The Watchtower Society Backpedals on Earthquakes
|1977-1983 addition +||44,623|
The dramatic upsurge in earthquake activity since 1914 helps to prove that we are living in the time of Jesus' presence. These mighty temblors fulfill his prophecy: "There will be great earthquakes." [Awake!, February 22, 1977, p. 11]
Discussing recent earthquakes, the Italian journal "Il Piccolo" observed: "Our generation lives in a dangerous period of high seismic activity, as statistics show. In fact, during a period of 1,059 years (from 856 to 1914) reliable sources list only 24 major earthquakes causing 1,973,000 deaths. However, if we compare this figure to the partially complete list of recent disasters, we find that 1,600,000 persons have died in only 63 years, as a result of 43 earthquakes which occurred from 1915 to 1978." Of course, such an increase in seismic activity is no surprise to those familiar with Bible prophecy. [Watchtower, June 15, 1979, p. 11]
Note that Il Piccolo borrowed its figures without attribution from the above quoted February 22, 1977 Awake! The June 15, 1979 Watchtower borrowed in turn from Il Piccolo but did not inform the reader that Il Piccolo borrowed from the earlier Awake! So here the Society was quoting itself while pretending the data came from an independent source.
There have been earthquakes throughout history. But how does the period since World War I compare? In Il Piccolo, Geo Malagoli observes: [Il Piccolo is cited, and a sidebar is presented containing the statements "Up to 1914 -- 1,800 a year" "Since 1914 -- 25,300 a year"].... Persons may say that the growing world population and the size of cities account for the higher earthquake death toll since World War I. Even if this is the reason, it does not change what has happened. [Happiness -- How to Find It, 1980, pp. 148-9]
Very significantly, our century has seen more earthquake destruction than any other. From the time Jesus gave his prophecy until 1914, history records five earthquakes that each took 100,000 lives or more. In the period since 1914 at least four more such superearthquakes have occurred -- in China in 1920, in Tokyo in 1923, in China in 1927, and, of course, the Tangshan quake in 1976. Truly, this generation has experienced not just earthquakes but "great earthquakes," as Luke's Gospel account puts it. [Awake!, July 8, 1982, p. 16]
As the accompanying Chart III indicates, loss of human life due to earthquakes has mushroomed since 1914. [Chart III is entitled "Earthquake Deaths" and contains the captions "Up to 1914 -- 1,800 a year" and "Since 1914 -- 25,300 a year"] [Watchtower, May 15, 1983, p. 6]
On the average, about ten times as many have died each year from earthquakes since 1914 as in previous centuries. [Life -- How Did It Get Here? By Evolution Or By Creation?, 1985, p. 225]
In the same way that in the late 1980s the Society toned down its earlier adamant claims about earthquake frequency, it has done so with the number of deaths due to earthquakes. This is apparently due to earthquake death figures given in the book by Jonsson and Herbst. Recent Watchtower publications tend to be rather vague about just what is being claimed, not just about earthquakes, but also about the other supposed features of the "composite sign." The effect of this vagueness is that no one can be sure just what the Society is claiming. This allows for great flexibility in interpreting what was said.
The tendency for the Society to drift toward vagueness and to shift the focus of discussion when hard data has proven its position untenable reaches a new height in the articles "Natural Disasters -- A Sign of the Times?" and "Natural Disasters -- Is God Responsible?" in the December 1, 1993 Watchtower. Finally admitting that earthquake frequency has always been the same, ["The earth and its dynamic forces have more or less remained the same throughout the ages." -- p. 6] the articles bury this admission in an avalanche of arguments that try to show that natural disasters of all sorts, even ones Jesus never mentioned, are on the increase. Typical is the discussion on page 3, which asks:
Are we seeing more catastrophic earthquakes... than did generations past? And in spite of advances in science and technology, are proportionately more people suffering as a result? To many the answer is yes. For example, the magazine New Scientist warns that "the world can expect more disasters in the 1990s than in past decades."
