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Writing Popular Science Books Doesn’t Make You a Scientist

Science writer Simon Winchester (author of Map That Changed the World, Krakatoa, and more) has found himself at the center of widespread criticism from geologists and geophysicists, especially earthquake experts, for an article he penned for Newsweek last week titled The Scariest Earthquake is Yet to Come.
The article starts off as an appropriate warning of how dangerous Earth’s processes can be to humanity. Winchester recounts the horror of the massive earthquake and devastating tsunami in Japan. He then mentions the recent Christchurch and Chile earthquakes ending his article with:
It is as though the earth becomes like a great brass bell, which when struck by an enormous hammer blow on one side sets to vibrating and ringing from all over. Now there have been catastrophic events at three corners of the Pacific Plate—one in the northwest, on Friday; one in the southwest, last month; one in the southeast, last year.
That leaves just one corner unaffected — the northeast. And the fault line in the northeast of the Pacific Plate is the San Andreas Fault, underpinning the city of San Francisco.
Wow, you can almost hear the scary music building to a crescendo at the end of that last phrase. Effective writing for sure — if you’re writing fiction.
Chris Rowan, one of the authors of the geoscience blog Highly Allochthonous, wrote a nice response, poking fact-based holes in Winchester’s conjecture:
We know that these faults will rupture at some point in the future, and people need to be aware of that. But claiming we’re in some period of extra-special risk right now is, to put it bluntly, just making stuff up.
In response to similar criticism from numerous geoscientists and earthquake experts, Winchester published a follow-up article in The Daily Beast on March 24th titled What Does Japan’s Quake Mean for the U.S.? Thankfully, this piece is less sensational, and it has more context about the issue of earthquakes clustering in time, including quotes from prominent scientists. But, Winchester is still leaning on the “it just makes sense” argument. (See this post from Bryan at the blog In Terra Veritas for more.)
Dr. Christie Rowe, a research scientist with the University of California at Santa Cruz Earthquake Physics group, took it upon herself to contact Winchester directly. Rowe has posted a letter, along with a reply from Winchester, on her Facebook page for all to see. She deserves a lot of credit for being willing to contact him and speak out. Rowe takes Winchester to task with details about the ideas of earthquake triggering and clustering. Read the whole thing, it’s spectacular.
Writing a best-selling book on scientific topics can make one very knowledgeable, an expert even — but it does not make them a scientist. Getting your hands dirty, actually or metaphorically, with data is what makes one a scientist. Having creative ideas about how nature works is fantastic, but unless these ideas (hypotheses) are tested it’s armchair speculation.
What enrages the scientific community isn’t the idea Winchester wrote about — it’s the complete omission of any statement even remotely related to data. Data. Information. Ya know, measurements and stuff. Someone reading Winchester’s Newsweek article would get the impression that not only has no one thought of this before, but that we don’t even have the data to evaluate such questions. It makes me wonder if Winchester was trying to come off as the creative, big-thinking bystander pointing out the obvious to the narrow-minded eggheads.
Finally, this quote from Christie Rowe’s letter to Winchester underscores why all of this is important:
We do not have access to the high-profile outlets which you regularly use and it is nearly impossible for our community to counter the damage you do by spreading misinformation and irresponsible predictions.


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