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Seismologists Fact-Check the Media’s Use of the Term ‘Seismic Shift’

Because there’s no question dumb enough to embarrass us into not asking a smart person

On July 2nd, LeBron James announced he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the L.A. Lakers. The L.A. Times called it a seismic shift. So did ESPN, Business Insider, AP News, USA Today, Reuters and just about everyone else who covered the story.

To be clear: There was no notable seismic activity on July 2nd in either L.A. or Cleveland.

No, this was just the latest example of reporters crying “seismic” as it relates to some major change. In November 2016, when Donald Trump won the election, the Washington Post ran a story with the headline, “Trump Maps Out A New Administration to Bring A Seismic Shift to Washington.” Samantha Bee agreed. Earlier this year, CNN reported that “a seismic shift in government is coming,” in reference to a political shift wherein an increasing number of women are running for public office. “This is a political seismic shift. We’ll be feeling the Trump afterquake long past the 2018 elections,” they reported.

All this seismic talk got us thinking: What exactly is a seismic shift — in the true sense — and have we been using it correctly as a boilerplate label to describe some large upheaval?

According to Peggy Hellweg, a seismologist at the University of California, Berkeley’s Seismology Lab, a seismic shift is any earthquake that causes the plates in the Earth’s crust to move, no matter how far. “It could be a tenth of an inch or a hundred yards,” says Hellweg. But it’s important to note that the plates in the earth’s crust are always moving slowly past each other. “In California, the plates move about two inches every year,” says Hellweg. “So a seismic shift means that the plates have moved more suddenly, which is what causes the ground to shake.”

A seismic shift, Hellweg continues, also indicates that the shift has effects that occur outside of the shift. “For example, when talking about LeBron James changing teams, that’s also creating a seismic shift for the NBA,” says Hellweg. “The seismic shift isn’t only the action, but also the outside effects, like buildings collapsing or landslides — more broadly based effects than the shifting of the fault.”

So using the term “seismic shift” to describe an event that causes a major change isn’t necessarily the wrong thing to say. But, says Hellweg, a more accurate way to describe events like The Decision III or Trump winning the election would be to refer to those events as being a “large offset.” “Offset means you know it was here and now it’s over there, so you can measure it,” says Hellweg. “It more specifically indicates that there was a major change or earthquake.”

The biggest problem with using “seismic shift” in this sense is that we always consider it to mean a massive change, but in reality, the term also can mean the opposite. “The major earthquakes get all the media attention,” says Hellweg. “If people hear ‘seismic shift’ it’s usually in reference to a major earthquake, so I think people assume that it can’t mean a small earthquake, too.” Basically, we’re not used to hearing the media talk about seismic shifts unless we can feel the ground shaking, but to be hopelessly pedantic about it, every tiny news event that occurs anywhere would technically qualify as a seismic shift.

Still, before you feel too bad for seismologists, spare a thought for the physicists. As Hellweg points out, the term “quantum leap” is abused far more than “seismic shift.” “People often use the term when they’re talking about some drastic technological improvement,” says Hellweg. “But a quantum leap is usually a tiny shift in atomic level. It’s on the scale of an atom…”

Talk about your fake news.