23 October 2012

Italy Still Hasn’t Learned

Posted by Dan Satterfield

Hey Italy, remember this guy?? You put him in jail because he said the Earth was not the center of the solar system.

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.