“If I’m wrong, nothing happens! We go to jail – peacefully, quietly. We’ll enjoy it! But if I’m right, and we can stop this thing… Lenny, you will have saved the lives of millions of registered voters. ” – Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Ghostbusters
There’s an interesting story out of Italy today (find it here) about predictions made dating back to 1915 and a supposed giant earthquake to hit the nation on 11 May 2011. Apparently a seismologist, Raffaele Bendani, had a working theory that earthquakes were somehow caused by or related to the movement of the planets, the moon, and the sun … making them somewhat predictable.
I suppose you could put some nominal credence to the theory – the attraction of planets, moon, and sun could plausibly cause minor changes in the pressures on the crust of the earth, giving rise to more or less energy release (e.g., earthquakes). That said, this is probably not the same as the ability to predict a “big one”. (I’m not saying I buy the theory at all, just that it doesn’t appear to be pure quackery.)
(Side note. I was chatting with possiblywrong the other day and he mentioned a paper discussing the “scale-free” nature of earthquake frequency and magnitude; that the earth has no preferred size of energy release, but that it can release energy through many small quakes of few large ones. I don’t have the paper here in front of me though.)
The story claims that Bendani actually called a 1923 large earthquake to within two days, and hit on some other quakes in his career. I have no evidence to back any of this. I will say, that if he was on to something predictive, then he missed his opportunity. The man who can predict massive earthquakes will be an exceedingly wealthy man indeed. Can you imagine the commercial market for such a skill? If your model could correctly warn San Francisco or Los Angeles to batten down the hatches and leave town for a week or so, you would save untold millions (billions?) in property not to mention lives. Insurance companies would pay handsomely for that.
I’ll say this – if “the big one” does hit Italy tomorrow, or even in the next few days, it may be worth some added research on the part of the seismology community. Of course, Italy has earthquakes, and any actual quake could just as easily be coincidence. And, I suspect the seismology community has spent quite a bit of time already working to verify (or debunk) any such theory.
Have to hand it to Bendani though – he actually made these outlandish predictions before the fact, instead of waiting for something to happen and then declaring that his models said it would. That’s respectable. If you truly believe in your models, then put your reputation on the line and go all out.