Quake Crackpot Busted

How can you tell if a geologist is a crackpot? If he makes a specific prediction like this:

Keilis-Borok’s team now predicts an earthquake of at least magnitude 6.4 by Sept. 5, 2004, in a region that includes the southeastern portion of the Mojave Desert, and an area south of it.

I’ve archived this UCLA press release as a downloadable PDF file since it is likely to be removed. But let’s not get ahead of the story here.

Let me make it absolutely clear: there is no way to predict an earthquake. The science of seismology is advancing by leaps and bounds, but as of today, there is no known technology to predict earthquakes. The best that can be done with today’s technology is a vague forecast, giving probabilities of quakes within a time period of years or decades. Anyone who claims to have the ability to predict a quake on a specific date is a crackpot.

This press release doesn’t even pass the smell test, it reeks of pseudo-science. Let’s enumerate a few of the obvious tipoffs that this is completely bogus:

1. The so-called seismologist, Vladimir Keilis-Borok, is not affiliated with the UCLA Department of Seismology, he is a visiting lecturer in Earth and Space Sciences. Keilis-Borok’s expertise is mathematics, not geology.

2. Real authorities in seismology don’t do their work at schools like UCLA, they work prestigious seismology laboratories at places like Caltech or UC Berkeley.

3. The easiest way to detect a crackpot is to notice how they issue a press release announcing a successful prediction, but they omit any mention of unsuccessful predictions, or their success rate. There is no way to tell if this “accurate” prediction is merely one of thousands of predictions, which would be a pretty poor success rate. I could easily make a year’s worth of predictions that a quake will occur in an active zone, one for each day of the year, and if an earthquake occurs in that year, I could claim I have successfully predicted it. But obviously I merely committed an obvious fraud.

4. Theories behind the predictions are described as too mathematically complex to be understood by the general public, comprehensible only to scientists studying with the “experts.” Theories are explained with colorful, illogical, unscientific metaphors like “the tail wags the dog.”

5. The person making the prediction is not a licensed geologist or geophysicist.

While researching the crackpot Keilis-Borok, I discovered something very interesting. California has strict licensing requirements for anyone making earthquake predictions to the public. Licensing is enforced by the California Board for Geologists and Geophysicists. I phoned the CBGG, and Keilis-Borok is not licensed, he is not even eligible for a license. The CBGG is known for taking swift action against unlicensed geologists who make earthquake predictions for California, they are considered a threat to public safety and likely to cause more damage from panic about ridiculous imaginary threats than from a real earthquake. The penalty for practicing geology without a license in California is a misdemeanor under provisions of the California Geologist and Geophysicist Act, punishable by up to a $2500 fine and 3 months imprisonment. The CBGG loves to take on quake-predicting crackpots even more than I do, and are now actively investigating Vladimir Keilis-Borok and UCLA.

The UCLA press office will certainly take swift action to retract their press release, remove any offending web pages, and disassociate themselves from these illegal, reckless, and dangerous earthquake predictions. But I have archived it so UCLA will not escape the historical record.

Update Sept 24 2004:
Of course, the prediction is long past, there was no earthquake. Keilis-Borok is a fool.

One thought on “Quake Crackpot Busted”

  1. Ah, but remember there was an earthquake September 28th. 2004. Fool? or simply a few days late…..
    [I checked the map, that quake was in Parkfield, way outside the prediction zone. Parkfield is the most seismically active spot in California, predicting a quake there would be like predicting the sun will rise in the morning. In any case, Keilis-Borok admitted his prediction failed. –Charles]

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