Earthquake Liquefaction: Climate Change Isn’t the Only Science with Different Opinions

While most are riveted on BP’s mile deep gusher in the Gulf, my attention was drawn to another type of scientific and technological challenge with possible catastrophic consequences: earthquake engineering.  My colleagues in the geotechnical engineering field have drawn my attention to a monograph entitled Technical Review and Comments: 2008 EERI Monograph “Soil Liquefaction During Earthquakes” (by I.M. Idriss and R.W. Boulanger).  The writer is one Raymond B. Seed, Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of California at Berkeley (your eyes aren’t deceiving you, right wingers.)  It’s a response to a research report co-authored by one Izzat M. Idriss, Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of California at Davis.  But some background for the rest of us is in order.

One of the immediate consequences of an earthquake is the liquefaction of soil.  A memorable occurrence of that was in San Francisco’s Marina District during the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, when the uncompacted fill under the area liquefied during the quake, damaging many of the structures above it.  A more potentially serious consequence is the liquefaction of earthen dams, which can lead to the catastrophic failure of the dam and loss of life and property below.  So this is a serious topic, especially in California, which is why we’re looking at a war of UC institutions here.

Geotechnical engineers perform a variety of tests on soils to determine their properties, and extrapolate data from these tests to determine properties related to soil strength, permeability for water flow, and other properties important in the design and construction of structures on and with the soils.  The line of research here has been to correlate the results of certain field tests on soils with their tendency to liquefy during an earthquake.  Knowledge of this is both valuable and essential in proper design of dams, bridges and other structures that must remain functional and intact during and after an earthquake.

One of the seminal studies on this was published in 1971 by Idriss and H. Bolton Seed, Raymond’s father.  The younger Seed’s description of doing engineering computer work at Cal in those days is alone worth his monograph:

In the late 1960’s and through the 1970’s, the U.C. Berkeley campus had a single mainframe computer in the basement of the Mathematics building (next door to the Civil Engineering building.)    Performing a single site response analysis (by the equivalent linear method, using SHAKE; Schnabel et al., 1972) required punching a deck of cards and then carrying the box of punched cards to the basement of the Mathematics building and submitting them via the card reader.    The next morning, one would retrieve the results from alphabetically arranged shelves upon which the stacks of computer output would be placed.    If you were fortunate, you had a large stack. If it was only a few pages, then the second page usually informed you that you had divided by zero somewhere and the job had been aborted.    If it was a larger stack, that still did not necessarily mean a successful run; you might simply have divided by zero many times, rapidly.    If unsuccessful, you would closely examine the large deck of punched cards, make adjustments, and try again the next night.

Mercifully scientific knowledge and computing power have advanced, and subsequently both Idriss and Bolton Seed made progress together on this subject along with other researchers.  But Bolton Seed died of cancer in 1989, and Idriss went on to collaborate with others.  During this time experience with the original correlations increased, and that experience has led to new correlations, including the 2008 paper linked at the top.

The younger Seed, for a variety of reasons, has chosen to openly challenge his father’s collaborator in research.  Without going into the technical details (you can read them in his monograph) Raymond Seed summarises objections thus:

The work involved in the development of the proposed new SPT-based liquefaction triggering correlation of Idriss and Boulanger (2008) suffers from a lack of transparency; key details and important decisions including processing and addition and deletion (de-selection) of field performance case histories are wholly undocumented, and much of the work simply cannot be properly checked and reviewed in proper detail.

All of these factors–all of them–can be seen in the recent “Climategate” fiasco.  Both fields have much in common: they both involve “earth sciences,” they both involve statistical correlation of natural phenomena which are complex and not easily deterministically predictable, they both effect public policy (most dams and bridges are built by the government) and the consequences of failure are potentially dire.

Idriss has not been shy about attacking Seed’s own work as well:

Dr. Idriss has been relentlessly negative over the past decade with regard to the work of our team (Seed et al., 2003; Cetin et al., 2004; Moss et al., 2006), with the interesting result that the work of our team has now arguably been more thoroughly reviewed, and in an adversarial manner, than any previous work on this topic. Dr. Idriss has been unable to identify specific technical shortcomings, and has instead simply “felt” that the correlation developed by Cetin et. al. was too complicated, and too different from previous triggering correlations.

As we say in politics, the only thing worse than bad publicity is no publicity…

My main point in bringing all of this up–in addition to perhaps disseminating knowledge on this important but neglected subject–is to once again attack the whole business of “science as religion” that secularists keep pushing in our society.

Science and engineering are “open” disciplines in that we make hypotheses, test them to the best of our ability against either laboratory or field reality, come to conclusions, and then repeat the cycle down the road with the idea of moving both theory and practice forward.  That process doesn’t always move in a straight line, is subject to dispute amongst the scientists and engineers themselves, and is also subject to personal and bureaucratic interests that can obscure and even obstruct technical progress.  All of these are present in this dispute (and this kind of dispute has happened before in this field) and are certainly there in climate change.

Nevertheless these realities have not stopped secularists from attempting to represent scientific advancement as a seamless process which produces results unsullied by the kinds of regressive sociological and political factors that they attribute to religious or other fields.  It’s true that, in a situation like this, sooner or later the consequences of a defective hypothesis, accepted as fact by the community based on the reputation of the researchers and other factors, will take place, but by then the proponents of the hypothesis may have received both earthly accolades and eternal consequences.

