A Shift in Scientific Literacy: Earthquakes Generate Tsunamis



Scientific literacy is a fundamentally important prerequisite for decision making in this global age, particularly when it comes to decisions that affect our health, environment, technological advancement, and community development. A scientifically literate populace should be proficient at reading and interpreting science news articles [National Research Council, 1996]. For this to occur, terminology in news reports needs to be scientifically accurate.

As scientists, we often resign ourselves to the reality that scientific accuracy in mainstream news reports sometimes falls short of what we would hope. However, in at least one case, the use of appropriate terminology in news reports has clearly improved. Prior to the devastating 26 December 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, nearly one in four newspaper and wire service articles that discussed earthquakes and tsunamis exclusively used the term “tidal wave” in lieu of “tsunami.” That ratio has decreased to less than one in 35 since the 26 December 2004 event. The apparent permanence of this lexical shift is demonstrated by the nearly unanimous use of the term tsunami in media reports of the 12 January 2010 Haitian and 27 February 2010 Chilean tsunamis, and provides an example of the impact natural disasters can have on scientific discourse in the news media.