Thirty years ago, on December 2nd, 1990, a massive earthquake was supposed to strike the New Madrid Fault in southeastern Missouri. Iben Browning, a climatologist-turned-disaster prophet who some believed had successfully predicted the Loma Prieta Earthquake the previous year, stated that there was a 50% chance of a major earthquake hitting that day. Soon, David Steward, a seismologist at Southeast Missouri State University, told the press that the prediction needed to be taken seriously, and before long many in the media took his advice. When the sun dawned across the glimmering Mississippi and over the town of New Madrid on the morning of December 2nd, dozens of satellite trucks and hundreds of reporters and photographers stood around in the small community, waiting for the world to end.
I remember these events well. I was nine years old at the time, and I remember my parents dismissing the prediction while many of the other kids and parents in my suburban St. Louis community anxiously fretted and, in some cases, made plans to stay home from work or school that day. The school bus that morning was largely empty, I recall, and several kids I expected to see get on the bus at various stops were not present when we arrived.
For me, the prediction and the hysteria it caused was formative: it made me interested in how the public responds to imaginary events, and in some ways I think that experience later helped shape the way I write about horse thieves in Never Caught Twice. More directly, it inspired me to create a documentary based on the subject. We’ve conducted a handful of interviews thus far, and have produced a teaser video for the project:
For those of you who have been following or involved in this project . . . it is still happening! COVID-19 has slowed – actually, frozen – our fundraising efforts, and both Mario and I have been busy with competing projects this past year. We are hopeful that 2021 will be a safer year for the kind of in-person, less-socially distanced work that documentary production often requires. In the meantime, if you wish to support our work, you can follow our Facebook page, and if you have any stories you’d like to share about that day thirty years ago please Contact Me and tell me about it!
The ironic thing about COVID’s impact on our production schedule, however, is that in many ways I believe this film would have been a warning against the kind of conspiratorial, unobjective thinking that has led to the pandemic becoming so severe in the first place. The year 1990 offers some critical and timely lessons in how to respond to “fake news,” as it were, and perhaps that term would be a particularly apt way to describe the overall panic surrounding Iben Browning’s infamous prediction.
Lesson Number 1: Don’t just listen to what one scientist says. Listen to what most scientists say. If you are not a scientist yourself, you should defer to the consensus.
A few months before the predicted earthquake along the New Madrid Fault was to occur, NBC aired a prime time, made-for-TV disaster film entitled The Big One, starring Joanna Kerns (the mom on Growing Pains). In it, Kearns plays a seismologist whose warnings about a coming quake are all but ignored.
A similar trope persists in other disaster movies: some lone scientist predicts disaster, no one takes them seriously, and then a bigger-than-they-feared disaster suddenly strikes.
While it may be a stretch to say that movies like The Big One have sewn doubt among the American public about what the consensus of scientific experts has to say about a topic – just look at the role social media has played in generating mistrust towards vaccinations – it is emblematic of the larger problem.
Most people are not scientists, and even scientists are usually limited to being an expert in one or maybe two fields. This means that the rest of us are reliant on what the community of experts says. In 1990, social media did not exist and web browsing was in its infancy, but the hysteria surrounding Browning’s prediction provides a case study in how it only takes a couple of trusted “authorities” on a subject (Stewart and Browning) to undermine the cacophony of thousands of other scientists stating the opposite.
Fast forward to 2020, when Dr. Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist, became President Trump’s primary advisor on the COVID-19 response. Although not a trained epidemiologist, his pronouncements on the inefficacy of mask-wearing undermined the efforts of countless doctors and scientists to encourage broad use of facial masks and social distancing.
Lesson Number 2: If it bleeds, it leads. News organizations are bound by ethical conventions to report the truth, but they are still the gatekeepers of content. And those content decisions are not always made in the public’s best interest.
One of the things we’ve discovered with our documentary research is how reckless some media organizations were when covering this story. They would continually quote either Browning or Stewart, followed by one or two scientists peaching caution, and then conclude that the matter was unsettled. This phenomenon is called “false equivalence.” It happens when the opinion shared by a small but vocal minority of an expert community is treated with the same amount of deference as the much larger scientific consensus.
