The doubtless atheist earthquake fracas

Today, I was thinking about earthquakes. This made me far more fortunate than people in New Zealand who were in the midst of one, with all the fears and uncertainty that accompany the solid ground below you being far less certain than you would wish it to be.

A few days before, I had been reading The Age of Earthquakes (Basar/Coupland/Obrist).
This is a collection of images, sentences and aphorisms predominantly based around internet action and interaction.

“technology often favours horrible people”.

“photographing your salad turns it into a ghost”

“before the internet we had a few memes a year. Now we get hundreds a day”.

It is laid out in a similar style to Marshall Mcluhan’s The Medium is the Massage and other art, science, social science collage like books of that time, such as Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Connection and Buckminster Fuller’s I Seem to be a Verb.

The Age of Earthquakes opens with tsunami images and the information that the loss of weight of ice on the earth will lead to greater and more frequent earthquakes. I was reminded of this when I saw the news today, and so I tweeted.

“Read something (in a non science book) suggesting increased earthquake activity due to sped up climate change, anyone have research on this”.

I was confused when someone replied, ‘”read in a non science book’ are you being ironic?”

I presumed I was missing a joke and asked what he meant, then followed it up with the explanation of my intended meaning.

“I meant I read in a book where the idea would be considered anecdotal”

My point was that, from memory, I don’t recall the idea of earthquakes increasing due to climate change was attached to a footnote or reference in the book that would allow me to check its verisimilitude within the text. I had made sure I said “non science book” to avoid people thinking I was giving credence to the idea, but I did wonder if it was something worth giving credence to.

And so came back – “the that’s where it stays…anecdotal”.

I was communicating with someone who considered atheism and common sense their hallmarks, but I thought this was a far from common sensical reply. Now I was annoyed and, like the stupid dog tearing pointlessly at a rag, I could not let go. I could have used this time to ogle the clear Autumn sky or read a book of Baudelaire, but instead, I argued with the internet AGAIN.

Brian Cox often sighs as he sees me refuse to let go, physicists have a calm that I envy. I may have been annoyed because I realised that I was seeing a fairground mirror version of myself in this man.

I explained again that I was asking if there was a factual link to the anecdote.

“you should research in the ‘science’ books for your fact!!!???”

I think he thought he was a sort of cos-play Richard Dawkins.

At these points, I get apoplectic because I can’t understand how someone can’t understand so few words. My head is bluster, my eyes pop. I could not understand how he couldn’t see the simple idea of hearing an idea and wondering if that idea was attached to evidence.

My “I’ll break it down :”I read a thing. but there was no evidence for the thing, interested to know if anyone has any” (though I wrote “of” not “if” as my fingers were getting fatter with rage)

And answer came their back , “Just like every religious person has said for centuries…come on!! please!!”

Right eye explodes, retinal remnants land on the other side of the room. This is an atheist who doesn’t imagine that the starting point of “hey, why is this like this?” can lead to both science and religion. I mentioned Feynman’s anecdote about the monk who told him, “the keys to heaven also open the gates to hell”. This Atheist found it hard to believe that Feynman might believe that. I tried to explain that both Feynman and the Monk were using this as a metaphor, neither were really going to Timpsons.

I tried to explain that it was him who seemed more religious in his behaviour, with his no room for doubt and questions, and so it went on.

I tried to explain that even science “facts” when they really are facts aren’t always let into science, such as Semmelweis’s research into infection and ideas of plate tectonics (Alfred Wegener).

He could not understand why I was asking for a scientific answer “to something you read in a non scientific book. Odd”

I tried to explain that anecdote is apace where many ideas can come from. Science does not start from science fact, it starts from many things including hunches and stories, how odd it would be if scientists said “hey, I’ve just come up with a fact”. “let’s test it”. “no point. it is a fact. I don’t deal with anything doubtful”.

And then it petered out, with him still doggedly believing that if you hear an idea in anything but a science book, why would you wish to question it more.

It seemed a pity, as I think what can be handy about atheism or a universal agnosticism towards facts, is you can question and doubt and seek tools that are the most effective for investigation.

But it was okay, it turned out that they weren’t repeating an episode of Columbo today, so i didn’t miss anything. As for the earthquake thing, it seems the best place to start is Bill McGuire. He’s here. I know this, because I asked a question and I looked stupid to some, but I didn’t mind. The price of appearing ignorant to some was rewarded with finding out a little more about the world. Some derision can lead to more fascinating skies.

