Indonesian Police Questioning Scientist About His Recent Tsunami Study

By Erik Klemetti | April 10, 2018 9:58 am
Trash and debris line the streets in downtown Banda Aceh, Sumatra, Indonesia, following the massive Tsunami that struck the area on December 26, 2004. Wikipedia.

Trash and debris line the streets in downtown Banda Aceh, Sumatra, Indonesia, following the massive Tsunami that struck the area on December 26, 2004. Wikipedia.

The internet is clearly still a wild frontier. We are bombarded by sensationalist or fake news all the time, sometimes by sources who merely want to increase traffic and sometimes by people who intentionally want to deceive. It is a challenge even for the seasoned professional to figure out what is trustworthy information and what is merely conjecture, rumors and downright lies. So when news about geologic events moves from the realm of the researcher to the media, what happens when the science gets distorted in such a way to instill fear and panic in the general public?

In Indonesia, it appears that the police get involved. The Jakarta Post is reporting that Indonesian police are questioning Widjo Kongko, a scientist for the Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT), for a presentation he gave on the tsunami potential for Indonesia’s southwest coast. In Widjo’s study, he said there is the potential for a 50+ meter tsunami depending on the size and location of an earthquake off Indonesia’s coast. However, internet news sources turned that report into a prediction that a 50 meter tsunami was going to hit Indonesia soon. The “news” spread across Indonesia rapidly via social media and even required a statement from the vice-president of the country. It appears that Indonesia authorities may be questioning all scientists who attended the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency’s (BMKG) conference on April 3.

Let’s parse that out for a second. This is one of the fundamental issues with how science research is handled in the media. Very rarely do scientific research studies make predictions – that is to say something will happen somewhere at a (relatively) specific time. So, if the study says something like “new data suggests that the likelihood of an eruption of Mt. Cipher is higher than previously thought”, it tends to be translated by some in the media as “eruption of Mt. Cipher expected soon!” The first statement is probability, while the second statement is prediction.

Widjo is being questioned because his study was interpreted by Indonesia (and international) media as a prediction of a large tsunami. So, in the minds of some, this study undermines investment in coastal properties because nobody wants to get their property washed away by a tsunami on the scale of the 2004 Boxing Day or 2011 Tohoku events. Since that devastating tsunami near Banda Aceh in 2004, rumors and fear of tsunamis have abounded in Indonesia, so any perception that areas will be struck are very serious.

There are laws in Indonesia that control who can disseminate information about tsunamis and earthquakes, so this appears to be the reason why Widjo is being questioned by the police. However, scientists and administrators from the BPPT made it clear to reporters that the study that Widjo presented on April 3 was just that: a study that presented some new data and models about the potential for large tsunamis. It was the resulting media storm that followed that turned a preliminary study into a prediction of disaster, so it would seem that it is the media that made such reports that are to blame rather than the scientist himself. Beyond that, members of the Indonesia media have supported Widjo, saying his presentation is protected under academic freedom. I

This folds into the same discussion that happened during the L’Aquila trial in Italy, where geoscientists for the Italian survey were tried for manslaughter for not predicting the earthquake that ended up killing 309 in 2009. In that case, the scientists downplayed the threat of a disaster based on the information on hand, partially in an attempt to quell panic driven by the media and outside “researchers” who claimed they could predict the earthquake using untested means. Luckily, the Italian Supreme Court struck down the initial finding of wrongdoing against the scientists, but likely the damage was done in terms of public trust.

And that is what much of this boils down to: trust. When certain parts of the media choose to sensationalize scientific research in order to get pageviews (see below), then we continue to erode public trust in science. What is heard are dire warnings of catastrophe or promises of the miracle cure, so when these things don’t materialize, another wave washes up on the shore of trust in scientific knowledge and expertise. In a climate where we are constantly bombarded by wrong information, it is especially vital that we try to communicate science clearly, accurately and in such a way that conveys the idea that there is always room for improvement in science. This does not mean the research is wrong, but rather science is fluid and always moving forward.

So, the next time you seen a news report that claims that a new study predicts that big Yellowstone eruption is about to happen, take a moment to see what the researchers are actually saying rather than how the news sources wants you to see it. Better yet, choose news sources that don’t sensationalize and don’t spread rumors on Twitter or other social media that don’t seem like they are reliable. Slowly, we can turn the tide against this sort of irresponsible fear-mongering.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Rocky Planet, Science, Science Blogs
  • Uncle Al

    ” tried for manslaughter for not predicting the earthquake” Try the prosecution for fraud and entrapment for not increasing his grant funding.

