Kirkpatrick was (among other things) involved in an attempted white supremacist coup to overthrow the government of the Dominican Republic.
  3. Naomi Orekes and Erik M. Conway. Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury, 2010). Oreskes and Conway provide a detailed exposé of scientists (not just physicists) involved in anti-environmentalist and pro-corporate activities from the mid-20th century up to today. The “Rogues Gallery” in the comic is derived from this book. (There’s also a documentary, but I haven’t watched it.)
  4. The quote from William Happer comparing carbon dioxide to Holocaust victims was widely reported; see this MediaMatters summary and his profile on DeSmog Blog. DeSmog Blog is also the source of the information about Willie Soon.
  5. I wrote about Einstein’s antiracist and anti-lynching work for Smithsonian, which contains its own sources and notes. (I also wrote in Forbes about Einstein’s own racism about Asian people.)

Why falsifiability is a false guide to what is and isn’t science

I had a liberal arts education, which means that I mostly use what I learned to post nonsense on Twitter. However, thanks to my advisor, I got a solid grounding in the philosophy of science. While I’m certainly no philosopher myself, I also (hopefully) have a less simplistic view of how science works and doesn’t work than what is often presented as the “scientific method” and suchlike. For Symmetry, I got a chance to talk a little about how “falsifiability” is widely promoted as a way to tell what is scientific and what is not, and why it’s actually a poor criterion, both from a philosophical and scientific point of view.

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

Falsifiability and physics

Can a theory that isn’t completely testable still be useful to physics?

For Symmetry Magazine:

What determines if an idea is legitimately scientific or not? This question has been debated by philosophers and historians of science, working scientists, and lawyers in courts of law. That’s because it’s not merely an abstract notion: What makes something scientific or not determines if it should be taught in classrooms or supported by government grant money.

The answer is relatively straightforward in many cases: Despite conspiracy theories to the contrary, the Earth is not flat. Literally all evidence is in favor of a round and rotating Earth, so statements based on a flat-Earth hypothesis are not scientific.

In other cases, though, people actively debate where and how the demarcation line should be drawn. One such criterion was proposed by philosopher of science Karl Popper (1902-1994), who argued that scientific ideas must be subject to “falsification.”

[Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine]

The band has stopped playing, but we keep dancing
The world keeps turning, the world keeps turning.
–Tom Waits

A lot of nonsense has been written over the years about various “prophecies” predicting the end of the world, including stuff by people who should know better. What you see in newspapers, magazines, and TV shows might lead you to believe there is credible reason to think the world will end tomorrow: December 21, 2012. Supposedly this was predicted by the Mayan calendar. However, as with so many things, the truth is much different. The Mayas didn’t predict the end of the world, and there’s no evidence they thought that way. More importantly, there’s no scientific reason to think the world will end tomorrow: nothing we know of could bring about our end so rapidly without warning. That’s a reassuring thought to me, as I wrote in Double X Science today:

My confidence comes from science. I know it sounds hokey, but it’s true. There’s no scientific reason—absolutely none—to think the world will end tomorrow. Yes, the world will end one day, and Earth has experienced some serious cataclysms in the past that wiped out a significant amount of life, but none of those things are going to happen tomorrow. (I’ll come back to those points in a bit.) We’re very good at science, after centuries of work, and the kinds of violent events that could seriously threaten us won’t take us by surprise. [Read more….]

The band has stopped playing, but we keep dancing

I admit, I love flipping through SkyMall when I’m on airplanes. However, the catalog is chock-full of pseudoscience, as with today’s entry in “As Seen on TV!”, my occasional feature over at Double X Science. (Warning: contains my balding scalp.)

Ah, lasers. They may not have the mystique of magnets or the nous of “natural”, but they are a frequent ingredient in modern snake oil. (Come to think of it, one of the hair-restoration products may have contained snake oil. I don’t want to ask.) But while lasers can help correct nearsightedness in some cases, perform minimally invasive surgeries, and remove hair, color my scalp skeptical about their ability to restore hair. [Read more…]

The bald(ing) truth about laser hair-restoration treatments