Then follows several more quotations about a general increase in natural disasters in the past few decades, and the potential for more increase during and after the 1990s. In the first part of the first article, Matthew 24:3-14 is quoted and commented upon:
"Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be food shortages and earthquakes in one place after another. All these things are a beginning of pangs of distress." With these words Jesus Christ explained to his disciples 19 centuries ago that such disastrous events, together with an increase of lawlessness and the worldwide preaching of the good news of God's Kingdom, would introduce a composite sign marking "the conclusion of the system of things."
Note that in the verse quoted, Jesus explicitly named three things that would be the beginning of pangs of distress. He did not say "there will be pangs of distress, of which the following are examples." There is a big distinction between predicting an assortment of general disasters, and predicting certain specific ones. The accounts in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21 make very clear that Jesus predicted only certain kinds of disasters, namely, wars, food shortages, earthquakes and pestilences. The Watchtower article deliberately glosses over this distinction by saying that Jesus predicted, not just those specific events, but "such disastrous events." This gives the impression, without actually having said so, that Jesus was really talking about many more disasters than just the ones he mentioned. In this manner the reader is set up for the writer's next arguments, which subtly tie quotations about general natural disasters to the specific one the writer really wants to address, namely, earthquakes. The technique is demonstrated in the second paragraph:
Are we seeing more catastrophic earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, droughts, and famines than did generations past?
Although Jesus only mentioned two out of these five types of events, they are now tied together in the reader's mind. The quotations that follow in the article, concerning general natural disasters, reinforce the connection. Interestingly, the article makes no direct claim that these disasters have increased since 1914. In any case the arguments reduce to simple assertions that an increase in population-related disasters along with a heightened perception of them fulfills Jesus' prophecy of Matthew 24:3-14.
By the end of the first article the average reader has the impression that Jesus foretold all kinds of distress, even though he only mentioned four kinds. The reader will not notice that the conclusion the final paragraph of the first article makes is further leading him so that he will not notice the coming abandonment of the long-standing claim that earthquakes are much more severe in the 20th century:
Since the Bible foretells such a time of great distress, does it mean that God is responsible for the disasters and the suffering resulting from them?
The reader is led away from the real point by an emotional appeal -- asking whether our loving God is responsible. The writer is a true master of misdirection. Let us see how he further conceals his purpose.
The second article, "Natural Disasters -- Is God Responsible?", asks the question in its title, and then defines a natural disaster as a violent physical event that causes "great destruction of life and property and the disruption of the normal way of life."
Along the way earthquakes are mentioned prominently as examples of natural disasters. Nowhere does the article claim directly that earthquake deaths are more frequent in the 20th century than previously, but the earlier citations about the general increase of natural disasters give the impression that earthquake deaths are indeed more frequent. This omission avoids having to introduce actual death statistics, which is desirable from the Society's standpoint because a comparison of 20th century death rates to those in the 18th and 19th centuries shows that the total number of deaths is pretty much the same. This is particularly devastating to the Society's claims, because it means that the per capita death rate is actually much lower in the 20th century, since the total population is much higher. A comparison of death rates, borrowed from Jonsson and Herbst, is presented in the appendix at the end of this paper.
Thus, having slipped in the impression that earthquakes are more destructive in the 20th century, the article then poses the question:
Thus, when it comes to the increasing destructiveness of natural disasters, we must ask, Have the natural elements become more violent? Or have human factors contributed to the problem?
The article then says that God has created the natural forces and can control them if he wants to, setting the stage for further misdirection. The reader is now concentrating on finding a reason for not holding God responsible for natural disasters, and the article asks:
Can we hold God responsible for the increased havoc and devastation that have resulted from natural disasters in recent times? To answer this question, we must first consider whether there is evidence that the forces of nature have recently become dramatically more violent, perhaps even out of control.
