Feeling the Earth Move | Stats + Stories Episode 61 / by Stats Stories


Kathyrn Miles ( @Kathryn_Miles ) is a journalist, Writer-in-residence at Green Mountain College and author of QUAKELAND: ON THE ROAD TO AMERICA'S NEXT DEVASTATING EARTHQUAKE and SUPERSTORM.

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Richard Campbell: Here we are nestled in the rolling hills of southwestern Ohio. You're in the middle of the Midwest. While we might get the occasional tornado, we are mostly safe from hurricanes, tsunamis, and long stretches of subfreezing temperatures, but what about earthquakes? This is the subject of today's episode of Stats and Stories. Stats and Stories is a partnership between Miami University's Departments of Statistics and Media, Journalism and Film, as well as the American Statistical Association. I am Richard Campbell, chair of media journalism and film and doing double duty as moderator today as Rosemary Pennington is on leave and on the road. I'm joined in the studio by our regular panelist John Bailer, chair of Miami Statistics Department, our very fine studio engineer is Ringo Jones, the person we blame for any mistakes. Today's guest is Kathryn Miles. She is a journalist, prolific science writer and college professor, and she's author of four books including Super Storm, Nine days inside Hurricane Sandy. Her most recent book is Quakeland - On the Road to America's Next Devastating Earthquake. She apparently knows a lot about natural disasters. Thank you so much for being here today, Kathryn.

Kathyrn Miles : Hi, it's my pleasure.

Campbell : So on The Daily Show recently you told comedian Trevor Noah, who's staff does some of the best reporting on television, I think, that New York City was the US city most unprepared for an earthquake. Since he lives in there, he, this kind of shook him up. So my question is, are we safe in Ohio?

Miles: You know, actually, some of the scientists here at Miami have done a great job helping to keep you safe and they were some of the people who first noticed that there was a direct correlation between wastewater injection and human induced earthquakes and worked really hard with your state public officials to actually create a situation in which any sort of well or injection site that looked like it was causing seismicity would just be immediately shut down, which we're not seeing in places like Oklahoma or Texas. And so in a lot of ways I think Ohio is well ahead of the curve and you should sleep well, frankly.

Campbell : Well that's good. Now, can we…can we, I think you said that New York was like 40 years overdue for a big earthquake!

Miles: So, and here's some statistics for you, right? and it's really important to note that we cannot predict earthquakes, but what we do have is something that a lot of seismologists refer to as return rate. So we can go back and look throughout history and see how frequently there has been an earthquake in a given place. And what we know is if we go back, say a thousand years looking at New York City, that the area that is currently New York City has had a moderate earthquake pretty close to almost exactly every 100 years. The last earthquake in New York City was in 1883. And so we might say then that New York City is about 40 years overdue for an earthquake. if that's true, and were we to have a moderate earthquake in New York City, that earthquake would generate more rubble than September 11th. And when you think about what that would do to the city as a whole in terms of not just disaster response and, and first responders, but also just the way it would shut down business, economy, tourism, you start to see this rapidly sort of snowballing financial impact for, to the city as well.

Bailer: You know, it's interesting. Have you ever experienced an earthquake?

Miles: Two tiny earthquakes and I feel like now I've become this earthquake, whatever the opposite of a magnet is. And so it seems like no matter where I am, like I leave and then two days later they have one. So I think the safest place you ever are is with me when I'm on book tour about earthquakes.

Bailer: Yeah, I think I've experienced two. I think one, one was in this area and the other was in Bali, Indonesia.

Miles: Oh, that's a good place to experience.

Bailer: Yeah, and it was very striking to be outside. It was in a yoga class of all things and all of a sudden the ground was moving, which is generally not something you expect. And you know, when you look up and you see the eyes widen on the, on the person that's the instructor and then says, uh, we may start to move to the building. At first, you start to move away quickly from the building and then you think, okay, now we move to the building just in case there's a tsunami. And that, that's a really striking, striking experience. And you don't think about that in the States. I mean, you think about it a little bit with when you think of the west coast, but generally in our, where we live now in the east coast and the central part of the country, not so much.

