Thursday, April 1, 2010

Earthquake predicting toads?

A story has shown up in newspapers and web news sites over the past days about a report that toads have the ability to "predict" earthquakes. The report even showed up on the prestigious journal, Nature's blog. Commenter "karl" at the end of the Nature blog report captures the gist of my thoughts on this particular scientific amusement.

The source of this report of almost magical powers in toads is a paper published in the Journal of Zoology by a Rachel Grant who noted that the toads around L’Aquila, Italy stopped doing their normal toad stuff and cleared out of the area shortly before an earthquake there. Granted, this is an interesting observation, but one wonders why the reviewers for the Journal of Zoology did not return this paper to Ms. Grant with a three letter review: "WTF??"

One group of toads acting oddly before one earthquake is interesting, but as Ms. Grant herself admits, "purely anecdotal." The J.Zoo. (was we scientists like to abbreviate journal titles) paper does make a weak attempt at a causal explanation:
The team suspect the strange toad behaviour was triggered by pre-seismic perturbations in the ionosphere, which were detected by very low frequency radio sounding.
As I said, weak...the ionosphere extends from 43 miles above the earth to 250 miles above the earth. Ms. Grant would speculate that stresses in the Earth's crust miles below the surface have some affect on the upper atmosphere that a male toad hopping around in a swamp, bent on finding female toads, is particularly sensitive to...I won't say this is utter nonsense, but I need a little more explanation for how this near magical communication takes place.

So how does something like this ever make the light of day? Here's my opinion: Ms. Grant and her team are studying the spawning behavior of common toads in Italy -- and why Italy? Don't common toads exist in Ms. Grant's native England? Call me cynical, but my boondoggle sensor is going off here. In any case... -- in the middle of their study, the toads clear out, which Ms. Grant understandably finds "annoying". The toad studiers go home with nothing to show for their efforts and then, boom! There's and earthquake back in the Italian toad swamp and, all of a sudden, Team Toad has something to write about...not much mind you, but it's better than admitting you couldn't find any toads to study. Paper written, Ms. Grant gets to add another line to her curriculum vitae -- and is one step closer to tenure -- and J.Zoo. gets to pad their next issue so they don't look like a loser journal than nobody reads or publishes in.

Has the body of knowledge we call "Science" been advanced? Maybe a wee tiny bit. This is a credible observation -- we hope -- and there might be a real, physical connection between the toads disappearing and the earthquake. Ignoring the ionospheric silliness, it's possible the toads were sensitive to very low frequency vibrations that were precursor to the fault slipping or were getting away from a release of radon gas -- or something -- prior to the quake. The way Science generally works in these matters is: 1) Make observation, 2) Form hypothesis, 3) Test hypothesis via experiment, 4) Compare experimental result with observation, and 5) Return to Step 2, as necessary. Jumping from the observation stage to publication is just a lazy person's way to pad their resume.

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