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Archive for May, 2010

Look! Up in the Sky! It’s an Earthquake!

ResearchBlogging.org

Every so often a rumor starts making the rounds through social networking sites that is saturated in woo. My fiance ran across one on Facebook a few weeks ago that fit this description, focusing on the terror-evoking, sky-creeping vapor masses known as earthquake clouds. The post posited that there are certain clouds that appear in the sky that can be used to predict the onset of earthquakes. It referenced this brief article about rainbow-colored clouds over Los Angeles that were similar to those supposedly seen prior to earthquakes in China and Chile, replete with user comments trumpeting doom for the region through various conspiracy theories, destruction that ended up never taking place.

Torpedo-Shaped Clouds

Charming aerial formations, or omens predicting destruction?

The fact that my fiance and I live about one mile from the San Andreas Fault Line in a mountainous region that regularly has cloud cover fueled my intrigue about this irrational correlation. We have earthquakes every few years of varying magnitudes, most of which occur with some cloud cover present before and/or during the rumbling. I have heard residents of the area claim they could somehow sense earthquakes coming, but never that someone could see indicators – especially in the sky. At the same time, I have never really hypothesized a connection between sky phenomena and plate movement. With my woo senses tingling, I decided to investigate.

To begin, I wanted to figure out what earthquake clouds are supposed to look like and this resulted in the first of many problems: no one appears to know. A Google Image search of “earthquake clouds” presents a muddling concoction of photos that hardly represent one another: some are sparse and jagged, others are large and smooth, some are in clear bands, and others are jumbled together. Descriptions are equally varied, with definitions of “upward tornado type [clouds] and a horizontal striped bright cloud” (Ondoh, 2009, p. 217), “linear clouds at [sic] the clear sky background” (Pulinets & Ouzounov, 2010, p. 5) , “a cloud with the colors of the rainbow splashed across it”, ancient mystical accounts of “threads of a black cloud spanning the sky like a long snake ” and contemporary mystical descriptions of “a special configuration like a snake, a wave, a feather, or a lantern”. With so many potential physical appearances and little consensus on what should be observed, any potential scientific evidence would appear quite difficult to gather.

Rainbow Clouds

A still from footage of supposed earthquake clouds prior to a 2008 quake in Sichuan, China. Pretty or frightening?

Those who support the earthquake cloud theory also differ in their explanations of how the clouds form. Explanations include terrestrial gas emanations from active faults (Ondoh, 2009), temperature fluctuations, humidity drops, and radon emissions from faults (Pulinets & Ouzounov, 2010), and “scalar energy” (Park, 2003), among others. Some theorists claim the clouds form in seconds, while others posit the clouds form over a number of hours. While this is not an area that I have knowledge or experience in, it appears that the underlying processes are largely unknown and what little research that has been done is mostly speculative.

Of greatest detriment to the earthquake cloud theory is the vast differentiation in the time these clouds are theorized to predict quakes. Some supporters claim quakes occur as soon as 30 minutes after cloud formation, many citing this video supposedly filmed in China before the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (there is no way to validate the time or place of this footage). Others feel that the clouds-in-question present themselves much earlier, anywhere from 25 to 50 days or more before the shaking begins. This sizable time period and further lack of consensus makes it evermore difficult to categorize the theory as scientific.

Rippled Clouds

Bringers of rain, or rumblings?

Furthermore, there is much room for logical fallacy and magical thinking to run rampant in the attribution of quakes to clouds. It is quite possible that many observers of so-called earthquake clouds close to a seismic event execute post hoc ergo propter hoc or “after this therefore because of this” reasoning fallacies, recalling a cloud (real or imagined) after a quake and assigning a correlation between the two. Those who believe in earthquake clouds forming weeks or months before quakes could similarly be connecting two independent instances through magical thinking, anticipating seismic activity at some point after observation of a suspected earthquake cloud. The later an earthquake takes place after observation of a believed earthquake cloud, the less likely the two are correlated, but firm believers in earthquake cloud theory will still support a connection despite this fact.

Without a scientifically-grounded base consisting of distinct observable characteristics, mechanisms of formation, and accurate understanding of the precursory nature of earthquake clouds (if there is any of value), the belief in these perceived ominous vapor formations can only be categorized as pseudoscience.

References

Every so often a rumor starts making the rounds through social networking sites that is saturated in woo. My fiance ran across one on Facebook a few weeks ago that fit this description, focusing on the terror-evoking, sky-creeping vapor masses known as earthquake clouds. The post posited that there are certain clouds that appear in the sky that can be used to predict the onset of earthquakes. It referenced this brief article about rainbow-colored clouds over Los Angeles that were similar to those seen prior to earthquakes in China and Chile, replete with user comments trumpeting doom for the region through various conspiracy theories.