Of course, there is nothing new about this. Check out the segment from FOX 2 St. Louis below, which concludes that “St. Louis could be severely damaged [while] Memphis could be wiped out” in the event that a major earthquake strikes. The tone throughout is slightly ominous. What is interesting, however, is that most of the images used in the segment come from Northwestern geology professor Seth Stein’s book Disaster Deferred, in which his principal thesis is that the fears of a New Madrid earthquake are actually overstated and present little reason for residents of the region to worry.
More recently, news organizations have spent a great deal of time and attention covering small anti-mask protests across the nation, while devoting comparatively fewer resources to covering the 270,000 Americans who died of COVID since March, the 86,000 patients currently hospitalized with it, and the countless physicians and nurses who care for them.
Lesson Number 3: The scariest threats are often not the worst, and the worst threats are often not the scariest.
There is no doubt that a major earthquake along the New Madrid Fault would be devastating to the region. Two major metropolitan areas, St. Louis and Memphis, would be directly in its crosshairs, and if reports from the 1811 and 1812 Earthquakes are any indication, then a repeat event on the fault would do a lot more than collapse chimneys in Cincinnati and ring church bells in Boston.
However, as someone who not only grew up in the New Madrid Seismic Zone, but who then spent nine years living in Los Angeles (including 7 years in an apartment that sat literally 100 feet from an active, if minor, fault line), I don’t believe that the risk of an earthquake should prevent me or anyone else from living someplace. If an earthquake along an established fault is going to happen, it’s going to happen. The only thing I can really do about that is prepare: make an emergency supply kit, map out a safety plan for me and my family, and take proactive steps to ensure that furniture is affixed to wall and small objects won’t fall on me or anyone else in my household.
Yet the New Madrid earthquake prediction inspired many people to act more rashly in response. As mentioned above, many folks stayed home from work or school. A small number even left the region, according to sociologist John Farley in Earthquake Fears, Predictions, and preparations in Mid-America. Just as the hype over the prediction drew dozens of media organizations to New Madrid, the same hysteria caused others to run for their lives.
Was their response warranted in retrospect? Certainly not. But it is equally true that St. Louisans have also underestimated other dangers. Just two and a half years later, the Great Flood of 1993 killed dozens across the region and displaced thousands. Later, in 2011, a tornado struck Joplin, Missouri, killing a staggering 161 people and shocking a region that had long treated tornado warnings with a mix of humor, annoyance, and complacency. More recently, as of this writing, COVID has killed at least 4,183 Missourians, including over 1,000 in St. Louis County. While that might seem like a drop in the statistical bucket, St. Louis County has 19 municipalities with populations of 1,000 people or less. Imagine an entire neighborhood just disappearing.
Yet COVID, unlike earthquakes, does not inspire the same kind of dread in most people, especially after nine months of living through a global pandemic. We are all tired and anxious to get back to our routines, to reunite with family and friends, to go to bars and concerts and restaurants again, to travel and take cruises and visit beaches and take so many other things for granted again. And last week, many Americans let their guard down for a day and traveled to see loved ones for Thanksgiving.
My intent here is not to shame people for their decisions this holiday season. This is hard on all of us, and as someone who feels a special urgency at the moment to go and see his family in St. Louis for the holidays, I understand as well as most the cost-benefit analysis involved. But there’s a broader point here that is worth underscoring: 30 years ago, on December 3rd, everyone knew the danger had passed. Kids went back to school, parents went back to work, and journalists found something new to write about after the earth remained still.
We don’t have anything like that with COVID. There won’t be a single day when we all wake up to realize together and at once that the danger has passed. But until then, there will be many dangerous days ahead. And the Mississippi River, with its cold, gray waters and short, rippling waves, will continue to plow quietly southward towards the Gulf, oblivious to the silent, invisible virus that surrounds it on all sides.