seismograph 2009 26 11 100559 150x150 The Secret Panel That Vets Earthquake PredictionsThe public access law for California’s state boards, commissions and other policy and advisory bodes, the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act, contains a provision allowing the state’s scientific panel charged with evaluating earthquake predictions to meet in closed session—whenever it meets. Government Code Section 11126 (f) (9) states that nothing in the Act prevents

the California Earthquake Prediction Evaluation Council, or other body appointed to advise the Secretary of Emergency Management or the Governor concerning matters relating to volcanic or earthquake predictions, from holding closed sessions when considering the evaluation of possible predictions.

This body—not to be confused with the Seismic Safety Commission or the California Earthquake Authority—meets by telephone conference on the call of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.  How often it meets is unclear, and it may be that it convenes only to consider earthquake (or volcanic eruption) predictions of a certain scientific authoritativeness.  The last publicized such meeting(s) took place eight years ago in response to predictions of major earthquakes in the state by reputable seismologists known as the Kellis-Borok group.  The Emergency Management Agency concluded in its later public report that those predictions not only were not fulfilled but were based on an unproven methodology and did not warrant an official reaction.

The Keilis-Borok method is based on identifying patterns of small earthquakes prior to large shocks. To date there is no evidence that these, or related methods, yield useful intermediate term forecasts. Furthermore, the Council has heard no valid physical basis for the Keilis Borok methodology. Given the track record so far and the lack of a physical basis, the Council does not consider the method to be a basis for public policy. Therefore, CEPEC advises OES to take no special public policy actions based on this, or similar predictions.

The “pattern of small earthquakes prior to large shocks,” also known as a swarm, is what certain Italian seismologists were asked to evaluate recently; they concluded there was nothing to worry about and reassured the public accordingly.  When a serious and highly damaging quake did hit the very area they had examined, seven of the involved scientists and officials were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison, an outcome criticized as the greatest miscarriage of justice against science since Galileo, and one now leading to a predictable aftershock of resignations.

California scientists are no doubt likewise troubled, not because they could be held either criminally or civilly responsible under state or federal law for failing to confirm a prediction that turns out to have been accurate, but because the Italian prosecution shows what the politics of public expectations can do to professional reputations in what is after all a very dicey exercise. For example, a swarm detected just two months ago in Imperial County, estimated to be the strongest of its kind in 30 years, has produced no major shock.

That prediction evaluation takes place in secret here is not surprising, in retrospect, although up to now the reason for the secrecy has not been not fear of public reaction to a failed process but the refusal of scientists publicly to critique the work of their peers with any useful candor.  Now that political reaction is added to the risks, we should not be too surprised at proposals to make the Council’s work an even more confidential process.  The Council currently has no website identifying its purpose or members, for example, but presumably those names would be disclosed upon request.  That could change now if seismologists get too spooked to be associated with it on the public record. 

But this should not happen.  The best shield against public anger born of public ignorance is not more ignorance imposed as a matter of policy, but if anything better public education about what the Council does and how impossible it is to do it without a large zone of uncertainty.