Taking into account that my fiance and I live about one mile from the San Andreas Fault Line in a mountainous region that regularly has cloud cover, I was intrigued by this irrational correlation. We have earthquakes every few years of varying magnitudes, most of which occur with some cloud cover present before and/or during the rumbling. I have heard residents of the area claim they could somehow sense earthquakes coming, but never that someone could see indicators – especially in the sky. At the same time, I have never really hypothesized a connection between sky phenomena and plate movement. With my woo senses tingling, I decided to investigate.

To begin, I wanted to figure out what earthquake clouds are supposed to look like and this resulted in the first of many problems: no one appears to know. A Google Image search of “earthquake clouds” presents a muddling concoction of photos that hardly represent one another: some are sparse and jagged, others are large and smooth, some are in clear bands, and others are jumbled together. Descriptions are equally varied, with definitions of “upward tornado type [clouds] and a horizontal striped bright cloud” (Ondoh, 2009, p. 217), “linear clouds at [sic] the clear sky background” (Pulinets & Ouzounov, 2010, p. 5) , “a cloud with the colors of the rainbow splashed across it”, ancient mystical accounts of “threads of a black cloud spanning the sky like a long snake ” and contemporary mystical descriptions of “a special configuration like a snake, a wave, a feather, or a lantern”. With so many potential physical appearances and little consensus on what should be observed, scientific evidence is quite difficult to gather.

Those who support the earthquake cloud theory also differ in their explanations of how the clouds form. Explanations include terrestrial gas emanations from active faults (Ondoh, 2009), temperature fluctuations, humidity drops, and radon emissions from faults (Pulinets & Ouzounov, 2010), and “scalar energy” (Park, 2003), among others. Some theorists claim the clouds form in seconds, while others posit the clouds form over a number of hours. While this is not an area that I have knowledge or experience in, it appears that the underlying processes are largely unknown and what little research that has been done is mostly speculative.

Of greatest detriment to the earthquake cloud theory is the vast differentiation in the time these clouds are theorized to predict quakes. Some supporters claim quakes occur as soon as 30 minutes after cloud formation, many citing this video supposedly filmed in China before the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (there is no way to validate the time or place of this footage). Others feel that the clouds-in-question present themselves much earlier, anywhere from 25 to 50 days or more before the shaking begins. This sizable time period and further lack of consensus makes it evermore difficult to categorize earthquake cloud theory as scientific.

Furthermore, there is much room for logical fallacy and magical thinking to run rampant in the attribution of quakes to clouds. It is quite possible that many observers of so-called earthquake clouds close to a seismic event execute post hoc ergo propter hoc or “after this therefore because of this” reasoning fallacies, recalling a real or imagined cloud after a quake and believing in a correlation between the two. Those who believe in earthquake clouds forming weeks or months before quakes could similarly be connecting two independent instances through magical thinking, anticipating seismic activity at some point after observation of a suspected earthquake cloud. The later an earthquake takes place after observation of a believed earthquake cloud, the less likely the two are correlated, but firm believers in earthquake cloud theory will still support a connection despite this fact.

Without a firm, scientifically-grounded base consisting of distinct observable characteristics, mechanisms of formation, and accurate understanding of the precursory nature of earthquake clouds (if any), the belief in these perceived ominous vapor formations can only be categorized as pseudoscience.

Ondoh, T. (2009). Investigation of precursory phenomena in the ionosphere, atmosphere and groundwater before large earthquakes of M6.5 Advances in Space Research, 43 (2), 214-223 DOI: 10.1016/j.asr.2008.04.003

Pulinets, S. & Ouzounov, D. (2010). Lithosphere-Atmosphere-Ionosphere Coupling (LAIC) model – An unified concept for earthquake precursors validation. Journal of Asian Earth Sciences.

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Skeptically Speaking: Young Skeptics

The link for the podcast is on Skeptically Speaking’s Website as well as below.

Listen to me talk about Woo Fighters in the first segment entitled ‘Speaking Up”.

Young Skeptics.

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Woo Fighters on Skepically Speaking Tonight!

Alex Swan, president of Woo Fighters of CSU Northridge, will be talking to Desiree on the “Speaking Up” segment of Skeptically Speaking tonight!

You can listen to the show live at 5pm Pacific Time. The show will also be converted to a podcast and available for download on iTunes in a few days.


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There Must Be an Idiom

                                 St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Nova Scotia

A couple of days ago I read something that I found very disturbing and I was reminded of it today. It illustrates the challenge we have in educating the public about science and, perhaps, why it is so challenging. There must be an idiom which fits. Perhaps you have some suggestions.

So, first I will tell you what I read, then I will tell you why it was more disturbing than what I commonly encounter. If you want to skim, I cannot stop you, but please scroll down to the bottom for the shocker.

The offending paragraph was found in a review of Daniel Loxton’s wonderful children’s book, Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be which appeared in CM Magazine, a publication of the Manitoba Library Association.

