Jealous of the authority of the Vatican, today’s “scientists”* usurped the Pope-like vestments of infallibility and do not want to let go of them. They fail to see the obvious problems arising out of setting oneself upon a pedestal – firstly you are more visible and secondly you fall a greater distance to the ground when inevitably you go down. The current court case** in Italy, where six scientists and one bureaucrat are charged with manslaughter (or “negligent death” in Italian criminal law) connected with the earthquake in L’Aquila. Three-hundred and nine people allegedly died because the accused negligently reassured the local population.
Writing about court proceedings is always fraught with dangers. Firstly, the information filtering to the public via journalists is invariably incomplete. Secondly, it is mostly wrong – journalists hear half of the case and write about the other half. Thirdly, it is adjusted to fit the required, predominantly Left, bias. Thus the subsequent, a third or fourth-hand writer, even if unbiased, might compound the errors. The politico-scientifically correct article Seismologists on trial over Italy quake in Scientific American of 20th September, 2011 is a good example. A letter was signed by approx. 5,000 scientists in support of L’Aquila Seven, or maybe just six, because, after all, the seventh accused is not a scientist, just a civil servant, and scientists are unlikely to waste their time or signatures on those. If the article was to be believed, one could be tempted to write that world seismologists are up in arms because of the L’Aquila trial. However, some serious scientists refused to sign, giving weighty reasons. Only the publicity seekers came on TV to express their horror of the trial, barely short of comparing themselves to Giordano Bruno. I doubt the “scientists can do no wrong” cabal spent a moment of thought over the intricacies of the case. If they did, their signatures do little to enhance their intellectual credit. Some of them, of course, may think, “there, but for the grace of Al Gore, go I”.
The town of L’Aquila is situated in the seismologically active region of Italy. It was destroyed by earthquakes in 1461, in 1703 and lastly in April 2009. Low magnitude tremors were hitting the town since October 2008 and continued into the next year – numbering 69 in January, 78 in February, 100 in March and 57 before the 5th April. The scientific consensus is that such seismic swarms precede a major earthquake infrequently, only in 2% of cases. The public relations situation was complicated by a citizen Giampaolo Giuliani who had placed four radon*** detectors in the area and started issuing predictions on his website. It had been suggested that emissions of radon gas increase significantly before the earthquake, but so far that has not been confirmed by any peer reviewed science. Signor Giuliani had worked for forty years as a laboratory technician and, unfortunately for the residents of L’Aquila, he is not an academic. The (not necessarily reliable) Guardian called him “The Man Who Predicted An Earthquake.”
On 31st March the Department of Civil Protection convened a meeting of the “Risk” commission in L’Aquila. What else? When in doubt, create a commission and spread the responsibility. Now things got interesting. Christian Del Pinto, a seismologist, was present and later described the proceedings as a “grotesque pantomime”. Enzo Boschi, one of the defendants and at the time President of National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology said, “the point of the meeting was to calm the population. We scientists didn’t understand that until later on”. Earlier he said, “actions to be undertaken were not even minimally discussed”. The meetings of the commission are normally closed, but this time local government officials attended. Not surprisingly, there was a press briefing afterwards. The populace was reassured by modern science, ignored the “superstition” of ancestors and stayed at their homes. When the 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit at 3 a.m. on the 6th April, in addition to the above mentioned 309 dead, 1,500 people were injured and 65,000 made homeless.
The accused scientists were paid to warn and instead they soothed the population. Not a single one of them had the integrity to say “I do not agree” or at least “It is not that simple.” It is not, as The Scientific American falsely claims in the subheading – Italian seismologists accused of manslaughter go on trial in L’Aquila for failing to warn of a fatal earthquake in 2009. Failing? It was a deliberate, dishonest denial of the doubt. The depths that magazine has slid to!
I am not sure how exactly is “negligent death” defined in the Italian law, but could similar prosecution happen here in Australia? Theoretically, yes. For example, the Queensland Criminal Code in the old section 290 says:
When a person undertakes to do any act the omission to do which is or may be dangerous to human life or health, it is his duty to do that act: and he is held to have caused any consequences which result to the life or health of any person by reason of any omission to perform that duty.
That was improved, if that is the right word, by s.91 to:
If a person undertakes to do an act and the omission to do the act is or may be dangerous to anyone’s life, health or safety, the person must do the act.
It would seem that the Italian “Risk” commissioners had undertaken such duty, and failed miserably and dramatically. For the purposes of the prosecution the fact they were paid to perform such a duty would not be relevant. On the basis of the facts as reported, I believe that under Queensland law a prosecution could succeed. It is perhaps needless to add that any keen, fresh out of the school Public Prosecutor would find additional useful sections in the Criminal Code.
There exists significant and tragic misunderstanding about what science does and what it can do. If it was just the problem of uneducated public and even less educated journalists, bad as it would be, it would be understandable. Unfortunately, the band-wagon “scientists” took over the public discourse and the real scientists are too pusillanimous to object. The court case in Italy is not an attack on science. If anything, it is an attack on bad science. How can science be bad? When it is dishonest, then it is not science, it is charlatanism. But even this is not accurate enough. Perhaps it could be described as an attack on scientific dishonesty. However, in simplest terms it is a case relating to the responsibility of one human being to another.
Sometime ago a friend of mine, an expert in his field was approached by a certain television channel and asked to say something about a matter then of public interest. When my friend realised that he was expected to add the weight of his expertise to the producer’s pre-set opinion, he refused. Simply, he was not sure that the matter was so black or white as contemporary colourful television journalism requires. Needles to say, that night a less ethical or perhaps more pragmatic colleague of his appeared on TV news, duly mouthing what was required. Subsequently his practice boomed; rather lucrative 2 minutes of hypocrisy, one may say. He said later to my friend that he suppressed his doubts just to please a young female TV person.
Is it so hard to say: I do not know? Or to insist on disclaimers? Naturally, egos get in the way. The experts, ever keen to preen in front of TV cameras, start believing that what they may have originally said under pressure has became gospel since it was on TV. As they convince themselves, they became more convincing, almost sincere, and therefore are increasingly called upon to say what is required, thus becoming more “expert”. I am not in favour of legal proceedings generally, and in particular I would be opposed to those involving scientists for something relevant to their science, either as accused in criminal cases or defendants in civil ones. The hypocritical, publicity seeking “scientists” are a somewhat different matter. Selling shares in a non-existent gold mine is indubitably culpable and so should be spreading fears about the imminent Anthropogenic Global Warming induced inundation in order to buy waterside property at a lower price. (Such dishonesty is not limited to “scientists”. The “global warming and raising seas” spruiking politicians do the same.) Telling convenient lies to advance their careers and to otherwise materially benefit may be in a slightly different category legally, but not morally.
The climate change charlatans stirred up the mob passions, and sure as eggs, the global warming idea will misfire and freeze them. But the prudence and intellectual modesty were never their strong suits. Unfortunately, and perhaps intentionally, they will take the real scientists with them. They will bring science into disrepute and keep it there for a long time. Other charlatans, most likely the religious ones, will profit. Most of the then ex-AWG prophets will quickly join them. One religion will replace the other.
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*/ The readers would be aware by now that I make distinction between scientists such as Newton, Bohr or Einstein; and “scientists” such as Lysenko, Koroly or Flannery.
**/ The trial is expected to last a long time. Conroy**** allowing, I’ll comment in the future.
***/ Rn 86, a decay product of uranium and thorium; radioactive, colourless, odourless gas.
****/ For non-Australian readers: Stephen Conroy is the Minister for Censorship in the temporary Australian Labor Party government.