The Italian job

The pressure to find a scapegoat

A judge with the statistical acumen of a gnat

Six rather bewildered scientists

A travesty of justice.

It’s too absurd to make a movie, yet its is very real to those scientists and their families. If you have not caught up with the news, six scientists and a government official have been given jails sentences of six years for multiple manslaughter.  Their crime appears to be that they gave falsely reassuring statements to the people of who had been experiencing multiple small quakes.  The were accused of giving ” ‘inexact, incomplete and contradictory’ information about the danger of the tremors” felt before the L’Aquilla earthquake on 6 April 2009.

Living in Christchurch we have desperately wanted earthquakes to be predictable – so desperate that we gave airtime to a man with deranged ideas about the influence of the moon.  We have managed to avoid blaming the scientists, yet.

The Italian scientists have been convicted not so much for “failure to predict” but because they said that a powerful earthquake was unlikely but could not be ruled out. This appears to have been too upbeat (in retrospect) for some. Apparently this meant some people stayed inside on the night of the quake.

The most powerful force in action here appears to be the need to blame.  This has been around since Adam blamed Eve, and we all know it from our childhood.  We also know it from politics where every few years politicians blame the economy on other politicians, bankers, businessmen, unions, or immigrants (take your pick). Scientists are just another target – they are no unique.  What is unique is the perception that when scientists speak out they are speaking the infallible truth.  Whilst most scientists will deny this, their “disclaimers” or words of caution are often given scant coverage by the media. If their words are inexact or incomplete then they are unlikely to be reported.  If they are contradictory – we only get a you said/she said type story with no coverage of the science. Yet we can not just blame the media, the reader of the media who believes that  science is all about proof has somehow missed the boat.  Maybe this is due to a failure of education, maybe the spectacular success of technology has blinded them to the inherent uncertainties in science, or maybe they have been duped by some scientists who have taken a very high horse approach making proclamations with an air of infallibility.  Whatever  the  reason, we are still children in the playground pointing the finger.  Be not surprised when it points at you.

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