Miles: And, and we should frankly, you know, the east coast can experience a tsunami where I come from the state of Maine actually of all the states that will have maybe the largest impact from a tsunami, it would be Maine on the east coast. you know, is it going to be something like we see in the movies? Absolutely not. But, but there are multiple scenarios that might lead to a tsunami situation in the northeast. Something that we tend not to talk about, even talking about tsunamis on the west coast outside of Hawaii is a fairly new phenomenon within the last, say 20, years. And so we're still really getting up to speed in terms of understanding that hazard as well.

Bailer : So how, how did you get involved writing about superstorms and earthquakes?

Miles: I've, I've always had a real keen interest in the relationship that we form with the natural world both as individuals and, and as a culture, I kinda came in the back door to Hurricane Sandy, superstorm Sandy. I had written a book about a tall ship when really interested in that culture. And so when the bounty, a tall ship drove into the middle of a, of a hurricane, I had this, what I was saying in a talk I gave here at Miami. I had the same question I think a lot of people do, which is why, you know, why did this captain leave the safe port and decided to drive out into the storm. And, and why do all of us seem to really underestimate risk, natural disaster and risk and think that we're somehow impervious to it for some reason. We have this incredible hubris as a species when it comes to natural disasters, and how we respond to them and I'm really curious about why that is and I'm really curious about how we can become more resilient and less sort of reactive to those disasters as they grow bigger and bigger in this anthropogenic era that we live in.

Campbell: Your recent reporting on hurricanes and earthquakes. These are big, dramatic, nature events, and there's a lot of drama in those stories just naturally. But how do you make an important but complex science story that seems boring on the surface come alive?

Miles: (Laughs) Well, I guess I would argue that very few science stories are boring, but that's maybe my, maybe my science wonkiness there speaking. You know, I think it really comes down to this idea of the stories that we all like to hear as a species again and again, and if you go back, you know, even to ancient mythology, we have these sort of classic sort of narrative techniques. You know, that people study in English departments, whether it's conflict, whether it's, you know, these sort of fallible, flawed characters who have to somehow go on something that's like a quest or a journey, you know, this kind of classic mythology that Joseph Campbell talks about the hero's journey and things like that. Who are we when we return? How do we respond to conflict? What kind of resolution do we look for? I think that, you know, as a species, we've been making sense of the world that way as long as we've been a species. And so I think that when we can tap into that, we immediately sort of have an audience and I think, you know, right now what we're seeing is our comparative mythology seems to be largely happening on the big screen. You know, I think that that's right now as a culture where we go to for our collective mythology is film largely and so, you know, thinking through that and what works. One of the things that I tell my journalism students when we're looking for ways to insert science into the stories is to think of it as commercial breaks, you know, can we, can we drive the reader to this sort of cliff hanger that you might see on something like Law and Order or Grey's Anatomy or something like that. and then take that two minutes and 20 seconds to kind of interject some, some notions of climate change or species extinction or plate tectonics or whatever else and then get back to the narrative in a way that, that a reader who doesn't have a vested interest in science, maybe willing to tolerate.

Campbell : So. So you're talking about mythology, you're talking about narrative. You sound like an English person, an English professor. And I know that's what your PhD is in and that your BA is in philosophy. So how did you become a science writer? What, what pushed you in that direction? And how did you learn about science given that you weren't sort of formally introduced to it?

Miles: And I don't know why I fought formal science education for so long because even as a child I thought I wanted to be some kind of scientist. I wanted to be a veterinarian for a while. I wanted to be a biologist for a while and, and I don't know why I didn't pursue formal scientific study, but like I said earlier, I've always had this real vested interest in the environment and our relationship to the environment. I grew up in the Midwest, and, and always felt sort of dislocated in the midwestern landscape and it wasn't really until I went to college and just understood just how little of the sort of indigenous flora and fauna existed where I was that it was instead this sort of, you know, industrial agriculture. And of course I didn't feel located in the place. The place no longer really existed. So I kind of approached it by way of the humanities, but still had that interest in scientific inquiry. And then, had a first teaching job where I was at a small environmental studies college with incredibly generous faculty in the science departments who were willing to team teach, willing to have me sit in, willing to have me join them when they were out doing their research, and I learned a ton that way and really enjoyed kind of having that spectator role.

