Scientists – in Politics and Prison

A major earthquake struck on April 6, 2009. It killed three hundred people in the Italian city of L’Aquila. Hundreds more were injured and thousands were rendered homeless. More than three years later, on October 21, 2012 an Italian court found seven men guilty of this disaster. One of them was an Italian government official, the others were senior Italian scientists. They will spend six years in prison.

To summarize the story of the earthquake:

For a few months, numerous tremors alerted and frightened the L’Aquila residents. The residents were quite worried and experts from Italian Major Risks Committee were called in. Six senior Italian geophysicists had a meeting with a civil official. At the meeting, the scientists considered different scenarios. None of the scientists ruled out a possibility of earthquake. Some of experts considered the earthquake to be not very likely. One of them made a clearly erroneous statement – that small tremors may act positively by dissipating energy, thus reducing the probability of an earthquake. All of the experts specified that it was impossible to predict or completely rule out an earthquake. Later, the civil official presented the results to the public. He stated that an earthquake would not take place and he recommended that the residents stayed.

According to the prosecutor, the experts’ analysis was, “Incomplete, inept, unsuitable and criminally mistaken.” An Italian judge determined that the accused failed to adequately communicate the dangers of earthquake. They provided, “Inexact, incomplete and contradictory information” with respect to the quake warning.

To the best of my knowledge, the accusation, the prosecution, the trial and the consequent indictment were unique in the history of modern Western world. I am a scientist myself, so I have a personal stake in this incident. I have no desire to end up in a prison for my insufficient scientific qualifications or for my lack of communication skills.

Italian judiciary accused the scientists of two crimes.

They failed to predict an earthquake.

They failed to communicate to the public directly and clearly.

Yet, it is known that nobody can predict earthquakes with full certainty. The scientists are not civil officials or government members. It is not their responsibility to communicate to the public or to make executive decisions.

Natural disasters strike every year. Sometimes scientists predict them successfully and the authorities handle the crisis well. Sometimes, scientists fail. Sometimes, the scientists do their job well, but the authorities fail. A tsunami or a hurricane occasionally destroys a political career or two. But, so far, to the best of my knowledge, no politician has been criminally prosecuted for ignoring a scientific forecast. And, more importantly, no scientist has ever been prosecuted for being inarticulate or for failing to be omniscient.

The rules of the game were that the scientists kept away from politics and that people didn’t blame scientists for wrong executive decisions.

I believe, it would be fair to say that the scientific community and the public signed an unofficial compact over the last half century. On one hand, the public viewed the scientists with a certain suspicion – they were a strange bunch of over educated eggheads who wore glasses and used long confusing words.

On the other hand, the public reluctantly trusted the scientists because the latter were generally competent, honest, bipartisan and non-prejudiced. The scientists were supposed to conduct the research as carefully as they could and truthfully inform the public of causes, effects and consequences. They analyzed, predicted and advised, but they didn’t make political decisions. The public was not qualified enough to test or fully follow the scientists’ research. However, the public could generally trust the scientists’ qualifications and dispassion.

The compact worked reasonably well for many years.

However, over the last 10-20 years, environmental science changed the rules of the game. Environmental science studies interaction between human society and the environment. It soon became closely tied to the environmental movement. A moral cause of protecting the planet from the destructive human activity blended with the necessity of political action. The scientists sought publicity to promote their views. They actively participated in public and political activities. In their desire to avert an environmental disaster, they sometimes sacrificed caution and scientific precision. They insistently came out with strong predictions of approaching crisis. They are no longer stayed behind the ivory walls of their towers.

They are no longer protected by a compact.

The media energetically picked the cause of an impending Apocalypse generated by humans. They exaggerated scientific data and shed all the scientific uncertainty in the search of an ultimate sensation. The scientists didn’t attempt to dissuade the media or the public. The corresponding UN and EU bodies energetically picked up this cause as a perfect global reason to expand. Following Parkinson’s laws, they grew, obtained more funding and regulatory powers, signed protocols, and created organizations. The scientists actively participated.

Thus, environmental scientists acquired more opportunities, power and funding. In the process, they lost their dispassionate observer status. In the eyes of the public, the scientists now share the responsibility with the decision makers. Since the public doesn’t distinguish among different varieties of scientists, all of them are guilty if a disaster strikes.

Politicians had centuries to hone their skills of passing the buck and avoiding responsibility. Scientists will shoulder all the blame and we will be left out in the open for the public to pick us apart.

Boris Itin, Ph.D.

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