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Friday, January 15, 2010

On coincidence and science

So I had an interesting 'interview' this morning. A student from the University newspaper came to talk to me about the recent number of sinkholes that opened in Polk County Florida and elsewhere. The student noted that it seemed very odd that the sinkholes opened up within a few hours of the earthquake in Haiti and that perhaps the earthquake triggered the events. Her second thought was that freezing and thawing of groundwater may have caused the sinkhole collapse because of the recent cold weather we've been having.

As I started thinking about this, I realized that the human mind sometimes makes strange connections that become very powerful. The student insisted that this seemed very 'strange' and 'odd' that they should have happened so close together. So I looked at some newspaper clippings from Jan 12, 2010 and made the absurd suggestion that what triggered the sinkholes was Obama's recent comments on healthcare that came out just minutes before the sinkholes opened. Anyone (well mostly anyone) could see the absurdity in that claim.

So then I explained that the more likely cause for the opening of the sinkholes was due to a drop in the water table caused by the massive pumping of water by citrus growers trying to save their crop. Again she asked "but so many sinkholes right one after the other?" Seems like an earthquake is more likely cause.

The connection was welded. So then I asked her why would an earthquake cause sinkholes to open in Polk County? The connection between energy and earthquakes and damage was the answer. A reasonable connection? I said 'perhaps, if they had all opened up within seconds of each other following the passage of the seismic waves through the crust of Florida and if they only needed a very, very, very small amount of energy in order to push them over the edge. It's highly unlikely that multiple sinkholes were poised and ready to open so I returned to the suggestion that groundwater withdrawal was the more likely culprit.

I don't know what will finally be written, but the student was a little disappointed that the earthquake was not responsible for the sinkholes here. I warned her about coincidence and how they may seem logical once our brains have made the connection, but turn out to have nothing to do with one another.


At 10:28 AM, Blogger Callan Bentley said...

I get stuff like that all the time. The human brain seems hard-wired to look for patterns, and once those patterns are identified, they are imbued with meaning and held dear. Being a geologist myself, I'm not aware of what psychologists say about this phenomenon, but it's definitely something that happens a lot.


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