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Campbell : You're listening to stats and stories where we discuss the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics. The topics today are earthquakes and science writing. And our guest is Kathryn Miles, author of Quakeland. John.

Bailer: You know, I was wondering what is the most surprising thing you learned when researching this book? What really knocked your socks off?

Miles: It is this idea of human induced seismicity the fact that we can cause earthquakes in so many different ways. And we have been for a really long time. I think the idea of, again, fracking and wastewater injection, particularly what's happening in Oklahoma right now has really raised the awareness of this idea of induced seismicity. But that is just, that's not even the tip of the iceberg right now. And so the fact that building reservoirs, building dams, building tunnels, building subways, building high rise apartments, all of these things have the potential to create seismic activity. And the deeper we go, the higher we go, the bigger we go that seismic activity gets bigger and bigger. And, and this idea that we could actually affect that much energy and potential damage on this very large planet is I think shocking and a real sort of wake up call that we ought to take seriously.

Bailer: So, so Richard asked you the humanities and journalism question, I'm gonna ask you a data question as a follow-up to what you just said. And that is, you know, what is the data that's in support of this? The human impacts and this anthropogenic source. And, and if you think about there are people that are saying that there's evidence and data and analysis that supports these sources. The fracking or the injection of the wastewater, they're probably also people that are denying this.

Miles: That's right. That's right. And we're seeing that particularly in places like Texas for instance, right now, where on a sort of state governmental level, the idea that there's any sort of correlation between seismic activity and, and these anthropogenic activities is just not there. So multiple scientists from multiple disciplines, hydrology, geophysics have been looking at this and trying to trace this, and trying to draw this correlation. And it's a difficult correlation to draw because it's not necessarily true that the earthquake occurs right where, for instance, the wastewater injection occurs, right? And so it can occur, you know, 30 miles away. So how do we correlate that? I, again, I'm not the scientists doing the research, but what I can say is that what they've become increasingly sophisticated in terms of their ability to sort of identify these sorts of causalities. and what's really interesting too is what we're learning is that not only is it possible that and probable and maybe even a sure thing that these human activities are causing these earthquakes, but then those earthquakes are causing other earthquakes, right? So then we have this ripple effect. And what's one of the things that's happening in seismology that's really hot right now is understanding, you know, to what degree can an earthquake in Mexico then cause an earthquake in Alaska, can cause an earthquake in Kansas. We know that in terms of water, there's huge water effects. For instance, an earthquake in Hawaii can affect wells in Ohio. We have evidence that that's true. So why is that and to what degree is hydrology playing a role here? That's one of the things that I think is a fairly new and emerging science, but really important, again, with this idea of forecasting hazard and understanding kind of where we're going in terms of risk and possibility.

Campbell: So at your talk yesterday, one of the subjects that came up was scientists are afraid to talk to journalists for various reasons, fear that their work would be oversimplified, dumbed down or misinterpreted. As a reporter and writer, how do you address those fears when you're trying to convince a scientist that you're going to represent his work fairly or her work fairly?

