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Practicing Geology Without a License


calif licensed geophysicist seal

Licensed professionals use this seal; GeoForecaster didn't.

State of California

When GeoForecaster.com began its earthquake-forecasting business in February 2003, the California authorities came down on the firm in just a week. How can the state do that?

In California, the state Board for Geologists and Geophysicists was set up in 1968 to make sure that qualified people do some important jobs, such as:

  • Inspecting the ground where construction is planned
  • Mapping soils and rocks
  • Detecting land at risk of landslides
  • Finding and evaluating groundwater supplies
  • Using satellite or aerial photos to investigate the structure of an area
  • Investigating the subsurface with seismic methods
  • Drilling boreholes and logging the rocks they penetrate
  • Assessing mineral deposits

Every state is different. For instance, Iowa doesn't license geologists, but it does license Groundwater Professionals. Maine uses the same licence for geologists and soil scientists. Montana doesn't license anyone doing geologic work. The Association of State Boards of Geology or ASBOG keeps track of them all.

California's program is more elaborate than that of most states. It licenses geologists, geophysicists, engineering geologists, and hydrogeologists. Candidates for each specialty must pass the ASBOG exams plus California-specific tests, plus have 5 years of experience supervised by a licensed specialist. (Today this program is administered by the Board for Professional Engineers, Land Surveyors and Geologists after the Board for Geologists and Geophysicists was disbanded.)

Practicing without a license, or making mistakes while holding a license, is a misdemeanor violation of the Geologists and Geophysicists Act subject to fines and even imprisonment up to 3 months. Without going to court, the board can shut violators down and fine them $2500, and if offenders are listed in the phone book the board can order their phones turned off. (The law was written before the Web, so there is no remedy for a violating site.)

The board didn't say all that when it contacted GeoForecaster. The letter from the board's executive officer, Paul Sweeney, was a model of bureaucratic blandness: "Under the facts presented to the Board, it appears that you may be previously engaged in the practice of geology. You are hereby advised that unlicensed practice of geology in the state of California is a misdemeanor and the Board may take disciplinary action in such cases."

Even though there's no scientifically accepted way to predict quakes, offering earthquake forecasts is perfectly legal. James Berkland has been doing it for many years. No matter how baseless might be his methods, how useless his forecasts, how tasteless his self-promotion, he is free to be . . . Syzygy. The professional norms of academic geoscience mean little to him. The difference is that he's a California Licensed Geologist of long standing.

Perhaps GeoForecaster roused complaints because it put on a more professional-looking show. Its principals had doctorates in geologic specialties. While Berkland's methods (taking credit for coincidence, basically) are obvious and easily dismissed, GeoForecaster's were hidden. But there were hints about some of the techniques, as I discuss next.

PS: If you like taking tests, ASBOG posts a good sample of its exams on its site in the Candidate's Handbook posted on the ASBOG website. To judge from them, if you do well on my Geo-Whiz Quizzes you can pass the Fundamentals of Geology exam, but the other exam, Practice of Geology, is harder—as it should be.

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