Monday, October 22, 2012

Italian Court Convicts Seismologists for not being Psychic

Seven people have been convicted of manslaughter in Italy for failing to foretell an earthquake.

Galileo on trial 400 years ago. A new case shows that once again, Italian courts don't understand science.   
It's alright to enjoy a good Tarot reading from time to time. If you prefer palm readers, tea leaves, or goat entrails (wait, scratch the entrails part) then that's your business. Just realize it's entertainment, not science.

Science can, of course, make predictions, but those predictions are typically in the form of probabilities based on the models scientists have developed. So if your TV meteorologist tells you there's a 95% chance of rain tomorrow and not a single drop falls, it's not that they were wrong - it just happens that one in twenty occasions, when the conditions are as they were at the time of the prediction, it's not going to rain.

Unfortunately, in Italy seismologists can be tried for offering their scientific opinions, when the courts apparently feel they should instead be able to tell the future. Specifically, six scientists and one government spokesperson have been convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison for offering what the judge in the case called "inexact" estimations prior to the 2009 L'Aquila earthquake.

The seismologists had reportedly estimated the risk of a major quake at 1 in a thousand. The fact that a magnitude 6.8 event eventually happened doesn't mean they were wrong, just that unlikely things happen sometimes. It's possible that their model was wrong and that the odds were much greater. It's also possible that the odds were much less. One thing is certain - there's no way a judge or anyone else can know if the estimates were wrong based on one earthquake, no matter how horrible the outcome.

The issue of whether they were inaccurate in their predictions is not one to be decided in courts. It's a matter for scientists to hash out in science journals. And if it turns out their model is flawed, so be it. Scientists are wrong all the time. All they can do is adjust their models and try again. And even if the seismologists were incorrect, is doesn't mean they did anything criminal.

There is still a chance that the seismologists won't go to prison. They have two levels of appeal still to go. If the convictions stand, it will mean it's dangerous for scientists to advise on science matters in Italy. Then all they will have left is tea leaves, Tarot cards, and psychics. What a way to waste the Renaissance.


  1. Italy will next find its meteorologists guilty for getting the weather wrong.

    1. I would certainly be scared if I was a meteorologist over there.

  2. Hey Italy,Get your head out,Yeah,from up there...Welcome to the 21st century

  3. I think this story is being blown out of proportion by sensationalism in the media.

    Any person (not just a scientist) being judged for not being clairvoyant is, of course, ridiculous; but the article below from the Scientific American describes the failing of these scientists as their needless lack of communication of the facts they *did* have. If this is the case then they should be judged in the same way anyone in a position of responsibility is judged when they fail to complete the duties they have taken on, and are paid for, to the best of their abilities.

    1. Perhaps, but the appropriate punishment in that case is to be fired, not put in prison for six years on a manslaughter conviction.