Miles: It's such an important question, right? Because reputations are absolutely on the line and we live in this sort of strange kind of skewed era in terms of journalism right now where we have daily papers in crisis, right? We have daily papers folding or being folded into these, these corporate conglomerates, but we are also in this this real renaissance, I think of investigative journalism, long form journalism. And in some ways I think online sources are allowing for a sort of resurgence and literary journalism like we haven't seen. So we have these two contrasting things happening. This, these, this constriction that we're seeing, particularly at daily papers where entire desks and beats are getting cut. And I think that the experience of those daily beat reporters is an incredibly complex, challenging one where, you know, minimal staff, right, maybe in some cases may be half a staff doing what, what a full staff was doing five years ago, and they're under the gun, right? And a lot of times those, those reporters who have the very best intentions, are not getting fact checked. Right? You know, they're not getting a chance to edit their stories. You know, this is not their fault, right? But, this is the resources that their paper has, so I think we need to address that, right? And I think as, as a culture, we're really well suited and served if we decide to reinvest in that and reinvest in the importance of that kind of reportage. Reporters who are doing this more sort of long form deep dive type work, the work that I tend to do, you know, I have, I have the luxury of time in a way that those beat reporters don't have. So I can spend two or three days sitting with a scientist, you know, understanding his or her research, going back and forth in terms of understanding, You know, I have the luxury of a fact checker who is going to go through and, and meticulously make sure, you know, that any mistake that I made and I'm sure I made them, you know, it gets caught along the way too. So I think that, you know, as a culture we need to sort of sit down and say, you know, to what degree do we value this and we ought to value at a ton. And if we do value it, and, you know, are we willing to sort of invest the resources? You know, I think the overwhelming majority of journalists want to be conscientious, accurate reporters, right? It's hard to do that when you're under the gun in terms of time. you know, One of the things I said in my talk during the question section is, you know, I think we need to ask questions about what's happening with this 24 hour news cycle and this need that we have right now to always make news and maybe make news when there isn't really any news and does that, you know, I always go back to the, to the sort of meteorologists reporting on the storm of the century. You know, they're always outside, you know, standing next to a pole and it gets blowing and no, this is it. This is the big one. And if we say that again and again, when the big one comes, we're so sort of anesthetized to that idea that we don't actually value it.

Bailer : I think scientists, they do value communication. They do want their stories told, they do want their work to be recognized, they want it to have impact. And I think it's often there's a disconnect. There's a disconnect between how to, how to connect to the journalists. So what advice do you have for scientists in terms of helping to, to better connect to it, to journalists trying to tell the story?

Miles: And I think that scientists doing different kinds of scientific work have different challenges, right? If you're a scientist employed by the government, you have to be really careful, right? Like there's multiple things that you may feel pressure, like you're not able to say, right? If you're working in the academy, you know, and you're trying to get tenure, do you even have time to do that kind of reporting? And so again, you know, are we creating cultures where scientists have the opportunity to do this? I think, you know, within, within institutions of higher education, we ought to be saying to scientists, we value this enough that this counts towards your tenure or this is part of your service to the institution is we want you to have a relationship with the general public or the community that you live in and we want you to be doing this kind of outreach science. but again, that forces all of us to create this whole mindset and kind of shift resources and think about it. because you're right, I mean, scientists do this work because they love it because they're passionate about it. And I have yet to meet a scientist who doesn't want to talk and share their work. It's a matter of finding that opportunity, and making sure that they're going to be able to do that without, you know, putting at risk the other work that they're doing.

Campbell: You talked about, at your talk, you talked about how approachable scientists are generally. They're always willing to sort of share their stories and their research with you because they want to get it out there. And I think because of your reputation, I think they trust you to do a good job.

Miles: I hope so but it really does take a village, right? It takes, it takes me, it takes a good editor. It takes a good fact checker, right? It takes a publisher willing to do that work. Right? We all work in concert with each other.

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Campbell : You're listening to Stats and Stories where we discuss the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics. The topics today are earthquakes and science writing, and our guest is Kathryn Miles, author of Quakeland. So before you were talking a little bit about this crazy time we're living in. So in the age of fake news and the ascension in some quarters of belief and opinion over facts and evidence, how do those of us who are educators, statisticians, scientists, and journalists, how do we respond? What do you do?

Miles: Yeah. You know, and you mentioned the Daily Show earlier. I think one of the things that the Daily Show did very early on in the era of Jon Stewart that was so brilliant was they would start to do those montages, right? where they would take, you know, a politician saying, you know, I am against x, and then they would show this montage of 20 times that the politician said that they were pro x, right? And that's, that's, you know, that's not really statistical, but it's...but it's empirical, right?

