Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Should scientists be jailed for making bad predictions?

Six scientists and a government official in Italy have been convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison for "failing to accurately communicate the risk" of an earthquake in L'Aquila that killed over 300 people in 2009.

This is a ridiculous and fundamentally ignorant misunderstanding of science on the part of the Italian court (and it wouldn't be the first time Italian courts have gotten science wrong). When earthquakes will or will not occur cannot be predicted with any kind of accuracy.
"To predict a large quake on the basis of a relatively commonplace sequence of small earthquakes and to advise the local population to flee" would constitute "both bad science and bad public policy," said David Oglesby, an associate professor in the Earth sciences faculty of the University of California, Riverside.

"If scientists can be held personally and legally responsible for situations where predictions don't pan out, then it will be very hard to find scientists to stick their necks out in the future," Oglesby said in a statement.
Indeed, jailing seismologists for failing to predict an earthquake is like jailing meteorologists for failing to predict when and where a tornado is going to hit, to which the Chronicle's Eric Berger asks:
What’s next, throwing hurricane scientists into the pokey for bad track forecasts? Putting Tim Heller in the slammer for having incorrect temperatures in the five-day forecast?
To be sure, I occasionally refer to meteorologists as "weather-guessers," but that's essentially what they do: weather is about probabilities and can rarely be predicted with absolute certainty. And, while I remain disdainful of the way the local news media handled the approach of Hurricane Rita in 2005 (causing widespread panic and a grueling, chaotic evacuation in which a great deal of needless suffering and death occurred), I really can't fault the local meteorologists themselves: they saw a massive storm coming, they were concerned about it, and they warned us accordingly. It would be utterly stupid to prosecute them simply because the storm didn't hit where they thought it was going to hit three days out. That's just not how meteorology works.

That's not how seismology works, either. Too bad a court in Italy doesn't understand that, nor the dangerous precedent their verdict represents.
"I can understand the grief of people who lost loved ones and the frustration that people feel when terrible events happen, especially ones outside their control," Oglesby said. "Convicting honest scientists of manslaughter does nothing to help this situation and may well put a chill on exactly the kind of science that could save lives in the future."

So far, at least two leading Italian scientists have resigned their posts with the government's disaster preparedness agency in protest of this conviction, which is under appeal.

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