Archive for Tuesday, February 8, 2005

Tsunami’s how and why

February 8, 2005


Before the human tragedy of the Asian tsunami is buried under new headlines, it would be worthwhile to learn its lessons.

Lesson one: Have an early warning system. Unfortunately, none of the affected Asian countries was part of the tsunami early warning system, which is concentrated in the Pacific Ocean. The word "tsunami" comes from the Japanese tsu (harbor) and nami (wave), an appropriate name, considering that 80 percent of all tsunamis occur in the Pacific and affect Japan.

Science is an early warning system, turning new data and previous knowledge into forecasts of likely events. Weather prediction is one example. Another is medical science, which senses the body to ward off a threat. Science, like warning systems, becomes powerful when it turns the unexpected into the anticipated.

Lesson two: If you have an early warning system, heed it. Medical science monitors the health of one species on earth -- us. Environmental science monitors the pulse of the rest of life on earth, its 15 million species of plants, animals and microbes and the forests, grasslands, deserts, lakes, rivers and oceans they inhabit. Unfortunately, we are choosing not to heed the strong signals coming in from our environmental early warning system, from global warming to drastic losses of our natural resources to extinction of species worldwide.

Our leaders are not taking the smart, swift, bold actions to protect our economy, health and quality of life from a potential environmental tsunami. And we are not demanding that they do so. It is false comfort to disregard or downplay a diagnosis, whether it is medical or environmental. In either case, we need to heed the warning system when the pulse turns irregular.

Lesson three: Don't confuse how things happen (the process or physical cause) with why things happen (the purpose or meaning). The reactions to the tsunami tragedy clearly illustrate the fundamental difference between the two and between science (how) and religion (why). Science explained how the tsunami happened. Various religious views proclaimed why it happened -- the purpose or meaning behind the tragedy and loss of life. The difference is a primary lesson we should apply to the evolution-creationism issue, and to any other attempt to pit knowledge against faith, or notions of purpose against explanations of process.

A number of religious leaders and pundits attempted to ascribe moral purpose to the loss of more than 150,000 lives in the tsunami. A Moslem cleric in California said the human tragedy was "a test from God to see how human beings respond." Some Buddhists claimed that the victims might have paid for misdeeds in a previous life.

As echoed by columnist William Safire, some Christian theologians likened the tsunami to God's test of Job in the Old Testament. Although Job was innocent and faithful, he lost his children, servants and material possessions in a contest between God and Satan to test Job's faith. And according to a media watch group, a Palestinian cleric, Sheik Ibrahim Madiras, sermonized that the East Asian countries were destroyed by the tsunami because they were morally corrupted by Jewish and American investments.

Science, on the other hand, explained how the tsunami happened and stopped there. A powerful earthquake, magnitude 9 on the Richter scale, occurred off the west coast of Sumatra in northwestern Indonesia on Dec 26, 2004, 00:59 Greenwich Mean Time, at latitude 3.32 degrees north, longitude 95.9 degrees east. Geologic knowledge attributes the earthquake to the same violent forces that make continents drift. A sudden rupture collapsed the floor of the Indian Ocean along a 500-mile geologic fault where the earth's crust under the Indian continent smashes into the crust under Sumatra. In turn, the heaving of the sea floor propelled an enormous volume of water into a catastrophic tsunami, 50 feet high traveling at more than 100 miles an hour.

The point is that science explains the "hows" of the universe, earth and life on earth --their origins, histories, makeup, patterns and processes. Science does not delve into the "whys," such as the presence or absence of moral purpose, or what such purpose might be. Science leaves that to philosophers, theologians, and people's imagination. Let's keep this distinction clear in the classroom, in our Legislatures, on the street and in our minds.

Leonard Krishtalka is director of the Kansas University Museum of Natural History.

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