Campbell: Yes. And I think they were providing evidence and historical evidence often something that daily television journalism doesn't do. They just talk about usually what happened yesterday. So you have this very refreshing staff of really, comedians actually researching and finding out, well, what did that politicians say and how many times did he say it and how many years does it go back? I absolutely agree with you.

Miles: And that's just empirical data, right? So, you know, I mean there's always gonna be bias, right? We know subjectivity is inherent in everything we do, whether it's science, whether it's writing, there's always going be the subjectivity and, and we're never going to have, you know, maybe truth with a capital t, right? But if we acknowledged the bias, we can, you know, and I think that, you know, as a journalist, one of the things that we need to be able to do is show our work as much as possible. I was just reading this book written by a journalist, it is a biography and he was talking about how there's always the saying that says nobody wants to know how the sausage is made, right? Like, just give me the sausage. I don't want to see the process, but the point he makes, and I think it's a good one, is increasingly maybe we need to show how the sausage is made. And so what he advocates as he said, you know, maybe journalists ought to be putting up all the documents that they got by way of a freedom of information act request in addition to the story so that readers can go look at those. And you know, I mean, I have such mixed thoughts about that, but I think that the idea of, of sort of demonstrating that we have done that, um demonstrating, you know, and maybe even acknowledging our bias. One of the things I was saying to a journalism class yesterday is I think there's a, there's a really important reason to use first person in a journalistic story if it helps identify that subjectivity and that bias. And yes, I am this person approaching this story. Now, it's honest. Now, I'm not trying to look like I'm objective and you know, non sort of advocacy journalism that I am here and I had something to do with this story.

Bailer : So just one aspect of what you're talking about in your book and in the work that you've done is the idea of managing earthquake risk and, and you know, sort of, I get a sense of frustration that we're not doing more despite all the evidence to the contrary. But you know, as I think about this, I go, well, we're not responding. We're good at responding to the disasters. We're underestimating the risk of these natural disasters, but we're reluctant to change our behavior about cigarette smoking when the evidence is much as just clearly strong. The linkage is just in your face. I mean, you've identified. In the risk assessment world, they talk about identifying hazards and doing assessments of exposure and looking at relationships between response and exposure before trying to manage this as part of the assessment after the assessment of risk. But I'm wondering, you know what hope do we have of something where there's really difficult challenges in trying to characterize this risk and their relationship to what you expect to happen given that we don't respond or we have really squirrely ideas about how we have evaluate risks that are much cleaner and clearer?

Miles: Right, right. And and, you know, I mean, shifting those squirrely ideas is like, you know, turning in the QE II two. Right? But that's not going to happen in a moment. But a couple of things, you know, first of all, I think this is a place where stats are really important, right? And we need to understand sort of, we need to understand the sort of statistical likelihood of things and we also need to weigh pros and cons, right? So if you take a city like Memphis for instance, Memphis is on the new Madrid fault, which, uh, you know, FEMA identifies, as you know, a major earthquake on the new Madrid fault would be one of the greatest disasters to befall our country as a whole. So Memphis is there, the risk is real. You know, the return rate suggests that, you know, within the next few hundred years probably there will be, you know, a significant earthquake there. The city of Memphis though decided not to increase their, their building and zoning codes because they felt like the cost, the sort of weight of the set of cost benefit analysis just didn't pan out. Right? So they had a very different reaction than say, Los Angeles. So, as communities, as, as households, as communities, we have to make that decision. You know, again, I live in Maine. Does it make sense for us to have these really aggressive retro fitting laws in terms of seismic? No, probably not. Does it make sense for us to be doing that in terms of sea level rise? Absolutely. Right. So we do have to kind of weigh that. And I'm really heartened and one of the things that was really important to me about this book was making sure that it was not just this doomsday prognostication but that it was also talking about some of the real success stories that are happening and one of the ones that I point to is this community on the Olympic peninsula where again, a very sort of a blue collar community of working fishermen, immigrants. And they made the decision to levy a bond in their community, to, to raise several million dollars to build a tsunami sheltering station on their new school. It's the Acosta district. And so the sheltering station, which has four different stairwells getting up to it, can get all of the students in the district to a safe platform were even the worst case tsunami, to hit this area, and they have food and water to shelter in place there for up to two weeks. So here's a community that decided, yes, we are going to invest and know we don't have a lot of spare change, but, but this is important enough to know that our kids are safe. A lot of these parents commute an hour to Olympia to work and they're like, you know what? I can commute now because I know that my kids are going to be okay. And that's the kind of story. That's the kind of community that I think we ought to be looking at. Who says, yeah, I'm willing to increase my taxes $300 this year to buy the security that comes with it. I think that's the kind of thing that we all ought to be doing.

