Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Scientific illiteracy strikes again

Here in the US, we're used to politicians defying logic and pushing policies premised on an outrageous degree of scientific illiteracy, despite the US public's faith that we are the most scientifically "advanced" nation. After all, the US government has the ability to kill at a distance of thousands of miles effortlessly and to read the email and listen to the conversations of anyone, at will. And its citizens have nifty gadgets like smart phones that make them feel like they're "living in the future." (We leave it to less "developed" country to have the fastest, widest internet access and decent healthcare and housing for our citizens-- but then there's nothing about accessible healthcare in the capitalist vision of what the future should be.)

But it seems that in the scientific illiteracy sweepstakes, the politicians of other "developed" nations are giving US politicians a run for their money. A prosecutor and judge in L'Aquila (Italy) present the latest frightening (almost unbelievable) example. Perhaps you remember the earthquake in L'Aquila in 2009, which resulted in more than 300 deaths? Well get this: a jury in L'Aquila, presented with charges against seven of Italy's leading seismologists, moved to convict them of manslaughter for failure to predict the earthquake. Which is to say: one set of politicians-- a prosecutor and all the many tentacles of the apparatus that prosecutors possess, which, as in the United States, is a highly political office, many of whose decisions are highly politically determined, saw fit to dream up such charges in the first place, and a judge, who in both Italy and the US are often politically connected, chose to allow the charges to be brought in the first place and at no time saw no reason to dismiss the case as absurd and inappropriate.

Can you guess what the sentence was?
The defendants, all prominent scientists or geological and disaster experts, were sentenced to six years in prison.
Earthquake experts worldwide decried the trial as ridiculous, contending there was no way of knowing that a flurry of tremors would lead to a deadly quake. "It's a sad day for science," said seismologist Susan Hough, of the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena, Calif. "It's unsettling." That fellow seismic experts in Italy were singled out in the case "hits you in the gut," she said.
In Italy, convictions aren't definitive until after at least one appeal, so it was unlikely any of the defendants would face jail immediately.
The $64 question is whether the conviction will be tossed out by an appeal. Presumably, that will depend on the the political context-- not scientific competence. But I'm sorry to say, even if the scientists' conviction is overturned, we will no doubt hear a loud public chorus of indignation, since the prosecutors and judge have done their damnedest to implant the idea in people's minds that scientists can predict major earthquakes and that the guilty have once again gone free.

Prosecutors reportedly argued "that the L'Aquila disaster was tantamount to "monumental negligence," and cited the devastation wrought in 2005 when levees failed to protect New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina." I've heard from university level math faculty that since they no longer teach plane geometry in high schools these days, many students in their class don't understand basic logic. Could that be the problem in L'Aquila, too, do you think? Apparently the decision to convict is pretty popular in some quarters:
Relatives of some who perished in the 2009 quake said justice had been done. Ilaria Carosi, sister of one of the victims, told Italian state TV that public officials must be held responsible "for taking their job lightly."
The world's largest multidisciplinary science society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, condemned the charges, verdict and sentencing as a complete misunderstanding about the science behind earthquake probabilities. There are swarms of seismic activity regularly in Italy and most do not end up causing dangerous earthquakes, said geologist Brooks Hanson, deputy editor of the organization's Science magazine. He said that if seismologists had to warn of a quake with every series of tremors, there would be too many false alarms and panic. "With earthquakes we just don't know," Hanson said Monday. "We just don't know how a swarm will proceed."
Quake scientist Maria Beatrice Magnani, who followed the trial closely and knows the defendants professionally, called the outcome "pretty shocking." She disagreed with putting scientists on trial, and contended that the death toll would have been lower had buildings in the quake-prone area been better reinforced.
The verdict left Magnani and others in the field wondering about the way they articulate their work. "We need to be extremely careful about what we say, and the information we provide has to be precise. We cannot allow ourselves to slip," said Magnani, an associate research professor at the University of Memphis.
It's interesting (if predictable) to note what escaped consideration in the court case:
Many scientists and commentators have noted that the court case failed to address a major cause of fatalities in disasters like quakes and mudslides: erecting homes, schools, hospitals and other public buildings on quake-prone terrain without the proper construction techniques or materials to make the structures more resilient.
After the April 2009 quake, which left 308 people dead, many experts said that the 6.3-magnitude temblor wouldn't have caused such extensive damage if buildings been constructed or retrofitted to meet modern quake zone construction standards.
Naturally, the prosecutors deliberately excluded anything that would allow the jury to understand the damage with a reasonable degree of complexity. In effect, the politicians needed a scapegoat to appease the people who suffered such devastating losses. Rather than examining the real culprits-- the developers and construction contractors and the politicians who failed to enforce reasonable standards-- they went after scientists for failing to predict what could not be predicted, thus exploiting widespread scientific ignorance. There is nothing about this that is not political.

1 comment:

Vandana Singh said...

This is appalling, Timmi. The dark ages strike again.