23 October 2012
Italy Still Hasn’t Learned
Posted by Dan Satterfield
Italy has a history of locking up scientists that say things they don’t like.
Just ask Galileo.
I wonder if they realize the incalculable damage they have done to their country today. They did it by convicting six scientists whose research on the risk of earthquakes they completely misunderstood. The first thing any college level science student should learn is that any measurement observation or forecast is MEANINGLESS unless it is also accompanied with a measure of the uncertainty.
Ask yourself how many times you measured the room the last time you bought carpeting…did you still buy a little extra??
Science cannot predict earthquakes. If you do not know that then your high school education was a total failure. It can only give you the odds, and even those odds come with very high uncertainty. Ignorance of how science works leads to this kind of thing, but the people who will suffer the most are not the six scientists. The people of Italy will suffer because no scientist will give any opinion, about any matter, for any reason, as long as this verdict stands, and they may not do it even when it is overturned.
When I heard about this today the first thing I thought of was Carl Sagan, and what he wrote in his fantastic book The Demon Haunted World:
From ”The Demon-Haunted World” by Carl Sagan:
We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements- transportation, communication, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting- profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things, so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for awhile, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.
…For much of our history, we were so fearful of the outside world, with it’s unpredictable dangers, that we gladly embraced anything that promised to soften or explain away the terror. Science is an attempt, largely successful to understand the world, to get a grip on things, to get a hold of ourselves. To steer a safe course. Microbiology, and meteorology now explain what only a few centuries ago was considered sufficient cause to burn women to death.
Avoidable human misery is more often caused by not so much by stupidity, but by ignorance, particularly ignorance about ourselves. I worry that…pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive.
…The candle flame [ of Science] gutters. It’s little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The Demons begin to stir.
Strangely, the prosecutor was seeking 4 years, but the judge gave them 6. He is supposed to provide his reasons for his decision in writing some time in the next three months.
I still see some places think the scientists are being jailed for not predicting an earthquake. Quite incorrect. Nature has a short editorial on it here (I don’t think you need a subscription for this one??).
Wonder if they’ll ever go after the construction firms that didn’t put build to earthquake code, or the politicians who may have okayed buildings/types of buildings in areas they shouldn’t have been built? Maybe they can share a cell with all the people convicted of crashing Wall Street and the world economy (rumour has it the cell is still empty).
I have to say that I do believe in God, but that doesn’t preclude my ability nor my desire to understand our world scientifically. I find the Italian decision confounding in this day and age. And I think you’re absolutely right that the people of Italy will suffer because who wants to offer a scientific thought on anything meaningful if the punishment for error is jail (or worse).
Will science save the world? No, but misunderstanding of science may doom it.
Dear Dan Satterfield,
have you read the motivations of the sentence before writing your post? No one has been jailed for not predicting the earthquake. Galileo has nothing to do with this story. This is a misleading simplification of what has really happened. Boschi and the other members of the CGR have been prosecuted because, according to the judges, there are proofs of the following 1) they made their statements no on the basis of the scientific evidence but on the basis of the political needs of the Berlusconi government 2) Even after the earthquake, Boschi was collaborating with Bertolaso (the head of Protezione Civile, Berlusconi’s right hand, who is under several trials for corruption and other issues) in order to lie to the Italian public, as it is evident here: http://goo.gl/yRVIr (in Italian)
I don’t know if this sentence is right and I don’t like it because they condemned all the members of the CGR in the same way, overlooking the differences in the role of the different members. But, it was NOT a sentences against Science! Anyway, There will be 2 more trials before anyone will actually go to jail, so there are chances that the position of the scientists will change in future.
If they changed their science to fit a political agenda then they certainly have cause to answer for, but that is an easy claim to make and an almost impossible one to prove. Nonetheless the results are the same. Good point and thanks for the additional info.
Yes, it is a claim difficult to prove, but to prove it is up to the judges not up to us. Reaching a verdict took them three years and we should read the trial’s documents before claiming that the verdict is a medieval attack to Science.
Here another piece of information made available yesterday: http://goo.gl/Gq3wM