Friday, May 04, 2012

Scientists on trial in Italy . . . again.

Italian officials have put a group of seismologists on trial for failing to adequately warn the people of L’Aquila of a magnitude 6.3 earthquake that struck on April 6, 2009.
Seismologists who failed to warn of an earthquake that struck the town of L'Aquila, Italy on 6 April 2009 are on trial for manslaughter.Credit: RaBoe/Wikipedia


There is no question that the L’Aquila earthquake was a horrific event. It resulted in massive destruction and the deaths of 308 people. I completely understand the urge to find someone to blame for the tragic outcome of this terrible act of nature. But under no circumstances should scientists be prosecuted for holding or expressing scientific opinions, no matter how wrong they turn out to be.

There are, of course, complicating factors to consider in the trial. For one thing, the spokesperson for the group of seismologists, Bernardo De Bernardinis (deputy head of the Department of Civil Protection), is apparently completely unqualified when it comes to seismology. Shortly before the quake, De Bernardinis reassured the press by saying, “The scientific community tells me there is no danger because there is an ongoing discharge of energy.” Presumably, he meant that the series of small quakes that had been troubling the area actually reduced the risk of a really big event happening. The statement is at best gibberish that virtually no professional seismologist would agree with, but it apparently it was an attempt to convey the message that the risk of a dangerous quake was small.

A small chance is not the same and none, unfortunately, and the deadly quake hit L’Aquila one week after Bernardinis made his nonsensical attempt to reassure the citizenry.

Now, I know nothing about seismology. Nor do I really know much about the case against the seismologists. It's possible, for instance, that they realized the risk of a major earthquake was large, but decided to lie for some nefarious reason. (That would be both evil and amazing, considering that no one has ever predicted an earthquake with any real precision.) My main problem is with one particular witness for the prosecution: Lalliana Mualchin.

Mualchin claims that the Italian seismologists are using the wrong model to assess earthquake risk. And he may be right. But lots of scientists are wrong about lots of things. That's the very nature of science. We propose models, test them, discard the bad ones, and refine the good ones. Even the decent ones (think Newtonian mechanics and Lamarckian injeritance) are often found to be lacking and are improved or replaced with better ones (like Relativity and natural selection).

If there's some sort of Jaws scenario going on, with politicos and bureaucrats (and even crooked scientists), misusing or misrepresenting science for any reason whatsoever, then those people should be charged.

Mualchin's claims, however, are not that the seismologists lied. He's saying that their model isn't as good as his. This would be like putting Newton on trial because his theories fail to explain how a nuclear bomb works. That is, even if Mualchin's models are better, scientists using generally accepted science are not doing anything improper.

I suppose that if there's anywhere that scientists can be prosecuted for doing science, it's Italy. After all, that's where Galileo was when he was put under house arrest for suggesting the Earth isn't the center of the universe. I'm just glad the Italians only pull this sort of thing every 400 years or so.

2 comments:

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with your summary. These scientists do not deserve to be flogged in the public square or brought into a criminal court. But I'm going to disagree with some of the points you made.

    "I completely understand the urge to find someone to blame for this terrible act of nature."

    I don't. When a tornado went tearing down the street next to mine when I was a child, we didn't demand that the weathermen be put on trial or blamed. It was an act of nature and one that is even more predictable than an earthquake. There are some things which are not predictable and definitely fall under the "Excrement occurs" category.

    "But under no circumstances should scientists be prosecuted for holding or expressing scientific opinions, no matter how wrong they turn out to be."

    You need to be careful here. I recommend you point out that there is a difference between opinion and conclusion. For example, Dr. Wakefield of the infamous "MMR" research came to a conclusion that vaccinations were linked to autism. That has had devastating effects on childhood immunity to what were diseases most thought to be all-but eradicated. I might just be going down a philosophical rabbit hole here. Conclusion? Opinion? Is there really a difference? My point is that many people put their trust in what scientists say. With that trust comes responsibility. That doesn't give the Italians leave to string up some seismologists, unless it's the one who only played as one (Bernardo De Bernardinis).

    "I'm just glad the Italians only pull this sort of thing every 400 years or so."

    I look forward to the day when such things don't happen at all.

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  2. The situation is actually more complex than a "witch hunt". Those people are on trial because they were members of the "Commissione Grandi Rischi" (major risks commission), an organ of the Italian civil protection that should evaluate what to do in dangerous situations. They had a meeting on L'Aquila a week before the earthquake, and they come out with a report saying that there was no danger. From the trial debate it seems that the analysis during this meeting was very superficial, not professional and approximative. In my opinion earthquakes cannot be provided; if you are a seismologist and someone asks you to take part on a public commission that should evaluate the probability of an earthquake you can accept or not this job. But if you accept the work (and the salary) you will be responsible of your actions within this work. This is the reason because they are on trial, because they were part of a public commission that claimed to made previsions about the possibility of a earthquake. No scientists in Italy are on trial because they did wrong predictions. If someone is on trial it is because he accepted a work and the related responsibilities, and now we are trying to understand if they did their work correctly.

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