Skip to main content
Geosciences LibreTexts

7.4.13: Getting the Word Out to the Public

  • Page ID
    6446
  • Overview

    Scientists and engineers in the NEHRP program and in other federal agencies in the United States and Canada have made great advances in the understanding of earthquakes and of how to strengthen our society against future earthquakes. But how well has NEHRP and the Geological Survey of Canada succeeded in getting their research results out to society at large? Educating the public was one of the objectives of the original Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act of 1977, and this objective has been stated many times since, particularly at the prodding of Congress. Yet a quarter-century later, the public is still not well enough informed about earthquakes to demand action. Why?

     

    Many government scientists and their supervisors believe their job is done when their research results are published in a government document such as a USGS Professional Paper. But the publications branch of USGS is underfunded and inefficient. Because the papers represent the official position of a federal agency, they must be approved not only by other scientists but also by USGS and GSC management.

     

    But most people don’t have ready access to USGS and GSC publications, although instructions on how to obtain them are provided at the end of this book. Many USGS maps are available only online, which requires the user to have access to a large-format printer. To address the problem of ready access, the USGS has placed a list of all of its 110,000 publications from 1880 to the present on the World Wide Web, available at http://usgs-georef.cos.com. This list contains abstracts of some publications, and some of the more recent full publications are available online.

     

    Even if you are successful in finding the list and purchasing a publication, you discover that it is written for other scientists and engineers, not for the general public. The papers are full of technical jargon, and a background in earthquake science is necessary to understand fully the results. Many USGS scientists, frustrated by bureaucratic delays in their own publications branch, publish their results in scientific journals. Non-USGS scientists, including myself, do the same. This fulfills the scientist’s professional obligation but still does not inform the public, because the scientific journal articles are also full of technical terms.

     

    The USGS, FEMA, GSC, and other agencies have responded by publishing circulars and fact sheets written in language easy for a nontechnical person to understand, and where available, these publications are listed in the lists of further reading suggestions at the end of each chapter. In addition, USGS and GSC officials have testified in public hearings on policy issues, and they have made themselves available to civic groups and classes for presentations on their specialty. All USGS offices have a public information officer ready to respond to questions and to arrange talks to civic groups. I salute two USGS scientists who have taken it upon themselves to present earthquake information in user-friendly format: Sue Hough and Ross Stein. The Web pages of the USGS and other federal agencies have information that is useful and entertaining, geared to the general public. NOAA has slide sets of earthquake damage that are useful in instruction, and I have used them in my classes and in this book.

     

    In general, though, the public is educated not by government documents, regardless of how well they are written, but by the broadcast and print media. A television reporter is interested in a breaking news story like an earthquake, not in public education. When a large earthquake strikes, my telephone rings off the hook for a day or a week, depending on how the story develops. Earthquake scientists, including myself, prefer to go about their lives unbothered by microphones or television cameras. During an earthquake, however, we get our fifteen minutes (or twenty-four hours) of fame, and any public education message has to be threaded into our response to the news story. That message often ends up on the cutting-room floor.

     

    In 2014, I was interviewed by Associated Press after the publication of a document pointing out the lack of resilience of Oregon communities against the next subduction-zone earthquake. In my view, the conclusions of this report were stark and frightening, particularly if we don’t begin a major effort to strengthen our state, particularly the coast, against the inevitable earthquake we face. The young woman who interviewed me was not well informed about earthquakes, and, despite my efforts, the story that resulted was just another doomsday earthquake story, not implying new information about our lack of resilience. It was my job to tell this story in a convincing way, and I blew it.

     

    In some cases, the media have an agenda in pursuing a story, as was the case after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, when newspaper articles downplayed the earthquake and emphasized the fire, twisting the statements of scientists in doing so. The 1994 Northridge Earthquake ruptured a blind fault that was previously unknown to the scientific community, and CNN developed a story that had as its theme the withholding by the oil industry of subsurface oil well and seismic data that could have revealed the presence of the earthquake fault. Several of us use oil-company data in our earthquake studies, so I was one of those interviewed by CNN and asked about how difficult it was for me to get information from oil companies. I told the interviewer in Atlanta that oil companies had supplied me with all the information I had asked for, even hiring as summer interns my students working on earthquake projects. Nonetheless, the broadcast still carried the implication that oil companies had withheld data, and my comments stating the opposite were not used.

     

    In the long run, the best way to get the word out is in the classroom, starting in elementary schools, where children are fascinated by earthquakes and volcanoes just as they are by dinosaurs. Earthquakes and volcanoes are generally included in courses in Earth science in high school, but these courses are not required and often are not even recommended in high school. Many high schools lack a teacher qualified or interested in teaching an Earth science course that would include a unit on earthquakes. I hope this book provides the resources to turn this problem around. The Great California Shake-Out has been adopted around the world, including the Pacific Northwest, and it holds promise because it involves so many people.