Science with a bang: Making explosive claims about Mt. Fuji

Science communication
Mt Fuji from Mt Kami | Wikipedia Commons
Mt Fuji from Mt Kami | Wikipedia Commons

A month ago, international headlines said that Japan’s iconic volcano – Mt Fuji – was in a critical state.

The headlines originated with this a press release and interviews with the lead author from a study on seismic activities in Japan’s crust, Doctor Frolent Brenguier.

Dr. Brenguier made some very interesting statements about Mt. Fuji.

He speculated that the changes in seismic pressure that the researchers had noticed after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake could cause eruptions in volcanos, like Mt. Fuji. In an interview with The Guardian, Dr. Brenguier said that “our work does not say that the volcano will start erupting, but it does show that it’s in a critical state” while in the press release it was noted that “these findings lend support to theories that the last eruption of Mount Fuji in 1707 was probably triggered by the giant 8.7-magnitude Hoei earthquake, which took place 49 days before the eruption”.

Now the problem is that the scientific report didn’t support the statements made to the media. The report seems to be ‘good science’ yet the statements made to the media contradict this impression.

If you remember back to my last post, I suggested that motivation for this type if behaviour can be traced to a drive for publicity from different parties (including individuals, research institutions and journals). In this case, the study was published in Science which might just indicate that the journal’s preference for big sensational science can lead scientists to go to media with highly speculative claims rather than peer-reviewed results.

Does this example demonstrate a typical situation in which hyped up science is trumpeted by scientist, journal, or journalist (or all of the above)? What kind of long term effect will it have? Is this a problem which scientists need to consider when publishing and publicising their work?

In this case, it appears likely that nothing further will happen. A few articles were published online and any other dissent was minimal. But next time, we’ll look at an instance  in which the impact of the sensational claims made were far-reaching and which still influence scientific research today.

3 thoughts on “Science with a bang: Making explosive claims about Mt. Fuji

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