Or should that have been: ‘Ground-breaking data leads to riotous conclusion’…? One of the incidental benefits of being a Fellow of the Geological Society and a Chartered Geologist is that I get the society’s monthly Geoscientist magazine. This month’s edition includes an article written by Alan Watson – a Chartered Civil Engineer and a member of the Institute of Civil Engineers – who has published an eBook entitled ‘Gravity and Mind – Human Response to Tectonic Stress‘. Astonishingly, Watson’s book and his article question the scope and reliability of the notion ‘free will’. Leaving aside the question of crowd psychology (i.e. the fact that individuals behave differently when in a group), Watson’s analysis of data suggests that civil disturbance can be linked to tectonic disturbance. That is to say, riots are more frequent in the days immediately preceding earthquakes. With the permission of the editor of Geoscientist, I publish extracts of the article below with graphical representation of the results of Watson’s analysis, upon which his startling conclusions are based. However, many of the images in the original article are Copyright of the British Geological Society (BGS). Therefore, if you have the time or inclination, please view the whole thing on the Geological Society website. Here is how Watson begins this article:
Reports of ‘unusual animal behaviour’ before earthquakes became common during and after the 1960s – snakes coming unseasonally out of hibernation, dogs deserting their kennels, birds sensing impending quakes and, most recently, insects not resting. But, as anyone who has lived with animals will know, animals ‘behave strangely’ all the time; which means evidence of this kind suffers from a huge and possibly unresolvable ‘false positive’ problem. The trouble is, nobody bothers to record animals’ ‘normal’ behaviour. And even if you do watch them all the time, the quality of their behaviour is extremely tricky to quantify. Humans, though are different. We have the media. I believe that comparing news reports with seismicity data provides compelling evidence that we humans may be responding to the effects of seismicity shortly before earthquakes.
I think it is worth repeating, here, that Watson is no liberal-minded social worker seeking to excuse irresponsible or criminal behaviour. He is a well-respected geotechnical engineer with a professional reputation to look after. Therefore as you will see, especially if you read the whole article, he has been meticulous in consideration of all the reasons why correlation might not imply causation. As he says:
My intention in this article is to summarise the facts about the relative timing of earthquakes and riot, and let you make your own mind up. We all know the adage about correlation not necessarily meaning causation; but the first step must be to determine whether there is at least a correlation there. I believe the statistics show there is.
As such, Watson investigated two hypotheses regarding earthquakes of magnitude greater than 2.5 on the Richter Scale (i.e. ‘2.5ML’), namely:
- That there is a significantly higher incidence of riot and disorder shortly before earthquakes of 2.5ML or greater, compared with the same period afterwards.
- That there is a significantly lower incidence of riots and disorder after more than 140 days has passed since the last most recent earthquake of 2.5ML or greater, compared with the incidence that would be expected by chance.
One of the many potentially complicating factors that Watson acknowledges is the reality that, as happened in the UK in August 2011, one riot can often be the trigger for so-called “copy-cat” riots by those you might call opportunists. Hence Watson says:
A substantial number of cases of riot appear in clusters with a common initial cause. My dual studies have therefore included both a full appraisal of these cases, including ‘tails’ of clusters as well as excluding them. One would imagine that copy-cat rioting in these tails of riot clusters would be influenced to a lesser extent by seismicity than might be the case for the initial onset of violence. The dual study therefore removes the uncertainties resulting from such potentially contaminating ‘sociological’ effects.
As stated in my introduction, many of the Figures in the original article are Copyright of the BGS. However, with my thanks to the editor of the Geoscientist magazine, I am able to reproduce here the graph demonstrating the correlation of the ‘without tails’ data. Watson summarises the results of his analysis by making the following six statements:
- There is a significantly higher incidence of rioting and disorder in the 14 day periods prior to earthquakes compared with the 14 day periods after earthquakes.
- The ratio of riot frequency before to after earthquakes falls off from a peak of 3.2 (with tails and 2.5 without) within 14 days to a lower ratio of 2.5 (with tails and 1.67 without) within 7 days of the shocks.
- There are substantially fewer instances of rioting and disorder when more than 140 days have passed since the last most recent earthquake of at least 2.5ML.
- These findings will provide support to other earth science studies about interactions between the biosphere and the lithosphere. There have been reports of unusual behaviour exhibited by birds, snakes and insects, among other species, prior to earthquakes. This project widens the scope of influence between the lithosphere and biosphere and asks the question: are humans influenced by the behaviour of the lithosphere in ways not yet understood?
- The statistics of riot and earthquake incidence serve to re-affirm seismology research known as ‘the new geophysics’ that tectonic stress may vary on a regional scale prior to earthquakes.
- The occurrence of riots, in certain circumstances, may provide one further factor to consider, when assessing the risk of an impending earthquake.
In his personal communications with me, the editor of the Geoscientist magazine expressed his own surprise at the conclusions of Watson’s analysis, to which I responded as follows:
On the fundamentals of the statistics and/or the plausibility of the hypothesis, I think it much more credible than many other commonly-held beliefs about the nature of reality (and I am not talking about religion).
For the avoidance of any doubt, one of the ‘many other commonly-held beliefs about the nature of reality’, to which I was alluding here, is the startlingly-persistent, unduly-optimistic, counter-factual, and/or ideologically-prejudiced belief that humans are not primarily responsible for the unprecedented warmth and accelerating change through which we are now living. As the pre-eminent film director, James Cameron, says in this trailer (below) for a new television series, ‘Years of Living Dangerously‘, to be screened next year:
“If 99 doctors say you sick and need an operation, would you seek another opinion?”