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The Big Shakedown : SCIENCE : Next to Seismology, Economics Is Exact

January 23, 1994|James Fallows | James Fallows is the Washington editor of the Atlantic Monthly. He grew up near the San Andreas Fault

WASHINGTON — I love stock-market analysts. Within minutes of the closing bell, they're on the air with a plot line for what has just occurred: "Trouble in Russia lifted the value of defense stocks." "Profit-taking drove high-tech stocks down."

It is all so clear and sensible after it has happened! What had been a confusing jumble of buyers and sellers suddenly has a narrative shape. For some reason, I never seem to hear these people in the morning, when they could tell me whether these same developments were going to move the market up or down that day.

I love seismologists, too. Within minutes of a temblor, they're on the air with its size, duration and epicenter--lending scientific precision to what had been formless fear and doubt just moments before. (Here on the East Coast, I've even come to love wind-chill readings. With them, I can say, "I'm just as cold as I would be if it were 40-below zero," rather than just yelling, "Where are those ear muffs?")

Hours after a quake, the scientists show us the seismographic tapes, with their eloquent frenzy of activity when the main shock strikes and the subsequent pulses of aftershock. By the next day, seismologists are ready to display the beautiful tectonic maps of California, like X-rays of the state, with the San Andreas Fault running spine-like down its longitude and the delicate web of shatter faults lining the Los Angeles Basin. It is all so clear and sensible when we can see that some previously undiscovered fault was responsible for the latest damage! The only thing that could possibly top it would be if we'd known anything about these "minor" faults before the quake.

A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal compared the six-month record of stocks picked by top financial analysts with that chosen by throwing darts at a board. The darts won. For its next project, the newspaper might round up a group of pigs and rats, which are supposed to be sensitive to pre-quake emanations, and match their short-term predictive success to that of an equal number of seismologists.

I'm the first to admit that pigs don't know about the San Andreas Fault and that no rat can explain (as a trained seismologist can) why Los Angeles and San Francisco have a bigger earthquake problem than Houston or Miami. I would much rather be a seismologist than a pig or rat, even if the animals are better at sensing when a big quake is on the way. There is a stately majesty to the seismologists' studies, as they place geodetic markers on either side of a divide and wait to see how far they move. Like anatomy professors, seismologists possess a secret, half-tragic knowledge that lets them look at the surface of life and see the doom lurking underneath.

But if I were a seismologist, I'd be working on public relations right now. I'd admit I had no idea when or where the next quake might occur--and would say that, nonetheless, there is merit in my craft.

People have always wanted to know , but the search for knowledge has had two distinct aims. We want to impose a shape on what has already happened, and we want a grasp on what lies ahead. Some forms of knowledge serve both purposes. By learning why people died of smallpox, scientists learned how to prevent deaths.

But such an iron connection, linking yesterday to tomorrow, is the exception. In general, knowing what's happened tells us next to nothing about what lies ahead. George Santayana meant well but, on balance, did harm with his war-horse adage: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

The truth is that even those who do learn from history have no idea that the world waited too long to take Adolf Hitler seriously and should have squashed him when he was small. Does this make the new Russian kook, Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, another Hitler? No one knows. Economists can tell us how and why certain countries grew prosperous. Do they know how to make all countries prosperous? Clearly not. If there is a pattern to history, it is of people running into problems they did not expect.

The point of retrospective knowledge--making sense of what has happened to us--is, therefore, not its practicality. Rather, we learn about history, even the "history" of today's trading on the stock exchange, because our minds yearn to fit facts into larger patterns. We want cause and effect; we want stories with beginnings and ends. The list of U.S. Presidents is a tedious fact. The names Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford are linked in a story.

This is the need seismologists can fill--not for forecasts but for patterns and stories. As we've been recently reminded, they can give little practical guidance that fits the human time scale. They're sure that the San Andreas Fault will slip. They just don't know whether it will happen while anyone now on Earth is still alive, and what other faults might reveal themselves in the meantime.

But by explaining why something happened even after it is over, as the teams of seismologists did this week, they fill an important human function. In the olden days, people huddled in caves, and when the mastodons roared and the fishing lakes froze, they turned for comfort to shamans who could explain what it all meant. We need the same comfort, from our shamans with seismographs.

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