I used to say, during doctoral examinations in theoretical physics, that the stakes were a bit more relaxed than passing or failing a medical student. After all, granting a doctorate was unlikely to result in life or death for anyone.
Well, an Italian court decided this week that I was wrong. Six scientists were convicted of manslaughter because their data did not allow them to predict a 6.3-magnitude temblor in the city of L'Aquila in 2009 with enough certainty to issue a safety warning. More than 300 people died.
The scientists were members of a national Major Risk Commission. They assessed the situation after a series of small tremors and determined that the likelihood was low, although it was not impossible, that the tremors signaled an imminent earthquake. No one can currently predict the time, location and severity of an earthquake in advance. Seismologists can only issue warnings, with varying degrees of certainty, about the possibility of an impending earthquake. In the case of L'Aquila, the data did not clearly point to the increased likelihood of such an event.
For saying that, these scientists (and a government official) have been sentenced to six years in prison by the court. It is hard to imagine a worse precedent for exacerbating the sorry relationship between science and public policy.
If officials, who are charged with taking action to protect the public (unlike scientists, who merely provide advice), are to make responsible public policy, they need the most reliable information they can get from scientists. If scientists fear that providing accurate data and assessments will make them liable for whatever comes to pass, then they invariably will either refuse to participate in government advisory panels (and since the court decision, several senior scientists in Italy have resigned their government posts), refuse to provide data, or they will alter their advice to minimize their own later exposure.
One can imagine a host of outrageous scenarios based on this precedent. Take climate science, for example. If sea levels rise at a higher rate than the conservative estimates made by the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, will the IPCC scientists be held responsible as millions are displaced and hardships ensue? Will they bear the liability for governments that have not acted to abate human greenhouse-gas generation?
No one should be found guilty in a court of law merely for telling the truth as they understand it. Science involves uncertainty. Indeed, that is perhaps its greatest strength — uncertainty can be quantified and thus risks can be assessed. But no one can predict the future with absolute precision.
It is impossible to insulate ourselves completely from risks, even if we stay locked in our homes. Scientists help the public and governments assess risks as accurately as possible so they can take appropriate actions. Those carrying out the actions determine how large a risk is acceptable to them.
When the Italian scientists said that the data did not suggest an earthquake was imminent, they were not saying that an earthquake would not happen. The real negligence in the Italian tragedy has to do not with the scientists but with educational systems that fail to make science, and its limitations, clear; and with the officials responsible for those systems. That a court anywhere would hold humans accountable for an unpredictable, naturally occurring tragedy suggests that the judges themselves were victims of just such a deficient education.
Lawrence M. Krauss is a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and the director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University. His latest book is "A Universe from Nothing." He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.