My father used to say that “if” is in the middle of “life.”  I cannot bring myself to find my security in the assurances of this life, and problems like this are a major part of that reluctance.  Science and engineering have produced great things and will continue to do so, but without the backstop of integrity and eternity from the One who set it into motion, the road to secular paradise will be an endless detour.

9 thoughts on “Earthquake Liquefaction: Climate Change Isn’t the Only Science with Different Opinions”

  1. “My main point in bringing all of this up–in addition to perhaps disseminating knowledge on this important but neglected subject–is to once again attack the whole business of “science as religion” that secularists keep pushing in our society.”

    Don,

    That’s funny.

    My impression is, surprise, somewhat different. My impression is that “you people think science is a religion” is an accusation made against the secular by a small segment of the religious, that tiny sub-group who think of themselves as “the religious.” I’d think your own post, in the part I quote here, is a good example of the troll at work.

    The secular, by contrast, spend a great deal of time thinking about and debating what are legitimate methods, conclusions, degrees of sureness, and so forth of science. There is a good deal of criticism of “scientism” by the secular, but this vile illness is, imho, generally thought to be part and partial of dogmatic politics.

    Which secularists do you have in mind?

    In particular, you say “Nevertheless these realities have not stopped secularists from attempting to represent scientific advancement as a seamless process which produces results unsullied by the kinds of regressive sociological and political factors that they attribute to religious or other fields.”

    You may be able to find a secularist somewhere who holds this view, and I’d be interested to know who it is. Still, I think you’re being wildly silly to claim that this is anything but the opinion of one or two freaks among the secular, and a fair number of freaks among the accusatory self-declared religious.

    If there is a criticism of science’s supporters to be made along this line, I would have thought it might be the opposite of your. It would be their tendency to use the military-budget argument, “We’re failing everywhere; give us more money.”

    Best,

    -dlj.

    1. “My impression is that “you people think science is a religion” is an accusation made against the secular by a small segment of the religious, that tiny sub-group who think of themselves as “the religious.””

      The religious have been slow on the uptake to make this point, if they do at all. Science is in fact a religion to some people; the failure of this to make much progress has led to the sillier Atheism 2.0, with its “churches”, etc.

      “I’d think your own post, in the part I quote here, is a good example of the troll at work.”

      Takes one to know one.

      “There is a good deal of criticism of “scientism” by the secular…”

      There is? Like the way the feminists criticised Bill Clinton during his bimbo eruptions? (The analogy, BTW, was meant to illustrate the esprit de corps that exists amongst the chattering classes we have in this country, to the point that one group will yield its main focus because “their” man or woman is being attacked).

      “Still, I think you’re being wildly silly to claim that this is anything but the opinion of one or two freaks among the secular, and a fair number of freaks among the accusatory self-declared religious.”

      The freaks get all of the publicity.

      “If there is a criticism of science’s supporters to be made along this line, I would have thought it might be the opposite of your. It would be their tendency to use the military-budget argument, “We’re failing everywhere; give us more money.””

      That problem is a product of the Cold War.

      1. “There is? Like the way the feminists criticised Bill Clinton during his bimbo eruptions?”

        I would match the criticisms of Democratic feminists, e.g. Vice President Gore and Vice-Presidential candidate Lieberman, against the smutty obsessions of the right any day.

        The difference between my replies and your tu quoque taunts, Don, is that mine are accurate.

        -dlj.

      2. Don,

        You write “That problem is a product of the Cold War.”

        Don’t think so. It’s endemic to militaries through the centuries, and its use by the scientific community is more post-Sputnik and fear and trembling before Sony and Seimens, than it is Cold War.

        I would agree, though, that the ability of the physics community to run wild without any adult supervision was made possible by the success of nuclear weapons.

        I think you might enjoy the fact that the Waxahatchie hole in the ground was brought to a halt somewhere around the fifth billion by the ostentatiously Christian Senator Inhofe. He replied to the academics’ claim that physics was the language of God with “When I want to know what God thinks, I pray.” I share his scepticism about the academics, but can merely envy his Direct Line.

        -dlj.

  2. This is hilarious! I can’t believe you extrapolate a mild controversy in geotechnical engineering to climate-change denial! In the field we joke about how “controversial” this topic is–both the Idriss or the Ray Seed approach to liquefaction analysis generates the same result, it’s just a matter of how you get there.

    Nice work ripping off the Vulcan (Impact) Hammer site. For those of you looking for technical, not comedy, resources, here is the link.
    http://www.vulcanhammer.info/diesel/

    I’m sorry I’ve wasted my time.

    1. It’s hilarious, all right, but not for the reasons you think.

      Evidently Idriss and Seed don’t think this is a “tempest in a teapot”. Or perhaps “the field” needs to give these academics a reality check. Maybe you’re the one to do this. Maybe not.

      There’s a difference between an analogy and an extrapolation.

      I’ll tell the webmaster at vulcanhammer.info of your high opinion of his site. I’m sure he’ll be honoured to know that you are a fan.

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