Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Science on Trial

"'Science doesn't know everything' - well science knows it doesn't know everything. Otherwise it'd stop." - Dara O'Briain.

I've been drawn to this article on the Italian scientists who have been found guilty of manslaughter for giving misleading advice prior to the L'Aquila earthquake.

Six years in pokey, plus costs. That seems a bit steep for getting your scientific predictions wrong, unless there is any evidence that the scientists were deliberately wrong in their predictions. One would presume they were giving the best advice they could, based on the evidence. It's what the vast majority of scientists do, after all.

Obviously, this all depends upon the precise details of the judgement (which I've not seen, clearly) and a knowledge of Italian law. Don't have that either. But it strikes me that any young Italian considering a career in the sciences should steer well clear of seismology - and probably meteorology, to be on the safe side. And to any who already have those careers, my advice would be this. Whatever the situation - completely safe as far as you can tell, to hideously unstable with seismic plates sliding all over the place - just go on TV screaming "run for your lives." If you're wrong, people will laugh at you. Well so what? But if you're right, you won't have to go on trial later. This trial verdict may make some grieving relatives feel avenged. But it isn't going to make the people of Italy's volcano and earthquake zones any safer. It's just going to stop people making forecasts.

Let's face it, in this country if we were going to start banging people up whenever they made bad scientific predictions, the Met Office would be constantly ringed with coppers awaiting the next long-range forecast. And there would be people who'd only just be getting out after 25 years.....


  1. I would respond to this but I'm worried that my expert opinion might get me in trouble if it later turns out I'm wrong.

    (you're completely right of course)

  2. I wonder what the legal remedy is for false (or even inaccurate or slightly misleading) prophecy?


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