If God is causing or allowing the forces of nature to be out of control, then he is of course directly responsible for any destruction caused by them. The reader is now eager to find a reason to absolve God from such responsibility, and is ready to hear that such disasters really are not fundamentally any worse than they have always been, and so God cannot be responsible:
In this regard, note what the book Natural Disasters -- Acts of God or Acts of Man? has to say: "There is no evidence that the climatological mechanisms associated with droughts, floods and cyclones are changing. And no geologist is claiming that the earth movements associated with earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunami (earthquake waves) are becoming more violent." Similarly, the book Earthshock observes: "The rocks of every continent contain a record of innumerable major and minor geological events, every one of which would be a catastrophic disaster to mankind if they occurred today -- and it is scientifically certain that such events will occur again and again in the future." In other words, the earth and its dynamic forces have more or less remained the same throughout the ages. Hence, whether or not some statistics indicate an increase of some forms of geologic or other activity, the earth has not become uncontrollably violent in recent times. [boldface added]
Since "the earth and its dynamic forces have more or less remained the same throughout the ages," earthquakes have also. Thus, with a stroke of the pen, the Society cancels all of its statements that since 1914 earthquakes have occurred more often than ever before. The average reader is completely unaware that anything has been changed, because he has been concentrating on absolving God from responsibility for natural disasters. The article then provides a reason for the absolution -- irresponsible human activity. However, it continues to speak about a general increase in frequency and destructiveness of natural disasters, and earthquakes, of course, are in that category:
What, then, accounts for the increase in the frequency and destructiveness of natural disasters that we read about? If the forces of nature are not to blame, the finger of guilt seems to point to the human element. And, indeed, authorities have recognized that human activities have made our environment both more prone to natural disasters and more vulnerable to them.
So, by a kind of "guilt by association" earthquakes still remain, in the mind of the average reader, extremely frequent and destructive in the 20th century, even though no direct statement to that effect has been made, and even though earlier claims about frequency have actually been reversed. Ten years from now, after other "softening" arguments have been advanced, the Society will be able to point to this article and say that it had "corrected" an erroneous viewpoint way back in 1993. Any of Jehovah's Witnesses who then disagree will be unable to argue differently.
Are earthquakes in our day really killing more people than ever before? In particular, was there a change after 1914?
In The "Sign" of the Last Days -- When? Jonsson and Herbst compiled a list of earthquake deaths for the 68 year period from 1915-1983 and compared them to the 68 year periods 1715-1783 and 1847-1914. The result was that on average about 17,500 people died per year in the 1915-1983 period, while about 20,000 and 18,000 died annually in the latter two periods. These variations are statistically insignificant. We here reproduce the tables from Jonsson and Herbst.
A COMPARISON OF EARTHQUAKE VICTIMS
|Total 1715-1783:||1,373,845||Total 1915-1983:||1,210,597|
|Annual average:||19,911||Annual average:||17,545|
(a) See Awake! February 22, 1977.
(b) See page 65, footnote 34; compare Awake! July 8, 1982, p. 13.
(c) Ganse & Nelson list a death figure of 44,623 for this period.
Did 1914 really bring a change?
|1851||Iran||2,000||1883||Greece, Asia Minor||15,000|
|1876||Bay of Bengal||215,000||1907||Central Asia||12,000|
|1880||Greece (Chios)||4,000||1910||Costa Rica||1,750|
|1881||Asia Minor||8,866||1912||Marmara Sea Coast||1,958|
|Total victims for 68 years previous to 1914:||1,148,973-1,250,973|
SOURCES: Båth: Introduction to Seismology(1979); Richter: Elementary Seismology (1958); Imamura: Theoretical and Applied Seismology (1937); Ganse-Nelson: Catalog of Significant Earthquakes (1981); Ambraseys: Earth-quake Hazard and Vulnerability (1981); Ambraseys-Melville: A History of Persian Earthquakes (1982); Latter: Natural Disasters (Advancement of Science, June 1969); Press-Siever: Earth (1974); Handbuch der Ceophysik (ed. Prof. B Gutenberg), Band IV (Berlin 1932).
As the above data show, reasonably complete studies prove beyond a doubt that the 20th century has not experienced any statistically significant change in earthquake deaths compared to earlier times. As one seismologist wrote, "For earlier centuries we do not have the same reliable statistics, but there are no indications at all of any increase in the activity in the course of time." Of course, the December 1, 1993 Watchtower mentioned none of this data. Most individual Jehovah's Witnesses will never examine the data for themselves and so will credulously accept the Society's word. Even if they did examine the data, their prejudices would almost always cause them to reject it in favor of what "God's channel" tells them.
(For a more thorough examination of these issues, see The Sign of the Last Days -- When? by Carl Olof Jonsson and Wolfgang Herbst.)