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Friday 9 November 2012 Letters
The case of the Italian earthquake scientists
An injustice science brought upon itself?

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Letters responding to: A disaster that science brought upon itself, by Brendan O’Neill

Being a professional scientist (biophysicist) myself, I’ve been thinking about the possible unintended consequences of environmentalism’s tendency to blend science, morality and sensationalism.

Would it be fair to say that the scientific community and the public made a loose, unofficial compact over the last half century? On one hand, the public views the scientists with a certain suspicion – they are a strange bunch of over-educated eggheads who wear glasses and use long, confusing words. On the other hand, the public reluctantly trusts the scientists because they are generally competent, honest, bipartisan and non-prejudiced. The scientists are supposed to conduct the research as carefully as they can and truthfully inform the public of causes, effects and consequences. They analyse, predict and advise but they don’t make political decisions. The public is not qualified enough to test or fully follow the scientists’ research. However, the public can generally trust the scientists’ qualifications and sincerity.

However, this compact may be threatened by the recent developments in environmentalism. The science blends with morality; the scientists sacrifice precision and caution for making strong sensationalist forecasts. The scientific community tries to dabble more in politics. Thus the scientific community exposes itself to possible negative consequences that, unlike the politicians and the media, the scientists are not trained to deal with.

If the global climate change proves less dramatic than it is currently rumoured to be, it will be an incredible blow to the credibility of the scientific community in the eyes of the public. The politicians and the media will figure out how to shift all the blame on the science and we will be left out in the open for the public to pick us apart.

Boris Itin, USA

O’Neill’s article is based on a misrepresentation. The experts have not been convicted because they did not foresee the earthquake, but because, on the contrary, they had assured people that there would be no earthquake.

Also, the scientists in question have been convicted, but they have not been arrested or jailed.

Leonardo Terzo, Italy

So, O’Neill is saying that because scientists cannot predict individual weather events, science also cannot explain global climate.

That’s like saying that because we can’t predict the outcome of a particular game of billiards, we should discard Newtonian mechanics.

Mike Wasson, USA

I don’t think the case was as simple as O’Neill portrays it.

According to the evidence, residents of L’Aquila were worried about recent seismic activity in the area. They sought the expertise of seismologists. The seismologists in question downplayed the concern of the citizenry by saying, in their opinion, an earthquake was ‘unlikely’. In fairness, they never said it was impossible.

A week later, the city was hit by a deadly 6.3 quake, killing 300 people.

I disagree with the verdict, but I also think the issue is far more nuanced than ‘scientists jailed for failing to predict earthquake’.

Paul Mimiaga, USA

The Italian scientists in question made the unfortunate mistake of making what could conceivably be considered a recommendation to remain in the town, with phrases such as ‘no danger’ and normal geological phenomenon’. While I’m not condoning for a second the bizarre witch-hunt (I myself am a geologist), there is a solution: present the science to the public and let them make their own interpretation. This method is used in New Zealand by GNS Science.

It seems inconceivable that there could be a prosecution of any individual in New Zealand even if there was a magnitude 8.0 quake in Christchurch tomorrow, yet the essential information (probabilities) are there for anyone who wants them.

Some climate-science entities also take this approach; ie, provide a probability of a particular sea-level rise at a particular time in the future for a certain temperature-rise range.

The lessson of l’Aquila may be to avoid the dumbing down of sophisticated science for public consumption, and certainly avoid the making of recommendations when lives are at stake.

Sean McGrath, New Zealand

Jacob Bronowski, spoke clearly to this point in the chapter ‘Knowledge or Certainty’, in his TV documentary and book The Ascent of Man. He points out that it is both futile and mad to use a science designed to give access to knowledge in the pursuit of certainty. If you have seen the documentary then you have watched his completely unrehearsed walk into that pool at Auschwitz while gently telling the audience that to end the ‘push button’ relationship between knowledge and war that we must touch people. With that he stoops and pulls out a hand full of muck and water, certainly containing traces of his ancestors who were flushed from the Auschwitz crematoria into that same pool. In the same chapter he attributes to Leo Szilard, that such a problem is ‘not the tragedy of science but rather the tragedy of mankind’.

David Fitzpatrick, USA

O’Neill is wrong to say that scientists as a group are guilty of supporting the global -warming scare.

Of the 60 per cent of the world’s scientists who are not paid by government, not a single one has been identified as supporting the catastrophe theory. Easily the largest single expression of an individual scientist’s opinion is the Iregon Petition signed by 31,000, saying a CO2 rise is actually a good thing.

What we see is government giving money and publicity to a very small number of people, none of whom have any independent scientific reputation, but who are willing to endorse the government’s desire for some scare story to keep us obedient.

In the Italian case too, it seems that the only verifiable failure was not that the convicted scientists made a false statement but that their political boss did. Thus the disaster is caused not by scientists claiming authority but by politicians claiming scientific authority and having the media control to make it stick.

Neil Craig, UK



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