You know how the world is constantly hedging on the issue of global warming, calling for more discussion and encouraging dissenting scientific opinions even in the midst of potentially damning consequences? You know how climate change deniers accuse those who accept dominant science of trying to incite panic? Well, maybe now mainstream scientists will be able to look forward to being blamed for fear-mongering about things that haven’t happened yet, while also being blamed for their failure to prevent things that have.
I can see it now. For as the climate remains vaguely manageable, vituperative voices in public policy debates will charge scientists with being hysterical and acting as shills for Al Gore, solar cell manufacturers, and the bamboo industry. Then, when coastal flooding has become permanent and drought has crippled American agriculture, they’ll round up the scientists and ask them, “Why didn’t you prevent this? Why didn’t you make us stop burning fossil fuels? Why didn’t you tell us that we could have made bamboo into clothing and let the crop clear the air?” The world’s scientists will say, “We did our jobs. You didn’t do yours.” And then they’ll be jailed.
And if all this happens, we’ll know that the social attitude running through it began in 2012 with the trend-setting legal activity of the nation of Italy.
Seriously, Italy, what the hell? What possessed your judiciary to think that it was appropriate to charge and convict scientists with manslaughter for not accurately predicting an earthquake? Were your officials appointed out of a time warp from the thirteenth century, or are you somehow under the impression that we’re living in a science fiction future? Do you not understand the difference between “scientist” and wizard? Or do you think that the world’s methods of scientific measurement have actually advanced so far in recent years that we’re now able to reliably and accurately predict the future?
Or is it just that your grief-stricken people are desperate for a scapegoat, and you decided it would be easier and more parsimonious to deliver one to them, rather than simply providing order and helping them rebuild their lives?
I guess I should thank you, Italy. This really helped to soften the blow that came of reading that a candidate for the US Senate publicly claimed that abortion is wrong in cases of rape because such pregnancies are God’s will. The ignorant and anti-scientific discourse pervading America can be pretty depressing, but at least we don’t charge our scholars with the crime of failing to turn science into magic.
Italy, you could really learn a thing or two from comments like that of Richard Mourdock, valiant defender of the progeny of rape. When terrible things happen that you can’t explain and can’t be bothered to think too much about, and you need something to blame for them, just tell everyone that God did it. There’s really no need to sentence innocent men to prison for six years because they did their jobs to the best of their ability and you were then somehow shocked by the fact that bad things continued to happen to good people.
If the convictions of these six scientists and one former government official aren’t overturned on appeal quickly and categorically, then this case sets a precedent for criminalization of science that I never in my life thought I would witness. Ideas and social trends have a way of spreading and gathering momentum. That’s why I write at this and other blogs – to do my part to see that the positive trends are recognized and the awful ones interrupted. If Italian society doesn’t overwhelmingly acknowledge the folly of these convictions, it’s far too easy to imagine a modern-day dark age for scientific inquiry.
Two scientists have already resigned from prominent government posts in Italy, and rightly so. If criminal consequences loom for drawing the wrong conclusions, there really isn’t much reason to do science at all. It wouldn’t be worth the risk, seeing as the possibility of being wrong is actually essential to scientific inquiry. The recognition of doubt and incomplete understanding is what makes science science.
Did you never pick up on that, Italy? You’ve had longer than the rest of the Western world, since the Renaissance started with you. Even if the most basic facts about science missed escaped your attention, how did you miss the part in the convicted scientists report where they said that they could be wrong, that it was unlikely, but not impossible that there would be a major L’Aquila earthquake?
Let’s be really clear about this. If anything is going to prevent future devastation from natural disasters of any kind, it’s science. In fact, it’s precisely because of respect for science – a respect for science that hadn’t been so boldly challenged before this – that things like earthquakes frequently cause so much less devastation than they had decades or centuries ago. Jailing scientists for being wrong is like arresting a fire fighter because he pulled your three children out of the burning building but couldn’t get to your dog before the roof collapsed.
If you can’t compensate for your grief just enough to be grateful for what was successfully saved, then pull your own kids out of the fire. Oh, what’s that? You can’t because you don’t have the training or equipment to navigate a burning building? Then just try not to malign and alienate the people who are here to help you unless you’ve got damn good evidence that they didn’t do everything in their power to carry out their duties. Isn’t this common sense?
What the hell, Italy?