Monday, October 22, 2012

Please tell me there's more to this story

Italian scientists have been convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison for ..... failing to predict an earthquake.

There has to be more to this, right? Some exculpatory detail that makes this story not crazy?

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


Anonymous said...

About time that scientists were held accountable when they get things wrong!

Hankering for History said...

How dare these scientist not be omniscient.

David B Marshall said...

Apparently these villainous scalliwags also neglected to inform the citizens of the victimized Italian city that they lived in old houses:

"At the heart of the case was the question of whether the government-appointed experts gave an overly reassuring picture of the risk facing the town, which contained many ancient and fragile buildings and which had already been partially destroyed three times by earthquakes over the centuries."

Presumably Italian historians will be arrested next. Because of course adults can't be expected to know anything about the history of the cities they live in.

Wait till the Italian Inquisition gets wind of what Seattle-area meteorologists have been up to. Heads will roll.

Ilíon said...

"How dare these scientist not be omniscient."

How dare those scientists imply that they could could say when "the big one" would hit.

Ignorance said...

This BBC article suggests that they were convicted on the grounds of allegedly giving contradictory and misplaced reassuring risk assessments. It still is a daft verdict of course. I hope the scientists will appeal till it is repealed (which I expect the ECHR would do).

Crude said...

The problem with this story is that, as I'm hearing it, plaintiffs apparently suggested that the scientists were (among other things) reassuring the people in the city that there was nothing to worry about, to remain calm, that the tremors they were experiencing made it less likely that an earthquake would hit, etc. From the Nature article covering this before the ruling:

Vittorini debated with his wife Claudia and his terrified nine-year-old daughter Fabrizia whether to spend the rest of the night outside. Swayed by what he describes as “anaesthetizing” public assurances by government officials that there was no imminent danger, and recalling scientific statements claiming that each shock diminished the potential for a major earthquake, he persuaded his family to remain in their apartment on Via Luigi Sturzo. All three of them were huddled together in the master bed when, at 3:32 a.m. on 6 April, a devastating magnitude-6.3 earthquake struck the city.

So, here's the problem. Were the scientists portraying themselves as having scientific knowledge such that they could assure people in the city that no earthquake was coming? That's where it gets tricky.

If the scientists said 'We can't tell if an earthquake is coming. Scientifically, we just don't have that knowledge, nor does anyone else - it's simply not attainable on current theories', then they should be exonerated.

But if the scientists said, "We're scientists, and we know some guy claimed that an earthquake is coming. Well, he's full of it. Go back to your houses and stop worrying, because we're confident no earthquake is coming. Trust us - we're the ones with the expertise", then the decision seems correct.

I don't know the specifics of the case - normally I'd just go read the details beyond the articles, but in this situation it's all in italian as far as I know. But you cannot tell me that it's obvious that scientists, even as a group, would not present themselves as having more knowledge or authority than they actually did.

Camillo said...

Well, I'm Italian and I hope to be able to clarify some things...

As other commenters already said, the judiciary didn't make a mistake so stupid as to indict scientists for "failing to predict the quake". They have equated what has been understood as undue reassurance of the populace with putting them in mortal peril, by discouraging people from taking preventive measures. I'd like to refer you to the articles of Nicola Nosengo and others on Nature's website (in English, of course).

I am against this ruling. I cannot consent to conflating what has been, fundamentally, an error in communication on the part of the scientists with manslaughter. Even if these scientists have been stupid enough to lend the authority of their names to political and semi-political figures that DID make unscientific statements of certain reassurance. But this has to be understood in the wider context of current Italian civil unrest.

The handling of the whole Aquila disaster and following situation by the former government is subject to heavy criticism. The head of Civil Protection has been charged with various incidents of corruption, as were many figures connected to the Berlusconi government. You are probably aware that we have been governed for many years, with brief breaks, by an habitual delinquent that has waged a propaganda war against the judicial order. The judiciary feels threatened and, I have to admit it, sometimes endeavours to "strike back" against these attacks.

Right now, another prominent court case related to environmental issues is afoot in Taranto: judges have ordered the partial shutdown of the ILVA steel plant because of pollution. Evidence has been discovered that false data about environmental impact of the plant has been reported for years, unchallenged by the local health and safety structures, and local political officials have been very wary of interfering with ILVA due to its strategic value for the whole nation and extreme economic importance for the city of Taranto. Right now, there is lots of arguing about epidemiological data and so forth. It's clear to me that many in judiciary don't trust at all the information coming from figures of the former government about this case, and some distrust still lingers even for officials of the new grand-coalition executive.

In this climate, expert figures who fail to warn the populace of various risks are much more likely to be perceived as partisan and negligent, if not explicitely on the take, than just misinformed or within the margin of error of their profession.
This is a sad state of affairs, and one that will take some time to remedy, but I wouldn't say that this sentencing was "anti science". It's much more a product of inflamed social and political strife and, shall I say it, maybe even paranoia.

Ilíon said...

It sounds to me that what you're saying is that part of this is that "the judiciary" -- which is to say, lawyers -- which/who operate(s) under the delusion that *they* are uniquely qualified and competent to run-and-rule society, are flexing their muscle and putting those pesky scientists (who, at least when they are leftists, *also* operate under the delusion that *they* are uniquely qualified and competent to run-and-rule society) in their place.

We have a similar problem in America, with both sets of fools.

As for Berlusconi, now I understand that I'm just an American, but it seems to me that his "sin" is two-fold:
1) he's near-universally condemned as a "right-winger" -- meaning that, even though he's really a leftist, he's not "the right kind' of leftist, he's not enough leftist;
2) he's not impressed with the lawyers' delusions to be uniquely qualified and competent to run-and-rule society.

I mean, really! since when did Europeans -- at any rate, those few who rule and/or desire to rule the others -- ever care about corruption amongst their political class? Some sort of corruption is a prerequisite for getting into the European political class in the first place, isn't it?

Jamie Robertson said...

Ilion -

Some sort of corruption is a prerequisite for getting into the European political class in the first place, isn't it?

Perhaps true, but Italy is by far the worst country in Europe for this, IMO. Politics, business, law enforcement, even soccer (which has a societal importance far beyond baseball or football in the US) are all frequently afflicted by corruption. Attempts to eradicate it have met with varying degrees of success, failure, and plain apathy. Berlusconi is the most obvious example, but it goes beyond him and is pretty deeply ingrained in contemporary Italian culture.

Please not that I'm not suggesting other countries are without blame - the UK and the USA have just the same problem, albeit expressed more subtly. Similarly, there are many ordinary Italians who are sick of the whole thing.

Majorian said...

'Some sort of corruption is a prerequisite for getting into the European political class in the first place, isn't it?'

Well, no-one's perfect and Italy is worse than most but Europeans don't need lessons in public morals from the inventors of pork barrel, graft and gerrymander. That despised political class also manages to do a decent job of protecting school children from gun-toting maniacs. Morality isn't just about backhanders.

Ilíon said...

That's right ... because in Eutopia, when seconds matter, the police are only hours away (and assuming it isn't against "health and safety" regs for them to do something about the criminal).

What *amazingly* short-term memories leftists have.

Majorian said...

How puerile. Go away.

Ilíon said...

How hypocritical.

But then, that's leftists.