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Shaky Reasoning

Susan Hough

The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith. David L. Ulin. xiv + 290 pp. Viking, 2004. $24.95.

My name appears in The Myth of Solid Ground: Author David Ulin expresses appreciation for my open-mindedness about ideas and possibilities that are out of the mainstream. He might not appreciate quite as much one of my favorite sayings—one that comes to mind reading his book: You don't want to be so open-minded that your brains fall out.

One doesn't get very far into the text before realizing that this is, in fact, a possibility. In the opening pages, Ulin describes his experiences the first time he felt an earthquake. The reader soon learns, however, that that particular earthquake never really happened. Fantasy and reality continue to blur seamlessly, along with other things, as one reads further: Ulin is talking about philosophy one second, science the next; science one second, pseudoscience and mythology the next.

The main premise of this loosely woven book appears to be that it is so unnerving to live in a geologically unsettled place that people by necessity invoke a fabric of mythology and superstition to cope. The problem with science, Ulin writes, is that it expresses no point of view: It deals with the trees rather than the forest. Californians need a philosophy of earthquakes—scientific understanding won't do. Such arguments have an odd ring, to say the least, to the ears of the scientist, who understands well the scientific "point of view": that our universe is governed by physical laws, which ultimately explain everything from the atom to the cell to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. That the universe is sometimes unpredictable does not mean that it is not fundamentally ordered.

One realizes just how antithetical Ulin's views are to those of scientists when he tells us that the person in the story with whom he feels the greatest sense of kinship is "maverick seismologist" Jim Berkland, who has achieved a certain measure of fame by promulgating myths and junk science—maintaining, for example, that animals are able to sense impending earthquakes. Seismologist Lucy Jones suggests (sensibly) that the appeal of Berkland and his ilk lies in their claim that they can erase the terrifying element of uncertainty about earthquakes and reintroduce some sense of control. But Ulin doesn't buy this: It isn't about control, he says, it's all about point of view—it's all about philosophical paradigm.

And yet, I and most of my fellow Californians—my neighbors and friends, people from all walks of life—have, I believe, a very workable paradigm, and it is nothing like the one that Ulin describes. Being sensible adults, we accept earthquake hazard as part and parcel of life in California. We understand that no place on Earth is free from natural disasters, and we like living here enough to accept the occasional rude intrusion of an earthquake. We know that living in earthquake country is not irrational if earthquake country and we ourselves are well prepared, so we have survival kits and bottled water, we strap our water heaters to the walls, and so forth.

There is little if anything in The Myth of Solid Ground to appeal to the educated, scientifically inclined reader, who may occasionally find the book entertaining but will probably more often find it irritating. The volume is without question a deeply personal expression of one man's impression of the natural world. Ulin lays out the thought processes of those Californians who do gravitate toward the Berklands of the world rather than to the explanations offered by serious scientists. If you have ever wondered, What are these people thinking, this book will provide some answers. It is an interesting little journey into the stratosphere: If you choose to get on board, just remember to fasten your seat belt.

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