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Scientific Illiteracy in an Italian court – Italy’s Troubling Earthquake Convictions – Harkens the Dark Ages

October 23, 2012

I thought the opening line on the story from the Christian Science Monitor said it best, “Rarely since a Catholic inquisition in Rome condemned Galileo to spend the remainder of his days under house arrest for the heresy of teaching that the Earth revolves around the sun, has an Italian court been so wrong about science.”  Wow!

Yesterday an Italian court sentenced six scientists and a government bureaucrat to six years in jail on manslaughter charges for their failure to predict a 2009 earthquake that left more than 300 people dead. Yes, you read that correctly.

The seven defendants, all members of the “National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks,” were convicted after an apparently emotional trial in which the testimony of people who had lost loved ones were allowed.  One can only imagine what that might have been like! And of course as sad as it is to lose a loved one in an earthquake, that has nothing to do with the ability to predict them! And by the way current science cannot predict earthquakes!!!!

The scientific consensus has been clear on this for some time. As much as the world would like the ability to predict earthquakes, it’s eluded the best efforts of scientists for decades. The plate-tectonic revolution in geology held out some hope for greater predictive abilities as it gathered steam in the 1950s and 1960s. But while scientists have a much better understanding of why earthquakes happen and where they’re likely to occur than at any point in human history, their predictive powers are so vague as to be practically useless – beyond recommending people shouldn’t live in quake zones like L’Aquila. People are generally resistant to such advice though. The city was rebuilt after major earthquakes in the 15th and 18th centuries, just as it has been rebuilt now.

Of course, smaller earthquakes – tremors – do often precede major ones, and can be useful indicators that major trouble is heading down the pike. Or not. Sometimes you can have a series of tremors and no major quake. Or a major quake that doesn’t appear to be preceded by any unusual activity at all. What do geologists do when asked what a series of tremors means? Use their best judgment.

That’s what the Italian scientists were convicted: exercising judgment in a murky area, getting it wrong, and being severely punished for it. If the verdict is upheld, that sends a message to scientists that they’d better keep their mouths shut when asked for their opinion in Italy.

For now, the men are appealing. One would hope they’ll win their appeal, although most people never expected this odd case to get this far.

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