Ten ways to spot pseudogeophysics

Geophysicists often try to predict rock properties using seismic attributes — an inverse problem. It is difficult and can be complicated. It can seem like black magic, or at least a black box. They can pull the wool over their own eyes in the process, so don’t be surprised if it seems like they are trying to pull the wool over yours. Instead, ask a lot of questions.

Questions to ask

  1. What is the reliability of the logs that are inputs to the prediction? Ask about hole quality and log editing.
  2. What about the the seismic data? Ask about signal:noise, multiples, bandwidth, resolution limits, polarity, maximum offset angle (for AVO studies), and processing flow (e.g. Emsley, 2012).
  3. What is the quality of the well ties? Is the correlation good enough for the proposed application?
  4. Is there any physical reason why the seismic attribute should predict the proposed rock property? Was this explained to you? Were you convinced?
  5. Is the proposed attribute redundant (sensu Barnes, 2007)? Does it really give better results than a less sexy approach? I’ve seen 5-minute trace integration outperform month-long AVO inversions (Hall et al. 2006).
  6. What are the caveats and uncertainties in the analysis? Is there a quantitative, preferably Bayesian, treatment of the reliability of the predictions being made? Ask about the probability of a prediction being wrong.
  7. Is there a convincing relationship between the rock property (shear impedance, say) and some geologically interesting characteristic that you actually make decisions with, e.g. frackability.
  8. Is there a convincing relationship between the rock property and the seismic attribute at the wells? In other words, does the attribute actually correlate with the property where we have data?
  9. What does the low-frequency model look like? How was it made? Its maximum frequency should be about the same as the seismic data's minimum, no more.
  10. Does the geophysicist compute errors from the training error or the validation error? Training errors are not helpful because they beg the question by comparing the input training data to the result you get when you use those very data in the model. Funnily enough, most geophysicists like to show the training error (right), but if the model is over-fit then of course it will predict very nicely at the well! But it's the reliability away from the wells we are interested in, so we should examine the error we get when we pretend the well isn't there. I prefer this to witholding 'blind' wells from the modeling — you should use all the data. 

Lastly, it might seem harsh but we could also ask if the geophysicist has a direct financial interest in convincing you that their attribute is sound, as well as the normal direct professional interest. It’s not a problem if they do, but be on your guard — people who are selling things are especially prone to bias. It's unavoidable.

What do you think? Are you bamboozled by the way geophysicists describe their predictions?

Barnes, A (2007). Redundant and useless seismic attributes. Geophysics 72 (3), p P33–P38. DOI: 10.1190/1.2370420.
Emsley, D. Know your processing flow. In: Hall & Bianco, eds, 52 Things You Should Know About Geophysics. Agile Libre, 2012. 
Hall, M, B Roy, and P Anno (2006). Assessing the success of pre-stack inversion in a heavy oil reservoir: Lower Cretaceous McMurray Formation at Surmont. Canadian Society of Exploration Geophysicists National Convention, Calgary, Canada, May 2006. 

The image of the training error plot — showing predicted logs in red against input logs — is from Hampson–Russell's excellent EMERGE software. I'm claiming the use of the copyrighted image is fair use.