Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Italian stupidity

The court case in Italy where scientists who failed to give adequate warning of the earthquake in 2009 have been sentenced to terms of imprisonment up to 6 years - for manslaughter because victims might have left the area had they been warned in time - is so disquieting I have to add my voice to those condemning it. The scientists had been working on earthquake prediction -seismology. They presented the known risks in terms of probability. The knee-jerk reaction to blame them makes the Italian courts utterly moronic, Consider:

* Had the scientists issued warnings, and no earthquake had occurred, would they have been sued for damages? Presumably yes, since they got it wrong
* Had they issued warnings and people had stayed put anyway, would they still be guilty of manslaughter? Presumably yes for not rounding people up in the streets and moving them away, or for not issuing enough or scary enough warnings.
*The Pope claims to be the mouthpiece of God. Is anyone suing him (or indeed, God) for murder?
*There have been repeated earthquakes over many hundreds of years in the region affected. But always the people return and rebuild. Are they going to sue themselves for being so stupid? Or prosecute the builders?

Science is always about probability. Earthquakes are notoriously hard to predict. The question is whether scientists get it right more often than a random toss of the coin. If they do, listen to them. If not, don't, But whether you listen or not, they are not the ones causing the ground to shake and are not responsible for people choosing to live there.

The result of this court case is that no reputable science can be done in Italy. At a stroke the courts have put Italy back to 1620, the era of the Inquisition and the Church burning anyone who defied the doctrine of the universe. What happens when there are warning rumbles in the unstable ground around Vesuvius? Who is going to dare to say anything based on the evidence if they will face trial should they get it wrong?

Italy should be suspended from the Council of Europe and the EU until it clarifies whether it is a modern European state or a medieval theocracy that burns witches.

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