Dr. Lucy Jones on The Big Ones and the Stories We Tell Ourselves About Natural Disasters

Illustration for article titled Dr. Lucy Jones on The Big Ones and the Stories We Tell Ourselves About Natural Disasters
Photo: Helen Berger

Dr. Lucy Jones’ The Big Ones, a brisk look at the cultural impacts of natural disasters, was not as frightening a read as I anticipated—although I do really wish that I hadn’t learned what a “dragon twist” is. (In case you’re wondering, it’s a freak tornado of fire that incinerated nearly 40,000 people after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Now we share this burden together.)


Jones is one of the world’s most prominent seismologists, and has spent the bulk of her career at the US Geological Survey, where she eventually became the USGS Science Advisor for Risk Reduction. She is known, as the Los Angeles Times has noted, as “the earthquake lady,” regularly showing up in the news after earthquakes to explain the science behind them. Her research has formed the basis for California’s earthquake advisory system, and she was brought in by Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti in 2014 to develop an action plan for reducing the impacts of the looming Big One. At USGS, she also developed the Great ShakeOut, the world’s largest earthquake drill.

In The Big Ones, Jones grapples with the tension between the cataclysmic potential of natural disasters and our relative lack of interest in preparing for them. If we don’t have a personal connection to, say, a mind-blowingly destructive flood, Jones explains, it’s almost as if it never happened. It’s easy to look at the residents of Pompeii as being rather comically ignorant for plonking their city in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, but really that volcano hadn’t erupted in a very long time—and modern-day replicas of this type of looming threat exist all over our increasingly populated world.

Jones’ book takes a clear look at what she refers to as “the fear that stems from randomness”—if we’re forced to acknowledge that natural disasters are inherently random, that makes us vulnerable. This desire to assign blame has played out throughout history, from the burning of Protestants after the 1755 earthquake and tsunami in Lisbon to the media’s focus on looting and “lawlessness” in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “The most dangerous threat in a disaster,” Jones writes, “is the threat to our humanity.”

I talked to Dr. Jones about The Big Ones, evolving gender dynamics in the scientific sphere, and how to convince people to prepare for natural disasters. A hint on the latter? “We need stories,” Jones told me. “That’s how people connect and make decisions.”

JEZEBEL: What is a “big one”? And how can I personally avoid it?

DR. LUCY JONES: You can’t! It is a natural disaster that is so large that it changes the nature of your society. I like the example of the 1783 volcanic eruption in Iceland, I think I put it in there actually rather explicitly. It’s a disaster when the lava runs through your fields, it’s a catastrophe when it wipes out the cropland for your whole country—when the level of damage is such that society itself starts to break down.


I think a lot of people haven’t even heard of the Laki eruption.

Oh, I know! And it’s the most catastrophic disaster in human history. There have been a variety of ways to try and estimate how many people died and of course, over 200 years ago and very limited data, you’re struggling on a lot of it. But you know, there’s a quarter of the population in Iceland, a minimum of 23,000 people that died directly from the gases that summer in the UK, probably comparable numbers from the gases in Europe, then you’ve got the extreme winter and people freezing to death, and then you’ve got the famine that developed in Europe, Egypt, India and Japan.


What initially got you interested in seismology?

I was a physics major in college, my father had been an aerospace engineer and had encouraged me in that. I was always the only woman in my physics classes; it was just a couple of years before women really started getting into more technical fields. While I was in college I met geophysicists, and they were like, why do you want to do physics? That’s all making bombs. Come do geophysics, you get to play in the mountains and get paid for it. And they got me interested enough to take a geology class, and I was completely hooked. I actually literally read the 500-page textbook in the first week because I found it so fascinating I couldn’t put it down.



I know, it’s a sign that I’m a real nerd. But it was what I’d been looking for. I liked the science, but with geophysics, instead of trying to do equations for the fundamental nature of the universe, it’s taking existing physics that we understand and applying it to new problems. And that’s what I wanted to do with my life. I grew up in California, so I was very aware of earthquakes and very aware of geology. I grew up hiking through the Sierras. That was really the appeal that first got me into geology class—to be able to continue to live in the mountains. And then of course, the reality is it was geophysics that I eventually got interested in, and I did occasional field surveys, but for the last 20 years all of my work has been on a computer.


