There is an wise old saying that I very much attempt to apply to life, the universe, and everything. “Let Reason be silent when Experience gainsays it.” In this postmodern scientific age, we very much require a new aphorism.
Let Science be silent when it cannot predict future events.
The fear and outrage being expressed in light of the conviction of the Italian geologists who are guilty of manslaughter at L’Aquila are entirely misplaced, as it is not science that is being found guilty, but rather, the abuse of the common man’s faith in science by scientists. Consider the facts of the case, as described by Nature, a publication that can hardly be considered hostile to science:
The indictments have drawn global condemnation. The American
Geophysical Union and the American Association for the Advancement of
Science (AAAS), both in Washington DC, issued statements in support of
the Italian defendants. In an open letter to Napolitano, for example,
the AAAS said it was “unfair and naive” of local prosecutors to charge
the men for failing “to alert the population of L’Aquila of an impending
earthquake”. And last May, when Italian magistrate Giuseppe Gargarella
ruled at a preliminary hearing that the scientists would have to stand
trial this September, the Italian blogosphere lit up with lamentation
and defence lawyers greeted the decision with disbelief….
The view from L’Aquila, however, is quite different. Prosecutors and
the families of victims alike say that the trial has nothing to do with
the ability to predict earthquakes, and everything to do with the
failure of government-appointed scientists serving on an advisory panel
to adequately evaluate, and then communicate, the potential risk to the
local population. The charges, detailed in a 224-page document filed by
Picuti, allege that members of the National Commission for Forecasting
and Predicting Great Risks, who held a special meeting in L’Aquila the
week before the earthquake, provided “incomplete, imprecise, and
contradictory information” to a public that had been unnerved by months
of persistent, low-level tremors. Picuti says that the commission was
more interested in pacifying the local population than in giving clear
advice about earthquake preparedness.
“I’m not crazy,” Picuti says. “I know they can’t predict
earthquakes. The basis of the charges is not that they didn’t predict
the earthquake. As functionaries of the state, they had certain duties
imposed by law: to evaluate and characterize the risks that were present
in L’Aquila.” Part of that risk assessment, he says, should have
included the density of the urban population and the known fragility of
many ancient buildings in the city centre. “They were obligated to
evaluate the degree of risk given all these factors,” he says, “and they
isn’t a trial against science,” insists Vittorini, who is a civil party
to the suit. But he says that a persistent message from authorities of
“Be calm, don’t worry”, and a lack of specific advice, deprived him and
others of an opportunity to make an informed decision about what to do
on the night of the earthquake. “That’s why I feel betrayed by science,”
he says. “Either they didn’t know certain things, which is a problem,
or they didn’t know how to communicate what they did know, which is also
The article and the account it provides of the fate of the Vittorini family is damning to guilty geologists. It is clear that the Italian families resident there no longer abided by their traditional custom of clearing out of their houses when there were tremors, primarily due to the assurances they received from the National Commission, which is why the death toll was larger than it would have been if it hadn’t been for those assurances. The defenders of the scientists around the world are observably bending the truth, even lying, for claiming that science is on trial or that the basis of the charges are that they failed to do the impossible by not “pinpointing the time, location and strength of a future earthquake in the short term”, as Nature puts it.
As the prosecutor points out, the basis of the charges is not that the scientists didn’t predict the earthquake, but rather that they did not fulfill their legal duties to perform a proper risk assessment. Moreover, if it is impossible to predict an earthquake, then how could any honest geologist accept a paid position on a government body called the National Commission for Forecasting
and Predicting Great Risks? If you know you can’t do the job required, then you had better not accept it in the first place.
I have to disagree with Instapundit’s take on the matter. He sees this Italian attempt to hold scientists accountable for engaging in unscientific activity that led directly to great loss of life as creating “incentives for scientists to leave Italy and
to avoid giving any sort of earthquake advice to the Italian government.
I predict a run of bad luck.”
First, I note the inapplicability of the quote to the situation. Heinlein was talking about entrepreneurs and technological and conceptual innovators when he described his “extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people”. He most certainly wasn’t describing publicly acclaimed, government-funded individuals hailed as the nation’s “most respected geophysicists”.
Second, I very much doubt Italy will have any trouble at all finding top-credentialed scientists to continue accepting government funding. And to the extent that those scientists learn to keep their mouths shut about things they can neither predict with any reasonable accuracy nor support with credible scientific evidence, that would be an entirely desirable advancement from the current state of scientistry, which so often attempts to confuse credentialed democracy and amateur editing for genuine scientody.