Meta-Science Says We Love Doom Scenarios; Science Says “Brace for the Big One, California!’

Scientific American is devoting its September edition to a special issue musing on decay, decline, and apocalypse, and why those sorts of things are such a hit with audiences. In the introduction , Michael Moyer writes:

You might think that the enterprise of science, with its method and its facts, would inoculate us against the most extravagant doomsday obsessions. But it doesn’t. If anything, it just gives us more to worry about.

Some of the most fervent and convincing doomsayers, after all, are scientists. Bill Joy, co-founder and former chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, has warned that of out-of-control nanobots could consume everything on earth. Astronomer Royal Martin Rees has publicly offered a bet that a biological catastrophe—accidental or intentional—will kill at least one million people by 2020 (so far, no takers). Numerous climatologists sound the alarm about the possibility of runaway global warming.

This fascination with doom, the essay argues, can be a projection of cultural anxiety, a manifestation of human egocentrism, or a means of deflecting the fear of individual death. We all are going to die eventually, somehow, after all.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times reports that scientists now believe they have drastically underestimated how often major earthquakes struck the San Andreas fault in the past, and that Southern California is “long overdue” for a big one:

For years, scientists have said major earthquakes occurred every 250 to 450 years along this part of the San Andreas. The new study found big temblors on the fault every 88 years, on average.

The last massive earthquake on that part of the fault was in 1857, leading scientists to warn that another such temblor is likely in Southern California.