Field of Science

Dragged into boobquake

After posting a picture of a scantily clade young woman sporting a botanical tattoo a couple of months ago, the Phactor decided that posting any kind of comment about “boobquake” would be a bad idea because it might give people the wrong idea about the kind of person writing this blog. But circumstances at my local coffee shop this morning force me to comment for the sake of science correcting a misconception arising from popular news accounts of the event.
Now the basic premise was to test whether “indecently” clad women were the cause of earthquakes, and the less said about that, and the less worn by the experimenters, the better (?). OK, that certainly did not come out right, which shows what dangerous shoals are being sailed.
So right to the main point. A barista was displaying a bit more cleavage than usual and someone said, “Are you trying to cause an earthquake?” The barista's response hinted strongly that she thought the idea, and the comment maker, absurd, not unreasonable positions. However the follow up comment was that there was an earthquake in Taiwan on the “boobquake test” day.
My reaction: BFD – big deal! The earthquake in Taiwan proved nothing. On average the Earth experiences just a tad over 4 earthquakes per day of magnitude 5 or higher. To determine if cleavage had any possible relationship to earthquake frequency you would have to compare the number of earthquakes actually observed (1) with the expected number of earthquakes (4) using a statistical test like Chi Square. To get a significant result, one where you are more than 95% certain of a relationship, the number of earthquakes observed on boobquake day would have had to have been greater than 4, and somebody mathematically inclined can work out how many more would make for a statistically significant result. Clearly having fewer major earthquakes than expected disproves the boobquake hypothesis. This is how scientists think about such things, and why nearly everyone in the media reporting on this sounded like the basic science requirement for their communications degree was insufficient. Of course a good scientist would have run more than one trial, and we’d all have something to look forward to.

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