. . . or How Magicians Write Essays
Along with many other features of what it calls “the composite sign of Christ’s presence since 1914,” the Watchtower Society has long claimed that earthquakes have been far more frequent and severe in the 20th century than previously, and have caused far more deaths and damage. The December 1, 1993 Watchtower virtually abandons these claims, but does so in a manner calculated not to let on to the average Jehovah’s Witness that the earlier claims have indeed been abandoned. We will here examine the earlier claims and see how the Society neatly reduces them to almost no significance without letting on that it has done it. The Watchtower article is a fine example from the Society’s arsenal of intellectual magic tricks and illustrates how to divert the reader’s attention from the main issue.
First let us look at quotations showing that the Society has stated clearly that the number of earthquakes occurring each year has been much higher in the 20th century, especially since 1914.
Since 1914 earthquakes have occurred more often than ever before. [From Paradise Lost to Paradise Regained, 1958, p. 183]
Jesus said there would also be “earthquakes in one place after another.” Therefore, for this to be the time of Jesus’ second presence earthquakes would have to be in evidence in an outstanding way. Are they? There can be no question about it. Terrifying earthquakes have rocked the globe with increasing severity and frequency during recent years. A university seismologist declared: “Something is going on all over the planet that is hard to put a finger on. Great forces are at work stirring up things far underground causing vast land drifts on several continents. The further you are from the last big earthquake, the nearer you are to the next.” Significantly, since 1914 there have been more major earthquakes than in any previous period of similar length in recorded history. [Watchtower, October 15, 1961, p. 628]
After 1914, particularly since 1948, great subterranean forces seem to have been at work, convulsing our planet, rippling its surface with tremors and almost annually producing one or more disastrous earthquakes. [Watchtower, November 15, 1964, p. 678]
Earthquakes continue to rock the earth as Jesus forecast for this generation…. It has been reported that the severity and deadliness of earthquakes have increased markedly since the “time of the end” commenced for this old system in 1914. [Watchtower, May 1, 1970, p. 270]
Jesus foretold earthquakes in great number and magnitude as a feature of the sign of his second presence…. Since 1914 C.E., and especially since 1948, there has been an increase in the number of earthquakes, especially of major ones. [Aid to Bible Understanding, 1971, p. 478]
Jesus did not foretell any one specific earthquake, but he did prophesy about a period of time when there would be particularly great and widespread earthquake activity…. The “great earthquakes,” those occurring since 1914 in “one place after another,” verify the accuracy of this understanding of Jesus’ words…. The great earthquakes of the past were generally isolated events occurring years, even centuries, apart. There were not many of them in a single generation. [Awake!, May 8, 1974, pp. 17-18]
Commissioner Gregorio Andal of the Commission on Volcanology said: “The earth’s crust at this point is in a turbulent condition and earthquakes can happen anywhere in the world, anytime.” Another group of scientists believes that some seismic process, not fully understood at this time, may be taking place. [Awake!, January 8, 1977, pp. 15-6]
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]
Truly, earthquakes have abounded since 1914 — as part of the “sign.” [Watchtower, January 15, 1978, p. 10]
Discussing recent earthquakes, the Italian journal Il Piccolo observed: “Our generation lives in a dangerous period of high seismic activity, as statistics show….” Of course, such an increase in seismic activity is no surprise to those familiar with Bible prophecy. [Watchtower, June 15, 1979, p. 11]
Has the frequency of earthquakes really increased? The Italian magazine Il Piccolo observed: “Our generation lives in a dangerous period of high seismic activity, as statistics show.” And then it produced figures for the past thousand years to prove it. [Awake!, October 8, 1980, p. 21]
Also, “earthquakes” are included as part of the “sign.” An upsurge in earthquakes since 1914? This may sound surprising. But the statistics are even more surprising! As Geo Malagoli commented in Il Piccolo: “During a period of 1,059 years [from 856 to 1914] reliable sources list only 24 major earthquakes.” His figures show that during those years an average of 1,800 persons died each year in earthquakes, whereas there have been 43 major earthquakes since 1915, and these have killed an average of 25,300 persons a year. [Let Your Kingdom Come, 1981, p. 113]
From 1914 until now, there have been many more major earthquakes than in any other like period in recorded history. [Watchtower, April 15, 1982, p. 9]
Jesus foretold “great earthquakes.” (Luke 21:11) Has the frequency of these really changed?… Since 1914 the yearly average of reported severe earthquakes has soared to over 11 times what it was during the thousand years before then. [Awake!, October 22, 1984, pp. 6-7]
The frequency of major earthquakes has increased about 20 times what it was on an average during the two thousand years before 1914. [Survival into a New Earth, 1984, p. 23]
In comparison with the previous 2,000 years, the average per year has been 20 times as great since 1914. [Reasoning from the Scriptures, 1985, p. 236]
Based on available records, the 20th century does significantly overshadow the past in seismic activity. Publications of the Watch Tower Society have repeatedly called attention to this. [Watchtower, January 15, 1987, p. 21]
With adequate preparation, many people have survived major disasters. Michiko, now 76 years old, says: “When I was a child, old people said major earthquakes came once in 60 years. I have often thought that their words have not applied in my lifetime. I have known countless severe earthquakes.” [Awake!, December 22, 1987, p. 27]
Jesus foretold earthquakes in significant number and intensity as a feature of the sign of his presence… Since 1914 C.E., there has been an increase in the number of earthquakes, resulting in much distress. [Insight on the Scriptures, 1988, p. 670]
The 20th century has been a century of earthquakes. [The Bible — God’s Word or Man’s?, 1989, p. 141
In 1987 Carl Olof Jonsson and Wolfgang Herbst published the book The “Sign” of the Last Days — When? It showed conclusively that earthquake frequency in the 20th century is pretty much the same as in other centuries. After that the Society began to tone down its claims about the severity of earthquakes.