Book Shambles is back. Latest episode is Alexei Sayle, and before that it was the brilliant carpentactor and Parks and Rec star, Nick Offerman. They are HERE (and Alan Moore, Noel Fielding etc etc)

A new volume of Dead Funny, with ghost stories by comedians and Alan Moore, is out now.

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11 Responses to The doubtless atheist earthquake fracas

  1. John says:

    Don’t worry, I knew exactly what you meant, you are not alone, although it feels that way sometimes.

    I once wasted half a Christmas day trying to explain to my mother in law that it could be proven that man had landed on the moon, I lost…

  2. Allan Lear says:

    I saw your tweet about a “non-science book” and understood it to mean “a book in which the ideas were not rigorously tested”. I figured that was why you were asking for harder data.

    As to why one might pursue non-science books’ ideas…well, John Wyndham predicted the mechanism of man-made climate change in The Kraken Wakes. Not everything a non-specialist says is automatically hogwash.

  3. Owen Gwynne says:

    I was following the twitter thread about an hour behind and did wonder how he managed to make your question quite so problematic.
    Yes it’s true that there are ‘general readership’ books that make unwarranted ‘science says’ claims, but – as you demonstrate – the response is to say “hey, is there anything to this?” rather than stopping reading those books altogether

  4. Arthur says:

    I read the exchange this afternoon. I knew exactly what you meant, and why you got annoyed. Guy seemed to have wilfully misunderstood your original question. Weird exchange. Nothing to worry about.

  5. RandyW says:

    Except, plate tectonic theory and germ theory ARE considered science, because there was overwhelming evidence. People just saying stuff isn’t science. If you really wanted the answer to your query, you could access the sum of human knowledge by which you blurted this missive. Or, just keep wishing someone would gift you the answer. You’re not actually curious. You’re lazy curious. You don’t want to know enough to actually do anything about it yourself. Whining that others won’t do your work for you, and using enough time to look up the answer yourself to complain about that, is absurd and you’re a silly person.

    • robinince says:

      To make it clear, I have attached those ideas to Wegener and Semmelweis, then people can research it themselves. That was my point. This will help you do some research yourself. It is extraordinarily dumb to think that on each issue we would have time to become fully qualified in the area of your interest to get the answer. In a virtual room of scientists, it seems a waste of all that potential not to throw out a question every now and again. This doesn’t mean I won’t look for myself too, but as I am researching multiple ideas every day for the work that I do, I see no shame in taking a shortcut. Thank you for your comment, Randy, it has helped me to attempt to make this clearer.

    • “Just keep wishing someone would gift you the answer” is a weirdly nasty interpretation of “asking a question”. Asking questions is how we learn. Using Twitter to learn rather than to throw nastiness at strangers seems to me a very sensible thing to do.

  6. Morocco Dave says:

    Let’s not overlook that science isn’t a category that we put “correct” ideas in; it’s a process for testing ideas. All ideas are “non-scientific” until they’ve been examined and tested by that process and, strictly speaking, remain so in perpertuity – the beauty of the scientific process being that it’s constantly churning and nothing is so “correct” or “scientific” that it’s exempt from re-examination.

    I totally got what Robin was asking; those who have criticised are making an error in thinking of science as a category of knowledge, rather than a tool for assessing knowledge.

    But what the hell do I know? Since I’m not a scientist, I guess that makes this comment distinctly unscientific. I’ll just leave it here for other to test…

  7. I think I understand where your odd correspondent was coming from. On the internet you get a lot of ‘splitting’, of black and white thinking. Good and evil, left and right, and never the twain. I think you had it when you said he thought he was a cos-play Richard Dawkins. He appears to be seeing the world as Science v. Not Science, so how could you even +read+ a “non-science” book in the first place, you turncoat! Obviously anything in it will be nonsense that must be summarily dismissed! Baffling, because of course this self-proclaimed champion of science is therefore failing to demonstrate the curious mind necessary to the scientist, failing to grasp the first basic principle of the scientific method.
    Anyway, I believe this is the reason for the conversational impasse.
    He is also a right nit, though.

  8. Denise says:

    Your afternoon of apoplexy was not wasted (from my point of view) as I saw the link to Bill McGuire’s book and have sent it to my daughter who is studying geophysics and is particularly interested in earthquakes. So thank you.

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