Although the text is very good in describing the theory of Evolution, there are points in the book where the author makes comments that could imply that Evolution is more than a theory. For example, “…Charles Darwin revealed the solution to the mystery of evolution” (p. 7). He also makes the comment that Evolution is the most important idea in all of biology (p. 7). Such phrases may lead the reader into thinking that scientists completely understand the theory of Evolution which would be incorrect, else Evolution would be a principle or a law and not a theory. As well, it is a bit bold to claim that evolution is the most important idea in all of biology – biology is a huge field of study with other key discoveries.

This text could be read by a young reader for ‘fun.’…

First, let me address this criticism because it is a common one made by evolution deniers and because it preys on a misunderstanding of science that many laypeople have.

As with most words in the English language, the word “theory” has multiple meanings. In general use among non-scientists, it is often used to express “conjecture”, “speculation”, or some other unproven or untested guess.

None of those definitions are what a scientist means when they use the term “theory”.

Neither a “principle” nor a “law” is a theory which is “completely understood”, either. Laws are simple statements which describe, not explain.

The descriptions given by Dr. Genie Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, of the definitions of fact, law, hypothesis, and theory. It occurs about 3:50 into the video.

                    

Theories vary in strength from very weak to very strong. The theory of evolution through natural selection has withstood 150 years of rigorous testing. It is one of the strongest theories in science.

And, yes, it is, by far, the most important idea in biology. It is probably the most important in all of the life sciences including behavioral sciences like psychology. Of course, this is a statement of opinion and I am not a biologist. However, I cannot imagine a biologist of any quality who does hold this opinion. I offer as evidence the words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whom Theodosius Dobzhansky quoted in his 1973 essay in American Biology Teacher titled “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in Light of Evolution“:

(Evolution) is a general postulate to which all theories, all hypotheses, all systems must henceforward bow and which they must satisfy in order to be thinkable and true. Evolution is a light which illuminates all facts, a trajectory which all lines of thought must follow — this is what evolution is.

So, to summarize so far, a theory is an explanation – it is a set of testable and tested statements about relationships among variables which explains a given phenomenon. Ideas are not called “theories” because we do not know if they hold true. The strength of a theory depends on the quantity of observable facts explained, the quality of the explanation, the amount of testing it has withstood, and many other factors.

Evolution is an amazingly strong theory.

The author of the review does not understand the term “theory” as it is used in science, nor does she understand “law” and “principle”. Although these are often misunderstood by laypersons, they are fundamental to science. They are the language of science.

What is so shocking?

The review was written by an Assistant Professor of Science Education.

Katarin MacLeod is an Assistant Professor in Science Education at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, NS. Her areas of interest include physics educational research (PER), and the incorporation of science, technology, society and environment (STSE) outcomes into science courses at all levels to help students understand the relevancy of science, increase scientific literacy, and to promote citizenship.

That, my friends, is disgraceful.


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Cashing In With Andrew Wakefield’s New “Callous Disregard”: Harming Children For Fun and Profit

‘I’m so glad Andy Wakefield finally has the chance to tell his story. . . . For hundreds of thousands of parents around the world, myself included, Andy Wakefield is a symbol of strength and conviction that all parents of children with autism can use to fight for truth and the best lives possible for their kids. – Jenny McCarthy

Andrew Wakefield, in a frenzied attempt to remain relevant, has finished work on his new book Callous Disregard: Autism and Vaccines: The Truth Behind a Tragedy. In it he intends to catalog his struggle against the “corruption of science” which presents “a real and present threat to children”.

Most will already be aware of Dr. Wakefield, who in 1998 was associated with a highly unscientific and unethical study published in  The Lancet linking usage of the MMR (measles) vaccine to autism. When the study was retracted earlier this year, the editor of The Lancet was quoted as saying “It’s the most appalling catalog and litany of some the most terrible behavior in any research and is therefore very clear that it has to be retracted.” Even though all original authors who could be contacted removed their names from the paper, the damage was and continues to be widespread. Measles, once nearly removed from the population, has seen an almost constant growth since 1996. But it’s not just measles. The scare caused public distrust of all different types of vaccines leading to increased rates of sickness and death for diseases almost eliminated from the general population. The damage done by this one study is immeasurable.

With his new book, Dr. Wakefield and his martyr complex are back to cash in again (for more cashing in, check out his extensive history).

This book provides a terrifying insight into what has been happening behind the scenes as efforts redouble to silence Dr. Wakefield . . . It is a wake-up call to those who think [he] is anything other than a modern day hero fighting for all of our children.

It is essential reading for anyone wanting to know the truth behind the MMR debate and the politics of vaccination policy.

Whether he thinks it’s real or knows it’s in his head, there’s only one truth – no one is speaking out, and Dr. Wakefield is laughing all the way to the bank.


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