It’s Not Safe to be a Scientist

Post by Jim Newman


It’s scary in Italy for a scientist and I am sure many scientists question their desire to do science in these times. CNN reports:

Earthquake experts around the world say they are appalled by an Italian court’s decision to convict six scientists on manslaughter charges for failing to predict the deadly quake that devastated the city of L’Aquila. They warned the ruling could severely harm future scientific research.

Wow, isn’t earthquake prediction part of nonlinear dynamics and inherently unpredictable though like the weather scientists are getting more accurate?

The court in L’Aquila sentenced the scientists and a government official Monday to six years in prison, ruling that they didn’t accurately communicate the risk of the earthquake in 2009 that killed more than 300 people.

Wow, I’m floored. They used to kill the witchdoctor and now the insistence on certainty is raising the bar so that we once again don’t get how scientists work and a scientist might as well be a witchdoctor, or a priest? Better a priest because they feign certainty. Scientists under attack for not being certain! It’s not safe to be a scientist! Quick go into humanities where you can be wrong with impunity–best bet is seminary!

The trial centered on a meeting a week before the 6.3-magnitude quake struck. At the meeting, the experts determined that it was “unlikely” but not impossible that a major quake would take place, despite concern among the city’s residents over recent seismic activity.

“Prosecutors said the defendants provided “inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory information about the dangers” facing L’Aquila.

The court agreed, convicting the six scientists from the Italian National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV) and a member of the Civil Protection Agency. It also ordered the Italian authorities to pay 7.8 million euros ($10 million) in damages.

 Scientists learn from Galileo the consequences of publishing the truth–house arrest for life.

So there were some tremors, people got freaked and asked the scientists, the scientist’s said most likely not but it happened anyway. Ok, then what would it have taken in communication? What’s more clear than may, maybe not. It’s like hurricane prediction where if you’re wrong you’re blasted either way–false warnings cost money and have consequences.

Seismologists were aghast at the court’s decision, noting that earthquakes remain impossible to forecast with any kind of accuracy.

“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,” said David Oglesby, an associate professor at the earth sciences faculty of the University of California, Riverside.

“If scientists can be held personally and legally responsible for situations where predictions don’t pan out, then it will be very hard to find scientists to stick their necks out in the future,” Oglesby said in a statement.

OK, let’s ask the pope. Religious folks believe they are right without question on some pretty iffy issues. I bet he would be sure if there were going to be an earthquake or not. What do people want? They want certainty, they want authority, and they want control. At least most people. But life is not like that and science even less so. Science is always about observation, confirmation, and probability. Did these people miss science class? Did they miss reality? Did they miss their chance to insist that there are earthquakes and buildings and roads and cities should be built so they aren’t wrecked when they occur? I say sue the residents for not revolting for better government.

No doubt this will be an effective means of squashing scientists making any public policy remarks as well. Though I want to know the converse: do we get to sue climate deniers now that everyone, including diehard deniers, agres that humans have affected climate?

Or more perversely do we get to sue scientists that work for special interest groups or grant funders and have their data biased? Can we sue pharmacy companies for deaths from MSR infections because they spent money on more lucrative drug research like penile erection drugs instead and we really needed that time for research on new antibiotics? Do we get to sue the green people who caused the demise of the use of DDT which rightly saved many but also allowed many more to be killed by malaria? Do we get to sue the Catholic church because it denies birth control and the vast majority of the earth’s and human’s problems would be halted if we didn’t breed like flies? Who gets to make these decisions?

Roger Musson, the head of seismic hazard and archives at the British Geological Survey, echoed that feeling in a comment published on the organization’s Twitter feed.

“It’s chilling that people can be jailed for giving a scientific opinion in the line of their work,” he said.

Yes, we are responsible for opinions now. The entire focus on not being critical is killing scientific inquiry. Now, even a scientist fears to speak. It’s like the planet is shrinking intellectually so it can amass greater polarity to create monstrous friction for war and strife. The simplification of education in the face of huge leaps of information creates a high expectation that can never be met. Consequences are removal. What will replace science?

