"Visionary" toads

December 2, 2011

by John Vidale

I made a snarky reference to this in our news box yesterday, but an email from LindaSue chided my glib and shallow dismissal.

The Huffington Post and the BBC, among many others, told readers this week nonsense like "The strange behaviour of animals before earthquakes has often made it seem that nature might know of seismic movements before humans. However, scientists HAVE NOW PROVED IT [my emphasis] with a study of toads in L'Aquila."

The truth is that research has yet to ever prove that animals sense any more than our instruments, and our instruments are not seeing precursors to earthquakes.  I could go on at great length, but the simplest way to see the weakness of this claim is to note that there was only one episode described of toads misbehaving, and only one earthquake, which was five days later and 50 miles away - not very strong statistics.  Even worse, the big earthquake had a vigorous swarm of smaller earthquakes in the month beforehand, so cause and effect is unclear.  Worse still is the unlikely proposed mechanism of a huge cloud of ions rising from the large areas of the ground in the days before the earthquake, for which there is no evidence.

Confounding the confusion is the fact that NASA lends it name to this malarkey.  I think purveying nonsense as though it were news leaves the public less well informed than it started, and undercuts the modest and more mundane but true means of mitigating the risks inherent in earthquakes such as the early warning systems I described yesterday.