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Oct 23, 2012

The Witch-Hunt of Geophysicists: Society returns to the Dark Ages

Posted by in categories: education, ethics, events, geopolitics, information science, physics

I cannot let the day pass without contributing a comment on the incredible ruling of multiple manslaughter on six top Italian geophysicists for not predicting an earthquake that left 309 people dead in 2009. When those who are entrusted with safeguarding humanity (be it on a local level in this case) are subjected to persecution when they fail to do so, despite acting in the best of their abilities in an inaccurate science, we have surely returned to the dark ages where those who practice science are demonized by the those who misunderstand it.

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/europe/2012/10/20121022151851442575.html

I hope I do not misrepresent other members of staff here at The Lifeboat Foundation, in speaking on behalf of the Foundation in wishing these scientists a successful appeal against a court ruling which has shocked the scientific community, and I stand behind the 5,000 members of the scientific community who sent an open letter to Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano denouncing the trial. This court ruling was ape-mentality at its worst.

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Comments — comments are now closed.

  • Reno J. Tibke on October 23, 2012 7:11 am

    Hello Tom,
    Thanks for sharing this here. I can say that I share your sentiment both personally and publicly as a fellow contributor. I’m going to pass the story around and try to raise a bit of awareness. Thanks again for bringing it up.
    –Reno.

  • Matt Taylor on October 23, 2012 7:55 am

    As someone who has been designing and building buildings for over 56 years, and therefore can see what maybe is not clear to others with a different background, I want to point out the obvious (once pointed out).

    This was a 6.4 (=/-) wake. Not trivial to be be sure yet not a killer quake by today’s standards of in industrialized society. I have personally been in quakes of this magnitude in a large city (san Francisco in the 50s).

    Looking, on TV, at the collapse of what was clearly a reinforced concrete structure, that was far from ancient (and even if old, could could/should have been retrofitted), I am wondering if people did not focus on the wrong professionals. Structural engineering is not perfect, and still learning about and changing seismic standards and procedures, yet it is far more reliable and has a far simpler task than prediction. I have build in Italy and I can attest that there are excellent engineers and builders there as well as diligent regulatory agencies.

    It is also true, everywhere I have been involved with projects, that there is a tendency to give existing buildings a great deal of slack even beyond what is permissible by law and accepted practices. There are places in the SF Bay Area where an 8.4 quake has been long expected to cause damage (like major bridges and levees), yet, it had taken more than 20 years to launch an appropriate response. A leisurely pace considering the predicted result.

    I wonder two things. One, if the other side of this issue was considered. Did those responsible make sure the building were up to standard? And, has this been a smoke screen all along to deflect accountability from where it belongs?

  • David Brin on October 23, 2012 10:22 am

    Horrific. But I expected something like this Berlusconi is Italy’s equivalent to Rupert Murdoch and his media have been following Fox-like anti-science riffs for years. This is just a taste of the witch hunts we will face, if this cynically-manipulated War on Science continues. In America, scientists have voted with their feet.

  • Tihamer Toth-Fejel on October 23, 2012 7:26 pm

    Like many other Lifeboat Foundation members, I am shocked that any first-world country could allow such a ridiculous ruling stand.
    On the other hand, courtrooms often have little to do with either reality or justice, so perhaps we should not be surprised. We should also not be surprised that people have ignorantly given science more power than it deserves, and that is the real reason this court was so illogically angry–they had put their faith in science (without understanding it), and when science failed them, they felt betrayed. Perhaps there is an important lesson here for us scientists and engineers.

  • RichardKanePA on October 24, 2012 8:33 am

    Before the Katrina Hurricane, most people were so bored with the frequent warnings of dire danger from the weather bureau, that few fled Louisiana. Doctors in the US schedule endless tests so as not to be sued for a mistake. One suggested solution to huge earthquakes, is injecting lubricants in the ground the way fracking can induce small earthquakes. But geologists fear jail time and their institutions bankrupting lawsuits if they instead trigger a huge quake. Thus the real chance that the Japanese disaster could have been averted wasn’t tried as the world faces the plausibility of total fanatical collapse instead of a yen that before the earthquake was collapse proof. What is the possibility of endless volcano warnings as geologists make sure they won’t be arrested for a mistake?

  • PassingByAgain on October 25, 2012 2:43 pm

    Don’t be silly, they have NOT been found guilty “of not predicting an earthquake”. Read this exhaustive account of the whole story from Nature, instead of Al-Jazeera:

    http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110914/full/477264a.html

  • Tom Kerwick on October 26, 2012 2:06 am

    TrollingByAgain — Yes of course it is not as simple as that. However a manslaughter charge is OTT for scientists performing their duties to the best of their abilities. At most their contracts should have been terminated — and that a choice for their employers, not courts.