Pseudoscience and logical fallacies in geology

If you ask any biologist or medical researcher about pseudoscience, they would probably talk about creationism, most of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), homeopathy, sasquatch, and a few other things not so much in the public eye.  In the physical sciences, we hear about the global warming denialists, the Theory of the Big Bang denialists, and, again, a few other things that aren’t really famous.  But in the total world of pseudoscience, it always seemed like medicine gets the bulk of it, but that just may be a matter of perspective rather than reality.

Of course, bad science shows up in places that would surprise you.  It’s amusing that during playoff time of various sports leagues, some announcer will say something along the lines of “85% of teams who are down 3-1, lose the series,” or something like that.  In fact, each game is a separate event, and each subsequent game cannot be predicted.  The team who is leading 3-1 in the series may be a better team, which is why you can have some prediction on the next game, but the 3-1 lead is not, in itself, predictive.  Just from random events, the worst team may be better and can come back from that 3-1 lead.  Or maybe we have incorrectly estimated who is the better or worse team.  

Erik Kelmetti is a blogger about volcanoes and other earth events; he is also on the Geosciences faculty at Dennison University in Ohio.  He wrote an article this week, The Fraudulent Business of Earthquake and Eruption Prediction in Wired Science.  Kelmetti basically critiques a “service” (scare quotes intentional) from a Piers Corbyn, who has made a business of predicting earthquakes.  Kelmetti pretty much takes apart one of Corbyn’s predictions:

…(Corbin predicted) between Apr. 8 and 10, there is a “very high” threat of an earthquake or eruption in the Pacific ring, maybe in the northern hemisphere. The earthquake is like to be M6.5 or higher.

But wait, this “window of prediction” was called a confirmation of Corbyn’s method because the M8+ earthquakes off Banda Aceh in Indonesia occurred on … Apr. 11. That is almost the right date, right? It is almost the right hemisphere! Who cares that there were hundreds of earthquakes in the Pacific and Indian rim every day. Who cares that each year, there are over 150 earthquakes over M6.5 or greater, meaning you pick any day of the year, you might have a 1-in-3 chance of picking the right one. Who cares that in your other “windows” nothing happened. This is what we call “cherry picking” the data to fit your prediction, rather than using the data to assess your validity. Make the window big enough and your “prediction” broad enough, you can claim “success” almost every time.

In other words, without really trying, one a 33% chance of predicting an earthquake.  Which means 67% of the time, they are complete wrong.  Like with almost everyone who makes “predictions”, confirmation bias is an issue.  True believers in predictions remember the data that support their belief rather than the larger group of data points that do not.  There are other issues with predictions, parapsychology is rife with these fallacies, including outright fraud.

Science knows what causes earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.  There is no dispute about it:

Earthquakes and eruptions are caused by the Earth’s plate motion and mantle dynamics — it is as simple as that. Sure, we see some evidence that tidal forces from the Moon can cause minor variations in volcanic activity at specific volcanoes when they are already erupting, but sunspots, alignments of celestial bodies across the solar systems, approaches of asteroids (or mystery planets) — none of these have shown any scientifically rigorous correlation to lead to invoke that they caused the geologic event in questions.

Science can predict some types of earthquakes and eruptions, but it is more of a probability prediction, than “this eruption will happen on this date with this much of energy, etc. etc.”  This science is based on a wealth of data, and can only make predictions over a fairly short period of time in the future.  But if someone wants to make predictions of earthquakes well into the future and at a specific location, they need to bring real science to the table.  

Not to repeat this over and over again, but science is very simple.  

  1. Observe some phenomena.
  2. Develop a hypothesis that explains that phenomena.
  3. Test that phenomena in a controlled, well-designed experiment.
  4. Obtain and analyze the results of the experiment.
  5. Adjust the hypothesis based on that analysis.
  6. Repeat experiments.
  7. Publish the results.
  8. Discuss your methods and results publicly, which may mean that your hypothesis will be tested by other researchers.  This is one reason “primary research,” that is the first publication or group of publications of results describing a new hypothesis, often is considered less important than research that has a long line of publications in support.

This is science.  It only works when it’s placed in the bright lights of criticism.  This makes science so healthy and vibrant, because everything is open to criticism.  Corbyn is making predictions, that aren’t that accurate, based on some mysterious, unknown science.  He refuses to publish it because it’s some sort of business secret.  Not to employ a false dichotomy, but we have two choices here:  either he is totally incapable of actually predicting earthquakes, or he has some wonderful scientific insight that does predict earthquakes, but by hiding it from real scientists throughout the world, he is facilitating the deaths of people who might be saved by his brilliant discovery.  

Actually, it’s not a false dichotomy, because really there are two choices.  Either he is a charlatan and hurting people who may believe in his nonsense, or he’s got real science, and he’s hurting people who cannot benefit from his predictive skills.  The former is probably true, since it’s difficult to imagine someone intentionally letting people die to keep a scientific discovery secret.  However, even Big Pharma publishes its results and experiments, because it needs criticism of its science to survive, yet it still profits because they can protect intellectual properties.  Corbyn can do the same.  

 Just read the comments to Kelmetti’s posting.  It’s a case-study on how pseudoscience works:  

  • Use of vague, exaggerated or untestable claims
  • Over-reliance on confirmation rather than refutation, what is commonly called falsifiability.
  • Lack of openness to testing by other experts
  • Absence of progress
  • Personalization of issues.  Just read the some of the comments from Corbyn and his acolytes Kelmetti’s article.  The ad hominem attacks on Kelmetti are way outside of real science.
  • Use of misleading language

Obviously, controversy and silly pseudoscience is prevalent in geology too.  This type of angry attacks seems to be part of the modus operandii of individuals like Thomas Lee Elifritz and Corbyn.  If you don’t have science on your side, attack everyone.  Global warming denialists do this.  Creationists do this.  Sasquatch believers do this.  Homeopaths do this.  If you don’t have science, attack people to distract everyone from the fact that you have no science.

There’s an old joke in science.  If an anti-evolutionist had actual scientific evidence that “disproves” evolution, and gets the article published in a peer reviewed journal, there would be a line of scientists demanding that the author receive the Nobel Prize.  Corbyn deserves the Nobel Prize if he has some amazing new theory of geology, plate tectonics and vulcanology; that would be worth more than anything he gets from charging people for his predictions.  It appears to be a “no-brainer” choice.

Kelmetti followed up with another article, mainly in response to the attacks on his good name, and without any inside knowledge, because of the bad science.  

Listen, I am as open as anyone to new ideas in science – I love the idea that there is a more in the universe than I can ever hope to understand and know. However, as a scientist, I need to be shown that the data supports the hypothesis … and the more extreme your conjecture, the more robust your correlations need to be to really be seen as causation. If you want to claim that coronal holes or asteroids are triggering earthquakes and eruptions, you need to show a strong correlations between these events and geologic events. If that doesn’t exist, you need to explain why with evidence or you need to admit that your are just making things up. If the scientific method and the rigor of review shows that your data, methods and conclusions follow your hypothesis, then I congratulate you and will happily add it to my current understanding of how the Universe works. Until then, you’re merely espousing wild theories that rely more on belief and tricks than science.

This is why science is so beautiful.  It depends on evidence, not belief.  Corbyn can either put up evidence, or shut up.  And there’s another false dichotomy.  

The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!