In our opinion: Jailing Italian scientists discourages discovery in scientific community

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 30 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

People listen to the verdict at L'Aquila court, Italy, Monday, Oct. 22, 2012. An Italian court has convicted seven scientists and experts of manslaughter for failing to adequately warn citizens before an earthquake struck central Italy in 2009, killing more than 300 people.

Associated Press

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Who hasn't wanted to sue a weather forecaster after a picnic was ruined by a storm on a day that was predicted to be sunny? And how many Utahns chuckled a bit two years ago when a predicted blizzard sent people streaming home early from work and forced schools to close before fizzling as it hit the Wasatch Front?

We don't take action against scientists and forecasters presumably because we understand the nature of science. A forecast is a reporting of probabilities based on observable conditions, taking into account that those conditions can change in unpredictable ways. If we held scientists accountable for every failed prediction, they eventually would cease to base those predictions on data, choosing instead to err on the side of caution in order to minimize their own liabilities.

As absurd as it sounds, an Italian court has turned these presumptions upside down by convicting seven Italian scientists to six years each in jail for manslaughter because they failed to predict a deadly earthquake. Some claim the reporting in this case has stoked unneeded controversy, saying the crime wasn't a failure to predict the quake, but a failure to communicate the risks to the public. That is so small a distinction as to be nonsensical. The scientists observed a series of minor tremors, then gave inexact and unclear information about whether those were precursors to a larger quake. That is because there is no accurate way to predict a large quake on the basis of small tremors, nor is there a way to pinpoint the time or location of any sort of quake, other than within a broad range of years.

Seismologists have said, for example, that the Wasatch Front is due for a large quake, such as those that have hit the area every few hundred years. That is enough warning to help people prepare generally. No one knows the exact time, however, or whether it even will hit during the lifespan of the current generation.

The real danger of the Italian ruling, which is under appeal, is that it will chill scientific discovery and foster public disdain for, and misunderstanding of, the scientific method. That is a trend that could set the earth back to the Middle Ages, when scientific discoveries put one in danger of being labeled a heretic.

The ruling also could divert attention from people with real liabilities. Perhaps developers in the area did not follow proper codes, or government inspectors were negligent, allowing buildings to collapse.

Lest we in the United States begin to feel too smug in our criticism of the Italians, public attitudes here have at times seemed not too far behind. The science of global warming provides a ready example. Too many people have allowed politics to intrude on science in ways that could stifle honest inquiry.

That's a dangerous road for any society to travel, and it won't help science progress to a point where it comes closer to making more accurate predictions about disasters.

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