Earth, Our Environment - Class Notes

Several aspects of the above model of investigation distinguish between science and pseudoscience:

Some examples of pseudoscience:

Case Study: Iben Browning's New Madrid Earthquake Prediction

A 50-50 chance of an earthquake in the New Madrid Region within a few days of December 2, 1990.

It was not a scientific prediction - it appeared in his private newsletter to several brokerage firms and so did not benefit from peer review.

Browning's basis for the prediction was the pull of the Sun and Moon on the Earth (which produces tides). Seismologists had previously studied the effect and showed no correlation - Browning was unfamiliar with related work - he didn't do his homework.

The Press and Browning

The press got a hold of a memo from David Stewart (formerly of the Southeast Missouri Earthquake Center). Stewart took the prediction serious, despite the solid evidence against the method. The Post-Dispatch got a copy of his memo and the story went national.

The press often portrayed Browning as a maverick scientist, confronting an inflexible or divided scientific community. This is a standard heroic figure in US society and likely contributed to Browning's "credibility".

As the day approached, the press went into a frenzy - New Madrid was full of print and broadcast media the date of the prediction. Schools were closed, vacations for emergency workers were canceled, regional geoscientists were overwhelmed with phone calls.

December 2, 1990

Nothing happened.

Browning was peddling junk science - he had no evidence to support his prediction, ignored earlier research and other evidence, and sold his ideas to CEO's at major brokerage firms.

Stewart is no longer the director of the Earthquake Center at Southeast Missouri State University, but continues to publish books on the seismic hazards in the region.


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Prepared by: Charles J. Ammon
January 1997