Campbell: As the journalist, the other journalist at the table, I'm always encouraging our students to take statistics. They need to do that. What other things should they be taking as journalism students who really want the kind of career that you've had, how should, are there things they can be doing now, things that they should be doing now because a lot of them are, are not fans of their science courses.

Miles: Well, and, and one of the things that I say, and it's a gross exaggeration, but I say, you know, it's not all that hard to teach someone how to write a basic news story, you know, give me a couple hours and I can kind of show you how a new story works, right? But mastering the content needed to write that story does, is much longer process. And so I think that content area is really important and knowing what types of stories you want to write. If you're going to be a political reporter, you need to know the ins and outs of the political system both historically and contemporary. I love that you're encouraging them to do stats. I think a lot of our work is statistical analysis right now. and some of it's just even basic organization, right? The Tampa Bay Times just did an outstanding piece looking at police shootings, right? That was a statistical analysis is what they did. They would not have been able to do that work had they not known how to do it. So having the content, you know, mastering the content, knowing what to do with the information, knowing how to organize the information, critical thinking is I cannot stress that enough. Being a, being a voracious reader of things is really important as well. And then basically understanding how argument works I think is really important too. If you want to be a freelance writer, you need to know how business works, right? You know, I was saying earlier today that I feel like a lot of my job is tracking down, you know, checks that are owed to me and you know, travel expenses that are owed to me. And so understanding how I can do that as well too, you know, you really are running a one person business in a lot of ways if you're a freelance writer, even if you're not, if you're working for a publication. Again, having that mastery and knowing, knowing not just what the story is, but how to get to the story I think is really important.

Bailer : I think some of the advice you just gave there is a good for stat students, for math and stat students that are trying to pursue how do I communicate the results of what I do? And by the way, I think it's more than just one class.

(Voices overlap)

Bailer : I mean because the story that you're telling me, there's a story of uncertainty and variability. There's a story of use of trying to have models that are tough to validate and try to make extrapolations. There's this just general challenge of thinking with data and that's, you know, like the story that you were telling about being reported about shootings since. How does, how do you even think about this? How do you think about the population to which this applies, how do you think is there, is there bias in the way in from the data are collected? How do you, how do you deal with all of those moving parts?

Miles: Well, let me just give you a quick example too. So I was just working on a story about a really problematic pipeline, natural gas pipeline, and it was approved by FERC, the Energy Regulatory Commission, and it was approved by a commission of three. So that's a commission of three people who approve or disapprove it. Once it's approved, they can claim private property by eminent domain. They can do all these other things. The commission of three, two of the commissioners voted for it, one voted against it. So my editor, I had a very long talk about this is it, how significant did it barely pass? Two thirds. One third, right. You know, like, you know, what was the sort of statistical significance, you know, I mean this is a tiny little example, but it really mattered to our story, you know. And, and as someone who doesn't have that background, I didn't feel comfortable except I knew it probably mattered that this one, commissioner dissented and dissented loudly.

Campbell : Kathryn Miles, thank you very much. That's all the time we have today for stats stories and we really appreciate you being here.

Miles: Thanks so much for having me.

Bailer: It's great having you. Thanks.

Campbell: Stats and Stories is the partnership between Miami University's departments of Statistics and Media, Journalism and Film, and the American Statistical Association. Stay tuned and keep following us on twitter or apple podcast. If you'd like to share your thoughts on our program, send your email to statsandstories@MiamiOh.edu, and be sure to listen for future editions of stats and stories where we discuss the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics.