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Tsunami Tim

The subject of this entry is not exactly a straw man, but he is an easy target: Tim LaHaye, co-author of the insanely and inexplicably popular Left Behind books.

A few days ago, when MSNBC decided to ask some prominent religious thinkers about the Boxing Day tsunami, they didn't spare the horses. No sir, they brought in four of the best and brightest, including our friend Tim. And here's part of what he had to say:
The amazing thing about it is, if you go to the U.S. Geological Society, you will find that they chart earthquakes and they have been increasing. For the past five decades, every decade has increased the number of earthquakes, killer earthquakes we're talking about. And this is one of the granddaddy of all earthquakes, and it has taken so much life. And the good thing about all of this is, it points out that man really has to get right before God, because the time is short.
Wow. Thanks, Tsunami Tim. You know, it really takes talent to be wrong in so many ways. First of all, why should I trust someone who can't even get the name of a government agency right? It's the U.S. Geological Survey, not Society. (I should know, I used to work there.) And as horrifying as this disaster is, it's not "the granddaddy of all earthquakes." ("Granddaddy" has two sets of doubled D's—can you think of another word like that?) The most destructive earthquake in history occurred in China in 1556. The second most destructive earthquake in history occurred in China in 1976. Each of them killed 2.5–3 times as many people as the Sumatra earthquake/tsunami has.

And when he says earthquakes have been increasing, what does he really mean? That there have been more tremors? That the number of tremors is constant, but they've been more intense? That there have been the same number of tremors, but more of them have been near population centers? Or that the tremors near population centers have been more intense? Or that there are more tremors, which are more intense, which are hitting more population centers? Or that the population has grown, so the human destruction relative to the number & intensity of tremors has increased? Or that more people live near fault lines? Or that there are more and better seismographs and seismologists in place, so they're detecting earthquakes they never noticed before? His allegation appears too nonspecific to prove or disprove.

But wait! It turns out that Tsunami Tim is quoting himself. Here's what he published on the topic seven years ago (thanks to the Preterist Archive):
"An increase in earthquakes, even multiple and enormous earthquakes was predicted by both our Lord in Matthew 24:7, and also by the apostle John in the book of Revelation, for the time of the end. Notice in the following chart how they have increased during the past five decades, according to the U.S. Geological Society: 1940-1949: 4; 1950-1959: 9; 1960-1969: 13; 1970-1979: 56; 1980-1989: 74" LaHaye, Tim, "The Signs of the Time Imply His Coming," in 10 Reasons Why Jesus is Coming Soon: Ten Christian Leaders Share Their Thoughts (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1998), p. 205-206)
This isn't a book I would bother to read, so I'll have to trust that the Preterist Archive has fairly represented the numbers in Tim's chart. But now we know what he means: the numbers in his chart do show some kind of increase in what he calls "multiple and enormous earthquakes." (It's unfortunate, though, that he got USGS' name wrong seven years ago, as he continues to do today.) Now that we have some kind of data from Tim, we can attempt to corroborate it. And for that we can go straight to the horse's mouth: on this page the USGS not only explicitly denies that there has been an increase in major earthquakes, they give data that cover two of the decades Tim is talking about. And when you add up their numbers, you get 157 "major" and "great" earthquakes, combined, for the 1970s, but only 106 for the 1980s. Whoops! Not only are these totals not even close to the ones in Tim's chart (they're much higher), they show a decrease in big earthquakes from the '70s to the '80s. (For the '90s, the total went back up to 153, so if Tim were a clever fellow, he could have cooked his chart accordingly and claimed some kind of 20-year trend.)

It's possible that Tim cherry-picked some subcategory of earthquakes for his chart. For example, there could be an increasing trend in tremors between magnitude 4.2 and 5.8 occurring on odd-numbered Tuesday mornings. But that is not how he is representing the data, and it's not statistically valid. And it's not honest.

If you want to "zoom out" and look at all earthquakes, not just the big ones, and their human cost, here's the page for you. Unfortunately for Tsunami Tim, this table of USGS data from the last 15 years doesn't show any identifiable trend that matches what he is talking about. His chart stops where this table begins, but it's just as well, because this table doesn't help him any.

So there's the lesson, kids. Not a big surprise for most of you, I know. Here are your discussion questions:

1) If a guy is selling millions of books propounding his theories about how the world will end, is it too much to ask that he be able to speak credibly about evidence that he claims in support of those theories?

2) Why doesn't MSNBC have phone numbers for real religious thinkers, instead of cranks and liars?