Field of Science

Pseudoscience and prophecy of earthquakes

The self-declared seismologists Raffaele Bendani (1893-1979) affirmed in 1923 to have developed a method to foresee precisely earthquakes.
Lots of Italian sites have published in the last days such a presumed claim of Bendani that a swarm of earthquakes will destroy the Italian capital of Rome and cause worldwide havoc on the 11.05.2011 and subsequent year on the 5/6.04.2012.

Bendani was born in the Italian city of Faenza (Ravenna, Emilia-Romagna) and became interested
in earthquakes after 1908, impressed by the devastations caused by the great earthquake of Messina in this year. He worked as mechanic and used self constructed seismographs to study the movements of earth. In 1923 he claimed to foresee an earthquake that would hit 2. January 1924 "with the probable epicenter in the Balkan Peninsula", not as claimed by the media the Italian province of Marche, a notoriously seismic zone. There was in fact one notable earthquake mentioned in this year in Italy, exact on the 2. January 1924 near the city of Senigallia with a magnitude of 5.6 after Richter, causing minor harms. Curiosly the online article affirms that Bendani missed the date by two days, so I assume the presumed prediction and the real earthquakes were never checked by the journalists. Despite the vague location of the epicenter, newspapers dedicated at the time to Bendani some coverage as "he who can predict earthquakes."

Bendani was an honest man who believed his own predictions, but he developed his entire theory ignoring the modern concepts of geology and especially plate tectonics - not yet recognized by the scientific community until the second half of the 20th century.
In the years Bendani continued to promote his "seismogenetic" hypothesis further: Earthquakes are caused by the gravitational pull of the moon on the earths crust helped by the aligned of the other planets. An idea that on a first superficial view seems reasonable, however improbable, became stranger and stranger in the following years.

To fit better his predictions he assumed an 11-year cycle, influenced by the activity of sun, he also invented a supplementary planet between Sun and Mercury, which he called, after his hometown, Faenza, to explain the presumed patterns of earth
Today there is still a foundation which conserves his work and according to the curator in Bendani´s papers there is no precise date and location for earthquakes in 2011. So already this is an unfounded claim diffused by uncritically sites in internet.

The dream to effectively predict an earthquake has inspired and generated both scientific and pseudoscientific work.
Many various methods and observations have been suggested as forecasting tools appearing at first look convincing, however no scientifically accepted forecasting method yet exists.
Some people remain convinced they can forecast earthquakes by pseudoscientific means, the proposed methods range from psychic experiences, weather, unusual animal activity, earth tides, eclipses, planetary alignments, unusual sounds, astrology and just plain ability. However most of them can not present a convincing physical mechanism for their method.
Such individuals take inevitable random coincidences or near hits as proof that their methods are valid, ignoring the failures, false alarms and invalid claims (the method of cherry picking - so often adopted by pseudoscientists).

On average, there are seventeen earthquakes of magnitude 4 or more somewhere in the world every day of the year and strong earthquakes with a magnitude 6 or higher occur somewhere on earth all three to six days.
A forecast that remains vague, missing exact position, time and magn
itude is worthless as by plain chance it can hit an earthquake. Science can provide long-term statistical forecast of earthquakes, seismic activity is not distributed randomly on earth but concentrated on already mapped belts.

Fig.2. Earthquakes with a magnitude greater than 6 after Richter of the last 100 years. It is obvious from this figure that by shear chance it is possible to predict that somewhere an earthquake of such magnitude will occur (data from Exploring Africa's Physical and Cultural Geography using GIS).

The idea of planetary alignments, when several planets aligning relative to Earth influence the crust by their gravitational force, causing earthquakes is one of the most favourite explanation for earthquakes by pseudoscientists and the media.
In 1974, a book appeared forecasting doom during one such alignment that would occur in 1982. The book reportedly sold a large number of copies, especially in southern California, but finally there were no large earthquakes near the predicted time.
More recently there was the so-called Grand Alignment of May 5, 2000, when Earth and five other planets, plus the Sun and Moon, all came close to falling on a line. There were similar forecasts of earthquake disasters, but again none occurred -
Astrology to predict earthquakes simply doesn't work.


SHERMER, M. (2002): The Skeptic Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience. ABC-CLIO: 903
Figure 1: "The fool" according to an Italian Tarot-deck, image from Wikipedia.

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