Did you experience any challenges related to being the only woman in your class?

Yes and no. At the time, I was at this interesting cusp where the women’s movement in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s stopped people from some of the egregious stuff. When I was in high school, they gave us a science aptitude test and I scored a perfect score, so [my guidance teacher] accused me of cheating, because girls didn’t get scores like that. And she made me retake it in front of her. And then my math teacher, when I got accepted to both Harvard and Brown, counseled me that I needed to go to Harvard because there were a better class of men to marry there, and of course that was the really important thing about going to college. So I went to Brown. [Laughs]


By the time I was in college, people stopped saying that sort of stuff, but the women had already been sort of filtered out of the system. So by the 70's, when I’m in college, there was encouragement by at least one woman there, and when I went into MIT, I was the only woman in geophysics, but the incoming class two years later was one-third women.


Part of why I got into this is I wanted to have my science help society, and so that’s part of going to study disasters instead of building bombs. But the academic enterprise is a very masculine-dominated enterprise that’s about getting your science quoted over other people’s science and getting awards and citations and all this stuff. I found myself moving more towards collaboration and getting the science used. I think these were somewhat more feminized goals, and it was against the tradition and there was a certain struggle on that.

I had to work to push people towards a more collaborative, or a more useful approach. We don’t fund that in America. We fund individual academic research, and we fund action—we have city planners and all the various things—but that space between them, the translators, neither side really has that in their mission, and it’s contributing to difficulty in using science to make better decisions, because there isn’t really a translation mechanism.


Obviously natural disasters can be anxiety-provoking for people. So as someone who studies them, and spends so much time thinking about them, how do you internalize that?

Well, the more you understand, the less fearful you become. That theme I have in the book of our “fear of randomness” forcing us to create all these different patterns—it also distorts the thinking about it. We’re so afraid of not knowing when it’s coming that it makes it harder to do the prevention type of planning.


So that’s where I shifted in my research, towards trying to get what we do know effectively communicated so it can be used. And once you really understand them, you know, there are so many other more dangerous things in my life than earthquakes. An Angeleno is hundreds of times more likely to die on the freeway than in an earthquake.


I was going to ask—it is interesting that you live in Southern California, knowing what you know.

Well yeah, because just like everybody else, this is where my family is, I’m a fourth-generation southern Californian. For quite a while I lived within a half a mile of a really major fault, because they had fantastic schools there. [Laughs] I gambled that I could get my kids out of high school before the earthquake happens, and successfully did so. I could walk away from this community now, thinking it’s going to fall apart later, or I could work to make this community stronger so that we’ll get through the earthquake, and I’d much rather do the latter.


In the book, you emphasize the hellish snowballing nature of natural disasters, like in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, where you had a massive earthquake, followed by a tsunami, followed by fires that burned down the rest of the city. But in the book, you also talk about how these cataclysmic events are quite easily forgotten. Where does this amnesia come from?

People make decisions for a complex suite of reasons where emotion plays [a role]. We connect and we have empathy and get that emotional oomph out of stories. So there’s a couple of things that play into this. One is that, like I say with the Great Flood of 1862, when it gets farther back than our grandparents, we don’t have a personal story, so it’s much easier to forget. And that’s a basic human nature thing. One of the fun things of writing this book was looking at evolutionary psychology—if you worry about the hundred-year flood instead of the wolf that’s attacking your children, you aren’t going to live to procreate, and so we are strongly evolved and conditioned to focus on the most immediate threats. That works against us in planning for those long-term problems.


Relating back to your work with the city of Los Angeles, how do you generate those feelings of urgency in people who might otherwise not be worried about these things?

We need stories. And scientists explicitly reject stories. We know stories can mislead us, so we reject those stories and we refuse to talk in those terms. But that’s how people connect and make decisions. So a very critical part of getting the LA thing to work was that several years earlier at the USGS we had this project where we created the ShakeOut scenario. When we did the public version of the scientific report, we did it as a narrative that began 10 minutes before the earthquake and went to six months after. We got a young artist to put together a video.


The hardest part of getting that together was convincing the scientists to go with the story. Because to make a scenario, we had to take this range of possibilities and pick one. But I had to argue that people don’t make decisions with probabilities, we need a concrete example. By the end, what we got was a scientifically defensible story.

Do you think that climate scientists suffer from the fact their field has been so politicized that they can’t as effectively tell the stories that people need to hear?


It is so politicized at this point that it’s very difficult to do this. When a scientist tells you what they know, they will begin by telling you how they assessed the uncertainties—because a scientist knows that nothing is a hundred percent certain. But to a non-specialist, they’ve spent all this time telling you about their uncertainties, so it sounds like they don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s almost a cultural difference in how we communicate that’s had really serious unfortunate consequences. We know that the most fundamental things can be changed out, but that doesn’t mean you don’t act as though they’re true.


The problem is that scientists have a problem with these simple phrases, so we do all these qualifiers. So I think the scientists are learning, and one of the things I’ve been involved in some discussions on is to do scenarios like we did for the disasters for climate change. Let’s really work it out with the best scientific assessment—what is LA going to be like in 2100? Instead of saying probabilities and ranges, let’s pick the most likely one, here’s what it means, and I think it would help people comprehend why we need to be acting, because my god, we should be panicking by now.

With climate change, disasters are starting to feel less random and more almost guaranteed, and widespread.


They are definitely becoming more common, you still fundamentally have a random distribution.

As these things start to become more common, how do you think that affects the way we process it?


I think it’s going to make it easier for us to plan for them, because of that normalization bias. Once it’s happening more often, that’s going to help us take it more seriously. I also think that globalization and improved telecommunications are accomplishing that, just because we’re having more experience, more emotional connection to what’s happening.

In Puerto Rico and in the Caribbean, when we’re looking at the psychology of how we deal with natural disasters, how did that play into or potentially exacerbate—specifically in Puerto Rico—the catastrophe that unfolded, the lack of adequate aid?


Well, I think it’s a complicated mix. There are some physical things—they got hit worse, and their infrastructure was inherently not as good. And there’s no question that how much you were able to do ahead of time makes a difference. And then you look at the social things—that we’re a lot more willing, in this administration, to help Floridians than Puerto Ricans. Americans who don’t speak English get less support. And that plays out in all of the disasters that I’m talking about in the book. And that’s what I’m trying to show, is it’s not a simplistic answer, but it doesn’t require my PhD and 35 years of study to understand this. And what you’ve got is, the hazards are inevitable. How much you do beforehand makes a huge difference, but it is difficult emotionally for people do that ahead of time. And then it’s complicated by all of our—you know, this is not just a physical system, it’s a human system and a cultural system and a social system, and all of those have weaknesses.


You outline this dichotomy in the book that disasters can bring out the best in people and create heroes and bring communities together in a new way, but they’re also extremely fertile ground for hatred and bigotry and scapegoating. Why is that?

A deep instinctual need we have, when faced with danger, is to create patterns that let us figure out how to be safe. That’s a fundamental human activity. It’s really important that when you see the grass waving in the distance, you recognize that that’s a predator hiding. Our brains are what kept us safe. But when we apply that pattern-making skill to a fundamentally random process, we get bad answers.


Like you write in the book, we’re not necessarily built to look at big-picture questions, or think about non-immediate threats. But that’s your job. Do you ever find it isolating or frustrating to be thinking about things that the average person doesn’t necessarily want to deal with?

I think I did early in my career, as I’m studying this and watching people struggle to take it seriously. 2004 was sort of a turning point in seeing people take it more seriously, because we have better communication about what’s going on. And that’s part of the optimism that I think comes into the book. Yes, that was a problem, but we really seem to be bridging it now.


When I make the effort to get out of my academic corner and share [my research], I’m finding such huge receptiveness that I can’t talk about being isolated now! It’s more a problem that my fundamental introverted nature that made scientific research a good career—[laughs] there’s such receptiveness that I need to work at feeding my inner introvert to handle responding to it.

Dr. Lucy Jones’ The Big Ones is available now.

Ellie is a freelance writer and former senior writer at Jezebel. She is pursuing a master's degree in science journalism at Columbia University in the fall.


BenjaminSmuttins SAY RESIST.

Excellent article! I would love to see more of these interviews with prominent, but under acknowledged women. Fascinating to learn more about her life and work, and TBH slightly discouraging to see that academia STILL heavily focuses on the individual instead of the team, even in team dominated disciplines. ThankYouMorePlease!