Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Apocalypse not

Can I explain something, for what I devoutly hope is the last time?

The Yellowstone Supervolcano is not about to erupt.

This claim has been going around for some time, in various guises.  Once it was because a tourist saw some bison acting oddly and from that jumped to "all the wildlife are leaving the park" and from there to "so it's about to blow sky-high."

Well, this was four years ago, and if the Supervolcano had erupted, I think we would have noticed.  So it's a big "nope" on that one.  Bison may be cool animals, but as geologists, they suck.

Then it got picked up by the conspiracy theorists, who conjectured that NASA or DARPA or FEMA or some other evil government acronym had found out that eruption was imminent, and was conspiring to cover it up so as not to cause mass panic, except some people with websites who really ought to be sedated found out, and were letting us know so we could get the hell out.  All of which was well-meant, I suppose, but it became a moot point when the eruption once again failed to materialize.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Clément Bardot, Grand Prismatic Spring, CC BY-SA 3.0]

The latest iteration, which I have now seen posted as a serious claim at least a half-dozen times on social media, is that (1) Yellowstone is going to erupt, and (2) there's a secret NASA program to drill into it and bleed off the heat so they can prevent it.  At least NASA gets cast as one of the good guys, here; I'm sure the scientists are sick unto death of being portrayed as rubbing their hands together and cackling while plotting to destroy the world.

This comes from the apocalyptic site Breaking Israel News, and includes stuff like the following:
After initially denying that the unusual amount of seismic activity witnessed last year was an indication of imminent danger, NASA scientists are proposing a solution that could save half the world while admitting that their intervention could initiate the explosion it was intended to prevent. 
Last year, increased seismic activity at Yellowstone generated a great deal of concern.  More than 2,300 tremors were recorded between June and September, one of the largest earthquake swarms ever recorded at the site.  Though geologists assured the public that the activity was normal for the site, another series of quakes and unusual eruptions beginning in February, increased fears that the supervolcano was waking up.  An investigation revealed magma filling up in the underneath chamber of the supervolcano.  In July, a massive, 100 ft.-wide fissure opened up in the Grand Teton National Park near Yellowstone, further increasing fears. 
To look only at the most egregious errors in that passage:
  1. The solution to "save half the world" was proposed in a theoretical sense only by Brian Wilcox of NASA/JPL.  It involves pumping water down a drill shaft into the rock surrounding the volcano, then pumping the resulting steam back to the surface (and using it for electricity production).  This would "bleed off" the heat from the volcano, which would freeze and no longer be a threat.  The problem with this is twofold: first, it would cost 3.46 billion dollars, and second, the bleed-off of heat would be so slow (and the volcano is so large) that it would take hundreds, possibly thousands, of years to cool it enough to stop an eruption.  Which Wilcox says, right there in his paper.
  2. The 2,300 tremors between June and September are completely ordinary.  The Yellowstone area gets shaken multiple times on a daily basis, and most of them are too small to feel.  It's a seismically active area.  Recall what "seismically active" means.
  3. The fissure in the Grand Tetons had zilch to do with the Supervolcano.  It happened because mountains have landslides sometimes.  Saying it indicates an imminent volcanic eruption is no more sensible than connecting eruptions to bisons acting weird.
So you don't need to cancel your vacation plans to Wyoming yet.  Scientists assure us that there will be plenty of warning if the volcano shows signs of an eruption.

Anyhow, the woo-woos need to give this one a rest, because we're all safe, from that threat, at least.  You'd think the more imminent threat would be climate change and the fact that Trump and his followers seem to be trying to create Nazi Germany 2.0.  Compared to that, I'll accept the risk of Yellowstone erupting without a second thought.


This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is something everyone should read.  Jonathan Haidt is an ethicist who has been studying the connections between morality and politics for twenty-five years, and whose contribution to our understanding of our own motives is second to none.  In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics, he looks at what motivates liberals and conservatives -- and how good, moral people can look at the same issues and come to opposite conclusions.

His extraordinarily deft touch for asking us to reconsider our own ethical foundations, without either being overtly partisan or accepting truly immoral stances and behaviors, is a needed breath of fresh air in these fractious times.  He is somehow able to walk that line of evaluating our own behavior clearly and dispassionately, and holding a mirror up to some of our most deep-seated drives.

[If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]

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