The Italian earthquake, predictions, and selective perception

In the wake of the truly horrific Italian earthquake on Monday come reports that an Italian seismologist predicted an impending major event but his warnings were ignored.  From the NYT Blog,

A local news Web site in the region where the earthquake struck on Monday, Il Capoluogo d’Abruzzo, reports that Giampaolo Giuliani, who claims to have predicted the earthquake by measuring radon gas, wants a public apology from the authorities for ignoring his warning.

According to Reuters, Mr. Giuliani “was reported to authorities for spreading panic among the population” because “vans with loudspeakers had driven around the town a month ago telling locals to evacuate their houses” after he first warned that a major earthquake would strike L’Aquila soon.

The evidence which Mr. Giuliani based his prediction on is an increase in radon gas, presumably released from subterranean sources in the seismically active region.  This is a relatively old idea, but a generally discredited one: though it seems that radon gas emissions are occasionally connected with earthquakes, the correlation is very weak.  In other words, plenty of earthquakes happen with no radon emission, and plenty of radon emission happens with no accompanying earthquake.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Giuliani’s prediction — and his demands for an apology — gain traction over the next few weeks.  Human nature, and the phenomenon of selective perception, will drive people’s belief in a novel earthquake-predicting technique which is being supressed by “the man.”

To quote Wikipedia, “selective perception” refers to “any number of cognitive biases in psychology related to the way expectations affect perception.”  Though I am not a psychologist, and may not be using the term according to its strict technical definition, I coined it independently a few years ago when thinking about belief in psychic powers.

All of us have made “predictions” of some sort or another in our lives.  Most of the time, these predictions fail miserably and we forget about them, but occasionally we make a wildly improbable guess which turns out to be true.  Those “true” predictions are remembered much more vividly than any of the “false” predictions, and the cumulative effect is that our brains recall our predictive power as being much more successful than it is in reality.  For example, I still remember clearly an experience in the 4th grade when I successfully guessed ahead of time which story I would be quizzed on from a book of mystery stories.  I guarantee that I wouldn’t have recalled the experience if I had guessed wrong and bombed the quiz!

Another good example which comes to mind are the predictions of the “psychic” Jeane Dixon, who catapulted to fame after successfully “predicting” the assassination of JFK.   As a great example of selective perception, however, it is little remembered that she also apparently predicted that Nixon would win the 1960 Presidential election!

Our brains are wired to spot correlations in our experiences and draw conclusions from them, even after a single experience.  This probably served primitive tribesmen well — after sticking their hand in the campfire once, they never did it again — but it leads us to draw false connections between otherwise unrelated events or lucky guesses, such as psychic predictions.  Also, one can see that we tend to attach more importance to those correlations found in signficant or catastrophic events than to those trivial, everyday events.

Giuliani’s earthquake prediction seems to fall into the same category: a lot of people will give credence to his claims because he seems to have successfully predicted a major, catastrophic event, though not as many will look at the science behind them or the detailed accuracy of his claims.  A number of Italians are not so easily fooled, however; as the NYT blog notes,

One reader named Alessandro wrote in the comments thread on Mr. Giuliani: “Sorry, but do you think there is a wonderful machine that allows you to cancel an earthquake if detected in time?” He added: “It seems to me that the original forecast was for last Sunday, not today: you would have evacuated the entire population of L’Aquila for a week, waiting that the coming earthquake?

Emphasis mine.  A forecasting system which would require millions of people to be evacuated from a region for weeks at a time, just to be sure, would be an economic and political disaster.

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One Response to The Italian earthquake, predictions, and selective perception

  1. ahrcanum says:

    I’d forgotten all about Jean Dixon! Didn’t Betty Ford have a spiritual consultant as well?

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