Fake news, dubious theories: How to put science back at the center of the debate

Since the devastating earthquakes in southern Turkey and Syria and the series of haunting images of destruction and death, the slightest shock has become a source of widespread panic across Lebanese regions. Although most aftershocks occur in the initial area of ​​the quake and are felt less in Lebanon, the images of citizens taking the street in the middle of the night to flee their buildings have been repeated several times, especially at night. February 20-21 following a magnitude 6.3 earthquake in Anatolia that was felt in Lebanon. At the same time, on social networks and in certain media, pseudo-scientific or downright imaginative theories contribute to the rumor swelling: predictions of all kinds (an earthquake that will happen on such a day, etc.), the gravitation of the planets affecting the earth’s subsoil to unidentified flying objects detected at the time of the quake… The internet is awash with unsubstantiated data fueling fear and allowing irrationality to reign.

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“The success of this fake news should not be credited to those who spread it, but to the public, who are already vulnerable and under severe stress due to the economic crisis and are looking for the most distressing scenarios because they are naturally more receptive to alarmist news,” explains Naji Kehdy, hydrogeologist and professor of hydrogeology and geology at Lebanese University in Zahlé. This scientist, angered by the atmosphere of extreme panic, has rolled up his sleeves and dedicated his Facebook page to deconstructing the most far-fetched, or at least scientifically unproven, theories and putting science back at the center of the debate.

“Some who have never been able to publish their theories in scientific journals use social networks to spread their ideas,” he says. Alongside this Dutch netizen, who insists on establishing the correlation between the movement of the planets and geological faults, many others are beginning to imitate him or put forward other ideas that are completely unfounded, he laments. But what the expert fears most is the damaging effect of panic. “Rushing up the stairs and leaving the construction kit in your hand doesn’t make sense in an earthquake,” he insists. In the extreme case of a very strong earthquake, there would not be time for this and it would be better to take simpler and more effective measures, such as running under a table or behind a refrigerator to avoid injury from a moving object and have it a protection zone. And with a much weaker tremor, leaving the house is an unnecessary precaution and would even encourage chaos that could be fatal. “There is no point in waiting for the earthquake, science still cannot predict such an event or its magnitude,” emphasizes Naji Kehdy.

Shakes “in the standards”

The best way to bring people back to more rational and healthy behavior is to go back to science. For the hydrogeologist, this consists of better explaining what happened (and is still happening) in Turkey and Syria and the connection to Lebanon. “In Turkey, at the epicenter of the first major earthquake of 7.8 degrees on February 6, three tectonic plates meet, the Arabian plate, the Eurasian plate and the Anatolian plate,” he explains. The pressure that the Arabian plate exerted on the others after it reached its peak caused the great earthquake. “Everything that has happened since then, according to the scientist, is within the norm of scenarios that follow major earthquakes, such as the 8.2-degree Richter scale that struck Chile in 2014.” a month after the first event, he continues. These aftershocks, while strong, are of less magnitude than the first earthquake. In this way, as the pressure between the tectonic plates continues, the earth relieves pressure on the various faults in the contact zone. In a way, this is fairly reassuring news, as the multiplication of these small events basically removes the specter of a bigger shock. »

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Also sandwiched between two tectonic plates is Lebanon, traversed by the fault known as the Yammouné (a fault broken into segments, experts say, where the strongest earthquake in 100 years in 1956 measured 6 degrees on the Richter scale). , the Arabian Plate and the African Plate. The tremors felt in recent days, in particular that of 4.2 degrees a few kilometers from Hermel on February 8, remain “in the norm” and obey the logic of the movements that follow one another after such a major event in the region. “While considering that science does not always allow us to predict earthquakes, we can estimate that a series of small tremors would gradually release the energy contained in the Earth and derived from the pressure between the plates and would reduce the possibility of a larger earthquake , continues Naji Kehdy. In other words, what is causing panic today should perhaps be reassuring, quite the opposite. Above all, the scientist points out this tendency to “wait for the earthquake”. Because, as all experts know, geologic time is not on a scale that compares to human time.

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