Comments from one of the defendants — Enzo Boschi, the former president of the INGV — suggested the scientists were shellshocked by their conviction.

“I’m dejected, despairing. I still don’t understand what I’m accused of,” Boschi said after the ruling, according to ANSA, Italy’s official news agency.

You are being accused of not communicating the right answer in a situation where expectation is accuracy. You are innocent and because of that must be found guilty. It’s a witch hunt of accountability. If Italians were in a growth spurt they would absorb the disaster but with crappy economics where is recovery money going to come from?

He and the six others convicted Monday will remain free during the appeal process.

The Italian geophysics institute expressed “regret and concern” about the verdict in a statement Monday. It said the ruling “threatens to undermine one of the cornerstones of scientific research: that of freedom of investigation, of open and transparent discussion and sharing of results.”

Some experts have argued that the issue was a failure of communications, not calculations.

Domenico Giardini, who held Boschi’s old job at the institute for several months, said last year that the trial was about “the number of weak points in the communication chain.”

“We all have to work on new, and more clear, protocols, on the transfer of information,” said Giardini, who stepped down from the presidency of the institute earlier this year in order to continue his research work in Switzerland.

This is so cheesy. It’s always a breakdown in communication. The point is what causes the breakdown and even more importantly what people do with communication once they receive it. In this case residents are very angry because it seemed clear to them that an earthquake was imminent but the expert said not likely.

What this would mean to any reasonable person would be the need for more research to explain the dissonance of prequakeactivity and earthquakes and the need for better science education for residents so they better understand both the science and also how people handle science, industrially, governmentally, and in their community.

“Survivors of the 2009 quake, some of whom who lost relatives or property in the disaster, have voiced anger at the officials who downplayed the risks despite the worries expressed by residents.

“I can understand the grief of people who lost loved ones and the frustration that people feel when terrible events happen — especially ones outside their control,” said Oglesby. “Convicting honest scientists of manslaughter does nothing to help this situation, and may well put a chill on exactly the kind of science that could save lives in the future.

People want a carcass after failure. Free therapy and science education for everyone! The whims of the people flail like loose arms as they try to grasp some meaning or revenge for the event–they can’t bewail to god if god didn’t do it, so it must be the scientists. Why not sue the agencies that poorly fund scientists so they can’t get better data. Or sue the people when they prefer to pray to god or deny science because they don’t want to abandon bronze age mythologies that change how people view geophysical events.

“The ruling may well change the way experts disclose their opinions, according to David Spiegelhalter, a professor specializing in the public understanding of risk at Cambridge University in Britain.

“L’Aquila trial shows public scientists need to take media communication very seriously,” he wrote on his Twitter account. “And get indemnity.”

Oh great. Science insurance. Now scientists will be responsible for their results and when wrong can be sued. If scientists are afraid of theocrats and woo woo science dealers now this will cause it to explode. All science is political because it changes people’s expectations of reality. Woo woo’s will deny scientist’s certainty but promise everything and scientists will become so conservative they can’t do the rapid and necessary research the planet needs so desperately. Nor will they dare publish which is the essential part of confirmation. Insurance will industrial science to a higher degree and kill innovation.

What would you be willing to say is absolutely true and then insure it against mistakes?

Jim Newman, bright and well

About Jim Newman

Jim Newman is a philosopher. When I was young I wondered what was the ultimate truth. How should I behave? What makes it all work? I was intensely curious to know what it all means. It was enlightening to realize there is no ultimate truth, but nevertheless sufficient and necessary turth, and that meaning was a meta analysis of living one’s life. In this sense my work has been living large. Living and experiencing life has made me learn many things. Building boats, motors, houses, electronics. Raising animals. Teaching. Writing. Photography. Drawing. Knitting. Sewing. Cooking. Music. Painting. Hiking. Aboriginal living skills. All material aspects of reality that seem irrelevant until you realize they allow you to experience more. My epiphany came when I read Christopher Hitchen’s “Letters to a Young Contrarian” and I felt vindicated in my many meals of sacred cow.
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