26 January 2012

Jail for Scientists?

Another article from the most recent PopSci laments that scientists in Italy are being held criminally liable for predicting that earthquakes would not happen in L’Aquila.  When earthquakes did occur shortly after the predictions were made, many people ended up losing their lives because they were not adequately prepared for an earthquake.  The scientists were charged with manslaughter.

For some reason, this has science fetishists’ panties in a knot.  I’m not sure why, because all science fetishists’ ever say is that Science is the most reliable thing in the world; it can be trusted completely and implicitly, and nothing bad will ever come of trusting science.  If this is the case, then science should have been able to predict the earthquake.  Its failure to live up to its promises is nothing more than obvious and intentional negligence, and should be treated as such.  Alternatively, it could be that the science did know an earthquake was coming but decided to lie about it.

Anyhow, the point is this:  If science is so trustworthy, then it should be held liable for its prognostications.  And if one argues that it shouldn’t be held liable for its pronouncements and predictions then one should also concede that it is not particularly reliable.


  1. The real questions here are:
    1. If the dead guys had heard warnings, would they have preparred anyway? Evidence shows hardly anyone does.

    2. There is no preparation you can do for an earthquake that has been shown to prevent injuries or death other than not being where one is going to strike. people who live in Florida and Texas understand this. people who live in california do not.

    3. When the Earthquake struck, many thousands of people also did not get any warning and made no preparations, yet they survived. The scientists should argue that warning and preparation are futile and would have made no difference. They could even argue that too much warning would have led to panic that would itself have created injuries.

    4. Unless the scientists were collecting money in exchange for earthquake prediction and warning and were doing so, knowing that they had no credible way of delivering on their contract, then they are pretty safe.

  2. @prof. Hale- please note that my assertion is conditional. I don't think these scientists should be arrested for making a bad prediction, particularly since, as you noted, there's no guarantee that anyone would have acted on the prediction even if it were correct. However, if one does think that scientists are basically always reliable/correct, then they should be held criminally liable for whatever incorrect official proclamations they make.

  3. The only protection against earthquakes is building codes. Compare earthquakes in New Zealand vs the same strenght in Haiti.

  4. @Athol Kay- ad even that's not foolproof. What needs to be remembered is that, at best, science can generally only ever be used as a rough guideline for these sorts of things because reality tends to be considerably more complex than the models. Still, even with that limitation, following the building codes that are found in NZ (or even San Francisco) improve the odds of surviving an earthquake, though they do not guarantee survival.

    BTW, thanks for swinging by. I'm assuming, based on your recent reader mail posts, that you've been pretty busy with blogging. Anyhow, all the best to you, and good luck with your upcoming book projects.