Predicting earthquakes seen as harder than making forecasts

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

A cold, hard statistical look at the science of earthquake prediction reveals that we seem to barely to have evolved since the ninth century A.D.

That’s the conclusion of statistician Nate Silver in his book “The Signal and the Noise.” Silver gained widespread attention in the most recent U.S. presidential election. He accurately predicted the winner of the presidential race in 49 of the 50 states and the winners in 35 U.S. Senate races.

His book dealing with the science of statistical analysis was published in 2012, reached The New York Times Bestseller List and was named by as the year’s best in nonfiction. Time magazine named him as one of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2009.

In his chapter on the history of earthquake predictions, Silver concludes that there has been almost no progress at all, compared to significant success in predicting hurricanes.

Silver makes an important distinction between “prediction” and “forecast.”

A prediction is a definitive and specific statement about when and where an earthquake will strike.  Example: a major earthquake will hit Kyoto, Japan, on June 28.”

A forecast is a probabilistic statement, usually over a longer time scale: Example: there is a 60 per cent chance of an earthquake in Southern California over the next 30 years.

When it comes to earthquakes, Silver says scientists have achieved success in forecasting but not in predicting. And is predicting that allows us to make plans that can protect us from earthquake threats. Forecasts don’t allow for contingency plans.

The U.S. Geological Survey‘s official position is that earthquakes cannot be predicted, but they can be forecasted.

Silver points out that new theories are constantly being put forth claiming to be able to predict earthquakes, and that some routinely receive support from the scientific community, only to be disproved over subsequent years.

“But the historical record of attempts to predict earthquakes is one of almost complete failure,” he concludes.

Silver is currently the editor-in-chief of ESPN”s FiveThirtyEight blog and a special corresponent for ABC News.

Greg Smith
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