For example, the above quoted January 15, 1987 Watchtower, on pages 21-2, acknowledged that
many seismologists believe that earthquakes are no greater or more frequent now than they were in the past. Conversely, others conclude that our generation has experienced earthquakes more frequently than did previous ones. Based on available records, the 20th century does significantly overshadow the past in seismic activity. Records of earthquakes before 1914 are not complete, however. And earlier generations did not have scientific means of measurement that would permit us reliably to compare the magnitudes of earthquakes past and present.
Then followed a discussion that tried to make “earthquake distress” the focal point of the supposed increase.
The October 15, 1988 Watchtower, on page 3, claimed that according to data listed in two books (the data was acknowledged to be incomplete), earthquakes have been much worse since 1914, but “even granting that records from past centuries are incomplete, we cannot escape the conclusion that in our time mankind has been greatly affected by earthquakes.” An April 8, 1988 Awake! article was very significant in that it made no mention at all that earthquakes are more severe than in earlier times. In fact, with respect to all the features of the “composite sign”:
Let us remember that while Jesus’ prophecy indicates a climax in man’s history as all these events come together in the same generation, they do not require that they be greater in number or magnitude than in any previous generation, even though that might be so. [p. 4]
However, the April 1, 1991 Watchtower (p. 6) restated the earlier position:
The different features of the composite sign foretold by Jesus have never before been fulfilled all together in such a short period of time with such intensity and with such far-reaching consequences.
The March 22, 1993 Awake! was again vague about the intensity of earthquakes, merely saying on page 8 that “their magnitude also adds weight.”
In addition to claiming that the frequency of earthquakes is much greater in the 20th century, the Watchtower Society has claimed that they are more destructive of life and property. The following quotations show this clearly.
As Jesus foretold, after 1914 a series of earthquakes rocked the globe, causing more damage and casualties than ever before…. Earthquakes have continued to occur with frightening intensity, taking a toll of lives greater than in any other period of human history. [Did Man Get Here By Evolution Or By Creation?, 1967, p. 164; Watchtower, April 1, 1967, p. 198]
What about the earthquakes? Has there been anything unusual about these in the generation since 1914? [Subtitle “Earthquakes Since the Year 1914”] One way to prove clearly that the generation since 1914 is unusual as far as earthquakes are concerned is to consider how many deaths they have caused. [Statistics are cited]…. In other words, up to 30 percent of all those killed in earthquakes over the last thousand-year period have died since 1914! The other 70 percent or so of the deaths were spread out over almost nine hundred and fifty years. [Watchtower, February 1, 1974, pp. 72-3]
Also on page 73 a sidebar is presented entitled “Earthquake Deaths Each Year,” containing the captions “Before 1914 — 3,000” and “Since 1914 — 15,000.”
Well over 100,000 persons have died in great earthquakes just since 1968! Those injured, homeless or suffering property damage number in the millions. This represents a tremendous increase over what took place in past centuries. [Watchtower, April 15, 1974, p. 243]
What shows that Jesus’ words, “there will be great earthquakes,” have been fulfilled since 1914 C.E.? — Luke 21:11. The earthquakes since 1914 C.E. have been “great” in terms of power, lives lost and property damage. In fact, their destructiveness has been more widespread and greater than in the years prior to 1914 C.E., claiming approximately 30 percent of all persons killed in earthquakes during the last thousand-year period. [Watchtower, May 15, 1974, p. 318]
Counting from about 1,000 years ago, the average yearly death rate from earthquakes was 3,000 before 1914; but since then that average has leaped to 15,000 per year. [Awake!, January 8, 1977, p. 16]
The following paragraphs are from Awake!, February 22, 1977, p. 11.
Interestingly, for a period of 1,059 years (856 to 1914 C.E.), reliable sources list only 24 major earthquakes, with 1,972,952 fatalities. But compare that with the accompanying partial list citing 43 instances of earthquakes, in which 1,579,209 persons died during just the 62 years from 1915 to 1976 C.E. Here, year by year, are the locations of some of the quakes of this period, along with statistics on the fatalities:
1915-1983: Year Location Deaths 1915 Italy 29,970 1920 China 180,000 1923 Japan 143,000 1927 China 200,000 1932 China 70,000 1933 U.S.A. 115 1935 India (Pakistan) 60,000 1939 Chile 30,000 1939 Turkey 23,000 1946 Turkey 1,300 1946 Japan 2,000 1948 Japan 5,131 1949 Ecuador 6,000 1950 India 1,500 1953 Turkey 1,200 1953 Greece 424 1954 Algeria 1,657 1956 Afghanistan 2,000 1957 Iran (Northern) 2,500 1957 Iran (Western) 2,000 1960 Chile 5,700 1960 Morocco 12,000 1962 Iran 10,000 1963 Yugoslavia 1,100 1964 Alaska 131 1966 Turkey 2,529 1969 Iran 11,588 1970 Turkey 1,086 1970 Peru 66,794 1971 U.S.A. 65 1972 Iran 5,057 1972 Nicaragua 6,000 1973 Mexico (Western) 52 1973 Mexico (Central) 700 1974 Pakistan 5,200 1975 China 200 1975 Turkey 2,312 1976 Guatemala 23,000 1976 Italy 900 1976 Bali 600 1976 China * 242,000 1976 Philippines 3,373 1976 Turkey 3,790 1977-1983 addition + 44,623 Total 1915-1983: 1,210,597 Annual average: 17,545
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.)