06/14/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Quakes and Conspiracies -- Oh, Give It a Rest

How did it happen that the straightforward Los Angeles Times story about an increase in the number of magnitude 4-plus earthquakes in our neck of the woods this year got turned on its head and twisted into some nutty Twitter/Facebook rumor that seismologists were predicting a major quake, and that the Caltech campus was being evacuated.

I burst out laughing when I heard about that evacuation bit on KPCC radio -- and about how many people received messages about it, people across the country.

Then I got ticked off at how gullible and credulous we are.

I thought technology was supposed to make us smarter.

Instead we are buying into any gossipy, snarky, stupefyingly half-baked notion that people wouldn't believe if it came over the back fence but take it as gospel if it comes over the computer.

This one had all the hallmarks of classic conspiracy thinking, with the usual dark, sinister trappings that get piled onto this nonsense:

That some powerful elite knows something you don't, and doesn't want you to know it.


That it's got to be true because a friend of my cousin's next-door neighbor swears he heard it from someone who knows someone who knows someone who was almost actually right there.


That if you actually try to find out whether it's true, the Powerful Forces will deny it, which of course just proves that it really is true and it is a conspiracy, and that they're in on it too. And in fact, anyone who does deny it is part of the conspiracy.


Seriously, people. The Internet was going to make us savvier. Instead it's made us more gullible. In spite of our own common sense and all rational evidence to the contrary, we seem to buy unquestioningly into any old macedoine-mashup of dopey, absurd stuff, just because it's on the Internet, and we won't believe the most obvious and verifiable truths from something as vetted and cross-checked as a real encyclopedia.

Like that minor little truth that nobody -- not Caltech, nobody -- can reliably predict earthquakes. Seismologists can safely say there'll be a Big One on the San Andreas fault sometime perhaps in the next half a century or so, but they can't get a lot more specific. If someone truly had figured out a way to predict earthquakes, they'd have rushed first off to the patent office, then to the Nobel Prize awards.

Part of this ever-expanding uber-conspiracy mindset is that news reporters are in on it too. We're keeping "the truth" from people.

Are you out of your ever-texting mind? If there were a hint that rumors like this Caltech prediction and evacuation were true, every reporter I know would be battling to get the story first. Any one of us would spear our siblings for a huge story like that. Our brains would be hollering, "Pulitzer, baby, Pulitzer!" The fame! The glory!

Conspiracy? What a joke. Six reporters can't decide where to go for lunch, and someone thinks we're master conspirators?

People love conspiracy theories in part because they make them feel like "insiders" without the rigors of having to study or train or practice the disciplines that true experts have to work to acquire.

And I suppose some people love these theories because they feel powerless in a complex society. But the curious thing about that is they already have power, but they usually don't even exert the power they do have. They don't call or write to their council members, or show up to gripe at a public hearing, or contact their members of Congress -- who are we kidding? Most of the time they don't even know who their members of Congress or city council members are.

Folks, it's their job to listen to you and represent you, and they can't do the latter unless you make the former happen by making your thoughts known by contacting them. There are agencies of government you can write and call and inundate with questions and complaints -- that's what your taxpayer money gets you. You'd be amazed how one handwritten letter, brief and well argued, can get the full attention of some staff member who takes it on up the chain of command. Use the power you already have, before you start complaining that you're powerless and "they" are out to get you.

Oh, I almost forgot -- did you hear about that girl who had violin spiders nesting in her hair extensions? I swear it's true -- my uncle's mechanic's ex-wife heard it from the hairdresser who trained the woman who runs the salon that ...

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