Monday, October 22, 2012

Italian Geologists Convicted Of Manslaughter

Now usually I don't get into the politics of science, but this article today on NBCNEWS.com and other sources really sent me for a loop. In 2009, a deadly quake occurred in Italy that resulted in destruction of many historical sites, residential homes, and other buildings. While the quake's magnitude was not extremely large, the structures in Italy were ill-prepared for a somewhat strong, and shallow quake.

Let's set the scene. Prior to this quake, there were a few smaller tremors, and this prompted the Italian government to ask during a press conference of their geologists, whether or not those quakes were a precursor to a larger quake. This is a very fine line for scientists to cross. First of all, it is nearly impossible (nay, it IS impossible) to 'predict' earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Does the scientist say "Yes, there is that possibility", and cause panic? Where would people go? Where would the epicenter be? What sort of damage? How strong a quake? These are questions which scientists would never be able to answer with certainty. The safe answer in this case is usually "There is no proof that smaller quakes will cause bigger ones". Of course, that is the scientific method. Going out of those bounds is called 'conjecture'.

The Italian government accused the geologists of 'failing to predict the earthquake', which has resulted in their conviction. "Failing to predict an earthquake", just let that sink in for a second. Failing to predict an earthquake is like failing to predict the winning lottery numbers. Yeah, there's about a 1:1,000,000,000,000 chance, but I guess the Italian government must see this as a significant figure of some sort.

Clearly, (and this is happening throughout the world in most countries) the Government does not have any sort of grasp on what science is or what it is capable of doing. And now, scientists who were honestly doing their best to keep people safe are being strung up like sacrifices to the earthquake gods. It is plainly pathetic, shocking, and insanely ignorant to convict geologists of failing to predict a large earthquake. Where was their funding for such a project? Were they supposed to magically fabricate instrumentation from the future that would send them an email warning? Come on now!

This problem can easily occur anywhere in the world (the problem of a scientifically ignorant government hellbent on placing blame on someone). It could easily happen here in the USA, where 99.8% of our elected officials are either religious, have no scientific background, and are mostly legal professionals (good at arguing esoterics and rhetoric, not so much with scientific fact). Indeed, in the USA, most politicians  especially on the right, believe in creationism, the second coming, and deny most things scientific like environmental studies, and other data in the name of their religion, or capitalism.

There is very little your average citizen can do about this unfortunately. People seem to love the things that science produces (TV's, cars, the Internet), but HATE it when scientific findings challenge long-held beliefs or superstitions, (like gods, prophecies, faith), and will absolutely turn on scientists at a whim. In my opinion this is absolutely abhorrent, and the only way this is going to stop is if we start telling our governments that we want SCIENTISTS on Science Committees (not all pastors, preachers, and ideologues). I can wish, I can hope, but the only way this is going to change is for people to become aware of the implications having a scientifically ignorant government produces.

In the meantime, my thoughts and hopes go out that these poor Italian scientists will be exonerated by an appeal, or that international pressure is hot enough to earn them a full pardon, because frankly, the Italian government at this time should be absolutely ashamed with this witch hunt.

And that's my piece.

*****UPDATE10/24/12*****

Two top Italian scientists have quit in protest of the ruling according to CNN. Physicist Luciano Maiani Is quoted as saying "The situation created by the sentencing yesterday on the facts from L'Aquila is incompatible with a clear and effective performance of the functions of the commission and its role as a consulting bodies for the state."

In addition to his departure, the Italian Director of their volcanic and earthquake monitoring program also quit, saying (which absolutely concurs with my point in my article) "To predict a large quake on the basis of a relatively commonplace sequence of small earthquakes and to advise the local population to flee" would constitute "both bad science and bad public policy."

It is unfortunate but highly understandable that scientists would not want to work for a government that feels like it can simply throw them under a bus at the first sign of trouble. This could be the beginning of a trend that could see many government employed scientists leaving their employ to other countries, or private industry.

It is appalling to me that governments could be so ignorant as to basically say "I thought you scientists knew everything, well, we had an earthquake and you didn't warn us". A high-school educated science student has more sense than this, and for government officials to take a position of extreme ignorance in order to point a finger at someone is frankly, insane.

4 comments:

  1. Do you know charges in some detail? Or you're simply produce some easy statements?

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    1. How easy it is to make snide comments from behind a veil of anonymity. If you think Matt has something wrong, or have some information to contradict this post, come out and say so. Otherwise, sod off troll!

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  2. http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/23/world/europe/italy-quake-scientists-guilty/index.html?c=world

    There are two articles. Here is one from CNN. The charges are manslaughter, and the scientists have been sentenced to 6 years in prison. The link at the top of my article has more details.

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