The Trouble with Predicting Earthquakes

A week or so ago, a reader sent us a suggested article for translation. It was an interview with Wang Chengmin, the government scientist who predicted the Tangshan earthquake in 1976. He reported his findings to more than sixty people, but was mostly ignored. One of the officials who did listen was Wang Chunqing, and the preparedness in his county resulted in a much higher survival rate than other counties, according to analyses.

Needless to say, after the Wenchuan earthquake, Wang Chengmin surfaced again, and in 2009, he gave an extensive interview, parts of which we’ve translated below:

Wang Chengmin on Predicting Earthquakes

On officials’ responses to warnings about earthquakes:

“After the Tangshan earthquake, the Director of the State Seismological Bureau Liu Yingyong said, “I should be getting ready to go to prison; I owe a blood debt to the people for this [i.e., failing to properly warn the people].” When he thought on it after the earthquake, he hadn’t supported the good things that could have been done before the quake hit, and that made him act like a responsible Party member and say that sentence. Now it’s worse than [the time of the] Tangshan [earthquake]. All this lot of new officials think about is how to deal with those above and below them [in the government]. So I say something true [about the probability of an earthquake], and eighty thousand people die, but even those lives can’t bring us a word of truth [from the government]. It’s very, very serious. Everywhere [the truth about quake warnings] is being suppressed. We tried to speak a bit, publish some essays, or communicate face to face, but everywhere […] we were refused. You can’t communicate, there’s no way to, they completely dodge everything.”

On talking about “the truth” in China:

“If you dare to persist in talking about the truth, you have to do it exactly right. If you go one step over the line from this “truth”, it becomes unbelievable. If you exaggerate the usefulness of forecasting [earthquakes] at all, it makes things difficult, it creates the opposite reaction [from what you want]. So you have to do it just right.”

Wang Chengmin goes on to stress that predicting earthquakes itself is a tricky business, and says that many of the people gloating about their successful prediction of the Wenchuan earthquake are not mentioning the many times before they have predicted earthquakes and nothing happened. And, he concedes, people don’t tend to be interested in the deeper scientific issues, so when someone correctly predicts an earthquake, they become a hero.

He also talks about the rift between the State Seismological Bureau and earthquake forecasters generally, and suggests there needs to be less hotheadedness about who got what right, and more sharing of experience that could help lower the proportion of false predictions. But he says that there were accurate reports that predicted the Wenchuan earthquake before it happened.

On why some earthquakes are accurately predicted and others aren’t, and why even when they are people sometimes don’t listen:

“Every person has different methods in earthquake prediction, so [if you’re an official looking at all of it], at the end of the day there’s a big pile of data on your table. It’s chaotic and contradictory, but a person or a group of people need to make policy decisions [based on it] […] what’s complex is that using the same methods, means, and instruments, two different people can get different results.”

Wang goes into some depth about the debates that occurred within the scientific community before the Wenchuan earthquake, as well as the Tangshan earthquake, and it’s an interesting read for anyone interested in seismology or earthquake prevention.

Zhao Shilong on the S.S.B. and the Qinghai Earthquake

Meanwhile, the Qinghai earthquake has once again brought attention upon the State Seismological Bureau, and journalist Zhao Shilong noted that their spending record had recently been announced publicly:

  • Earthquake forecasting: 2,700,000 RMB
  • Tracking the earthquake situation ((I’m not sure exactly what this refers to…)): 17,000,000 RMB
  • Supervising transmission of quake information: 50,120,000 RMB
  • Rental subsidies: 5,180,000 RMB
  • Housing fund: 71,660,000 RMB
  • House-purchasing subsidies: 86,780,000 RMB
  • Administration: 180,000,000 RMB
  • Internal functions ((Not 100% sure of this translation, 机构运行)): 2,100,000,000 RMB

Zhao writes,

“Just from this data we can analyize and see that all their expenses come from administration; earthquake prediction only accounts for 2,700,000 RMB out of the total 2,400,000,000 RMB budget [i.e., about 0.1% of their budget – ed.].

One could say that predicting earthquakes is the State Seismological Bureau’s most important job, [so their strategy should be] “using the best steel to make the knife’s blade”. But from their financial report, we can see that earthquake prediction has been marginalized and given an unimportant status, so in the end, the best steel wasn’t used on the blade. This is a corrupt and infringing administrative practice. [China’s] not being able to predict earthquakes doesn’t just come from a lack of technical skills, it comes from corrupt administrative practices that actively hinder the work of earthquake forecasting.

[…]

For example, a worker named Tu in the Shanxi Seismological Bureau predicted the earthquake in Yushu tens of hours before it occurred. But according to the internal operating procedures of the Seismological Bureau, you cannot use the phone or email to report, you must file it on an internal department card, then take a number and wait to mail it to a specialized department. At its fastest, this procedure can be completed in three days, so obviously if you make a report hours before a quake, bringing it into this kind of inefficient system is useless.

This is called “bureaucracy killing people”. If the conditions are right, the bureaucracy can kill people off like flies.

Not being an expert in science or funding scientific departments, I’ll keep my opinion to myself on this one. How likely is it that China can get to a point where earthquakes are consistently and accurately predicted far enough ahead of time that it has an effect on the death toll?

New on ChinaGeeks

  • There is a new post on ChinaGeeks Chinese, a translation of this post of ours. 在Twitter上疯传的白痴老外视频:种族主义和性别歧视? Check it out!
  • I also have an op-ed running in the Global Times today. The version that appears in print is, well, different from the one I submitted (ah, censorship!), and I’m not sure why each sentence is its own paragraph (readers in China, please tell me that’s just a website thing?) but check it out anyway because it’s my first publication in mainstream media thing like this, suckas!
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