There’s a plot afoot. It’s a plot that involves a grid of earthquake locations, under the island of La Palma.
Conspiracy theory would be hysterically funny if it weren’t so widespread and so incredibly dangerous. Today it threatens democracy, human health, and world peace, among many other things. In the internet age, scientists and rational bloggers will have no choice but to take up arms against it on a regular basis.
The latest conspiracy theory involves the ongoing eruption of the Cumbre Vieja volcanic system on the island of La Palma. This eruption, unlike the recent one in Iceland, is no fun and no joke; it is occurring above a populated area. Over the past month, thousands of homes have been destroyed by incessant lava flows, and many more are threatened. The only good news is that, because the eruption is relatively predictable and not overly explosive, no one has yet been injured.
The source of the latest conspiracy theory is a graph of earthquakes associated with the eruption. You can check this yourself by going to www.emsc-csem.org and zooming in on the island of La Palma. You’ll see something like the plot below, which claims to show earthquake locations. You can see something is strange about it: the earthquakes are shown as occurring on a grid.
Clearly there’s something profoundly unnatural about this. That is exactly what thousands and thousands of people are concluding around the world. They are absolutely correct. There’s no way this could be natural.
When faced with something unnatural like this, there are two possible conclusions that a human can draw.
- The earthquakes are natural, but their positions appear on a grid because of something unnatural about the way the data is plotted.
- The data is plotted correctly, and the earthquakes really are happening on a grid — which suggests that the earthquakes can’t be made by nature, and must be human-made.
Now, when faced with these two options, what does a reasonable person guess is more likely? Option 2 requires a spectacular technology that can set off huge explosions five to twenty miles (10-30 km) underground without anyone noticing, by a group of people who are evil enough to want to set off earthquakes miles underground and clever enough to keep their super-high-tech methods secret, but dumb enough to set off the earthquakes in a grid so that a simple look at the earthquake’s locations by non-experts perusing the internet reveals their dastardly plot. Option 1 requires a tiny amount of human error or computer error.
No research is needed to conclude Option 1 is more plausible, but five minutes’ research confirms it’s true. First, other websites plotting the same earthquakes do not show the grid pattern. Second, as this video pointed out and as you yourself can check, the same website, plotting earthquakes in other locations such as Hawaii, again shows the grid pattern — so it’s a fact of the emsc website, not of the La Palma earthquakes. Third, as pointed out by the excellent Volcano Discovery website, looking at the actual data that the emsc website uses, one sees that the latitude and longitude are rounded off to the nearest 1/100th, and thus north-south and east-west locations on the map are rounded off to (roughly) the nearest kilometer. This “rounding off” moves each earthquake location to the nearest point on a grid. That’s the cause. No conspiracy, no magical technology, just a plotting issue. There’s nothing more here than nature doing its thing: making earthquakes, just as it does with every volcanic eruption on Earth.
This effect, where writing numbers to a particular choice of significant figures leads to a plot with a grid pattern, is well known to every scientist. Here’s an example of how it works. Below are thirty points chosen at random in a small region, shown at left. I plotted them using a wide range at the top, and then zoomed in to make the lower plot.
Next, the points are rounded to one significant figure after the decimal point, using the same methods we are all taught in school, and the points are replotted. Instant grid.
In short, we’re not looking at a plot to destroy La Palma and set off a tsunami. We’re looking at a plot of rounded-off locations. I agree that’s not nearly as exciting; but as any scientist with some experience will tell you, boring explanations are usually true and conspiracies, especially wild ones, are usually not.
What’s the point of this post? Well, aside from being a source that you can send to any friends, relatives or acquaintances who are falling for this ridiculous conspiracy theory, it’s an apolitical context in which to contemplate the real problem.
The real problem is that we face an increasing flood of half-reasoned badly-researched pseudo-science, combined with irrational knee-jerk conspiratorialism, the whole thing driven by an unholy mixture of fear, maliciousness, narcissism and greed. It’s a war between calm reason and emotional darkness, a war in which people are actually dying, and in which nations are actually at risk. At this rate, the voices of rationality may soon be drowned. So perhaps we might consider this question: how can an apolitical conspiracy such as this one be used as an example, one from which we can learn lessons that we can apply more broadly, in territory that’s much more complex and dangerous?
p.s., predictably, someone questioned whether the statement about Hawaiian earthquakes on the emsc website appearing on a grid was true. Well, here’s the plot below — the earthquakes aren’t so many, so the grid isn’t full, but you can see every plotted earthquake lies on a grid point. And the same is true for earthquakes on the island of Crete, as shown in the second plot. All of it data that has been rounded off to the nearest 1/100th of latitude and longitude.