    What does Social Justice teach us? A psychopath is a sociopath with goals. A sociopath is a “just” man in an “unjust” society. The just and proper solution is to make all society insane so that there is neither goal nor penalty to be gained by deviant behavior.

  • OWilson

    I’ve often felt there should be some accountability, for irresponsible predictions of catastrophy, including catastrophic man made global warming.

    Stock photos of sick Polar Bears, and photoshppped pictures of New York under 30 feet of water, even in so-called main stream journals like this one. Wild predictions and “Tipping Points” which our politicians tell us is “settled science”.

    Shouting fire in a crowded planet should have consequences, too! :)

    • Mike Richardson

      So you’d like to silence scientists voicing concern over an actual threat the vast majority consider well-established? Maybe there should be consequences for those who shout “Ignore the smoke!”. : )

      • OWilson

        Accountablity does not mean censorship, Mikey.

        Well, maybe to you it does! :)

        Unlike your little socialist who got your vote, on the promise to bring all “climate deniers” to “justice”!,

        And he had at least 22 little leftist State Attorneys chomping at the bit to prosecute!

        The country said, thanks, but no thanks!!

        Not here! Not yet!

        Opposing views on religion, political philosophy, and differing predictons on future weather are still alive and well. :)

        • Mike Richardson

          You’re conflating the study of climate change due to human activity, which is occurring, with exaggerated reports in the press about the probability of more immediately devastating regional disasters. Exactly what “accountability” and ” consequences ” do you propose for “shouting fire in a crowded planet,” and who should be the enforcer ? And how do you avoid overzealous prosecution of the offenders, to the extent that scientists are afraid to conduct research? Or does this likely chilling effect on the study of potential threats from climate change what you want to see?

          • OWilson

            The threat to free speech comes from Bernie and his minions, “We will bring climate deniers to justice”, remember?

            Accountabilty to normal adults means scientific proof to back up the claims that:

            1 Man is responsible for the slight global warming (0.24 degrees anomaly over NOAA’s 40 year satellite record, with constant upgrading of the satellites and their algorithms) :)

            Take away Mother Nature’s contribution, a la coming out of the Little Ice Age, and the Interglacial epoch we are presently in, to that 0.24 degrees over 40 years, and add a scientific margin of error, and you have no “catastrophic man made global warming”

            2 Proof that this statistically slight warming “noise” will be catastrophic for humnity.

            3 Or proof that the the slight global warming (0.24 degrees anomoly over NOAA’s 40 year satellite record, with constant upgrading of the satellites and their algorithms) will not be beneficial to humanity.

            That will do for starters.

            Showing stock photos of sick Polar Bears and photos of New York under 30 feet of water in a science magazine is phony hype, not science, and is scaring kids like you!


          • Mike Richardson

            So legal action to silence climate researchers s your solution. And you think Sanders ‘ campaign rhetoric was a threat to free speech and inquiry. No, your views should be protected, but only yours, right?

          • OWilson

            Stop making things up Mikey! :)

            Asking for scientific proof to back up hyperbolic claims of “catastrophic man made global warming” is accountability, NOT censorship, NOT silencing, NOT legal action.

            Get it?

            So, why do YOU think that your Michael (Hockey Stick) Mann “shockingly defies judge and refuses to surrender data for open court examination.”

            Or didn’t you receive the talking points yet?


          • Mike Richardson

            Forcing a scientist to hand over research in court, and bringing up charges of contempt when he refuses to comply, is not legal action? LOL! Sorry, but your statements about climate change, and the glee you express over this particular circumstance, make your desire for legal prosecution of your opponents all too transparent. Lock them up, huh?

          • OWilson

            Stop making things up, Mikey!

            How many times do I have to tell you?

            He was NOT, get it, NOT prosecuted.

            His own lawsuit against a real scientist was just tossed out of court by the judge, because he would not disclose his “hockey stick” data.

            Data that was prepared under government and academic subsidy and is cited in political policies that could affect the whole Earth!



Rocky Planet

Rocky Planet covers all the geologic events that made and will continue to shape our planet. From volcanoes to earthquakes to gold to oceans to other solar systems, I discuss what is intriguing and illuminating about the rocks beneath our feet and above our heads. Ever wonder what volcanoes are erupting? How tsunamis form and where? What rocks can tell us about ancient environments? How the Earth might change in the future? You'll find these answers and more on Rocky Planet.

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