Science has consequences

The inherent unreliability of science, and the fact that scientists know perfectly well how unreliable it is, is clearly demonstrated by the ongoing court case in Italy:

The courthouse in L’Aquila, Italy, yesterday hosted a highly anticipated hearing in the trial of six seismologists and one government official indicted for manslaughter over their reassurances to the public ahead of a deadly earthquake in 2009 (see ‘Scientists face trial over earthquake deaths‘ and ‘Scientists on trial: At fault?’). During the hearing, the former head of the Italian Department of Civil Protection turned from key witness into defendant, and a seismologist from California criticized Italy’s top earthquake experts….

The hearing also included some true scientific debate when Lalliana Mualchin, former chief seismologist for the Department of Transportation in California, testified as an expert witness for the prosecution. In 2010, when news about the indictment broke, Mualchin was among the few experts who openly criticized — and refused to sign — a letter supporting the indicted seismologists signed by about 5,000 international scientists.

Mualchin said that seismic hazards were not properly assessed in L’Aquila. “Italy is one of the countries with the best seismic knowledge in the world. And yet look at what a 6.3 earthquake has done to this city. That knowledge was not used, and scientists are responsible for that. They were conscious of the high risk in the area, and yet did not advise the people to take any precaution whatsoever,” he said.

One of the reasons that I consider many scientists to be both hypocritical and despicable is that they regularly expect everyone else to accept their scientific declarations as some sort of perfectly reliable magic eight-ball while resolutely refusing to take any responsibility whatsoever for the accuracy of those declarations. Now, the significant gap between the reliability of science and the public’s perception of that reliability isn’t always the scientists’ fault, as there are many examples of the science media and the mainstream media taking a perfectly reasonable statement by a scientist and turning it into an assertive declaration that brooks no possible doubt.

But when the public is paying their salaries, they have a right to expect material results from scientists, just as they have the right to expect that the public bus drivers will, in fact, drive the bus along the bus route. If the best that scientists can do is say “we have no idea what you should do”, then they probably shouldn’t be funded in the first place. And if they’re going to say that something is safe, then they are most certainly liable for any damages incurred if they are incorrect and people were harmed as a result of the misinformation provided.

It’s worth noting that scientists are usually at their most assertive when there is little chance of being held to account. But the reluctance of scientists to be held accountable in any way for their vaunted consensuses is further evidence that science should be considered fundamentally and intrinsically unreliable until it reaches a state that is more commonly described as “engineering”. Note that one can be held legally liable for the quality of one’s engineering, so what does it say of those who do not believe a scientist should be held legal liable for the quality of his science?