I have a bugbear for people who believe they know better than those who’ve made a career out of being experts in some field. For me in particular its doctors as I know that I’m rubbish when it comes to figuring why things are happening in my body so I defer to their expertise. People I know seem to harbour a deep mistrust for them however, believing that everything they’re telling them is wrong and only they have the right answers. Whilst everyone has a story of when a doctor might not have got things quite right they always seem to forget the times when they got them spot on, which I’ll argue is more often than not.
The reason why they don’t get it right 100% of the time is due to the very nature of medicine and, more generally, the principles they and all other science based professions engage. For highly complicated systems like the human body it’s nigh on impossible to control for every input and thus we instead rely on statistical models that pull from large data sets so we have a good idea of the effect something will have given a certain input. These models are far from perfect and this means that edge cases won’t respond in the same way but that does not invalidate the model, it merely identifies another factor that needs to be incorporated into it.
It was these very principles that lead a group of scientists back in 2009 to make a prediction that there was a low risk of an earthquake in the small town of L’Aquila in Italy. Months prior to them making the prediction L’Aquila had been rocked by many small tremors which is what caused the local government to convene a panel of experts to determine whether action was warranted. L’Aquila lies on a fault line and using seismic models they had available at the time the scientists concluded that the risk of a larger quake was unaffected by the recent tremors, but there was still a risk. Forced into the situation of giving a yes or no answer they opted for no as earthquake predictions of that nature are incredibly disruptive events for all involved. Unfortunately for them not 6 days later a magnitude 6.3 quake hit L’Aquila and over 300 people lost their lives.
When something devastating like this happens it’s human nature to look for someone to blame. The people of L’Aquila turned their sights on the scientists and politicians who had were involved in making the predictions and yesterday saw 7 of them convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 6 years jail, 2 more years than what the prosecution was asking for. The conviction is assuredly done in order to placate the larger public of L’Aquila who are still struggling to rebuild after the quake laid waste to their town and many of them are seeing this as some small form of justice for those who perished.
This could not be further from the truth.
The predictions they made (which were then announced by a government official with no seismological experience) were based around the models and data they had available at the time and all of them pointed to there being no increased risk of a large quake at that time. Whilst there’s an argument to be made that in the hours leading up to it models in use then would have predicted a massive increase in risk (on the other from 1 in 200,000 to 1 in 1000) that doesn’t change the fact that the prediction they made was sound. To turn around and prosecute them means that in future all scientists who are approached to make predictions of this nature will err on the side of caution and any mild risk will turn into an absolute or, more chillingly, they’ll simply refuse to make any prediction at all lest they face litigation.
The fact of the matter is that there are many factors that lead up to this disaster being as bad as it was and laying all the blame on the scientists who made a prediction based on good data and science shows that they were only looking for a scape goat. There are numerous other individuals who could be held as equally responsible for this such as the builders who built and maintained those houses (magnitude 6.0 proof buildings can be easily constructed, just ask Japan), the regulators who didn’t mandate certain construction standards and anyone else who could be tangentially involved. We won’t do that though because it sounds like madness yet throwing scientists in jail seems reasonable, something which I will never understand.
I am so sorry for the losses the people of L’Aquila have had to endure but blaming the scientists for this is not the right course of action. Instead they should focus on ensuring that the risk is fully mitigated rather than relying on predictions that can and will be wrong from time to time. From now on no scientist in their right mind will make any predictions unless they can be granted immunity from prosecution and when that doesn’t happen they’ll simply refuse. It is one of the most chilling effects modern science has experience in recent memory and I can only hope that the verdict is overturned.
Not just for the scientist’s sake, for the sake of science at large.