Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Sense and Scientific Culpability

It appears a major tremor has gone through the scientific community, especially in Italy, after a group of scientists were sentenced to six years in jail and a hefty fine after failing to warn of the risk of an earthquake.

Several scientists and officials have resigned in protest, saying it is now impossible for them to do their jobs if they are likely to be punished for being wrong in a highly inexact science like seismology.

While I have some sympathy for that view, it isn't that cut-and-dried. My view is that while the sentence is too harsh, the scientists were indeed to blame in this case.

The seven convicted were all members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks. The members of a body with such an unambiguous name surely understand that the public is relying on their expert opinion to make decisions that impact their lives.

The panel was explicitly convened at the request of the Civil Protection Agency in response to warnings of an impending earthquake. It should have been clear to the scientists that an opinion was being sought from them, and that this opinion would influence the decisions of many people.

The actual sequence of events seems very clear and damning:

  1. According to the minutes of the meeting, the scientists never said there was no danger of a big quake. Volcanologist Franco Barberi said, accurately: "There is no reason to believe that a swarm of minor events is a sure predictor of a major shock." So far, the scientists are in the clear.
  2. However, after the meeting, Bernardo De Bernardinis from the Civil Protection Agency walked out and addressed the press: "The scientific community tells me there is no danger because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favourable." Now this was not a true representation of what was actually said at the meeting by the scientists.
  3. At the trial and after, the scientists have said that the responsibility for the tragedy lies with De Bernardinis, who made the  "no danger" statement.
  4. But according to the prosecutor (and I agree with him), regardless of who made the statement, the scientists on the committee are culpable for failing to correct it promptly. They allowed an incorrect summary of their discussion to be passed to the public as their expert opinion and did not correct it with alacrity. This was highly negligent of them and they failed in their fiduciary duty to the public.
That's why I believe the ruling against the scientists is justified, although the sentence could perhaps be watered down a bit.

What now? Will this ruling have a chilling effect on science in general? 

Just imagine the world with scientists saying, 'no thank you, we're not available, we will not being doing anymore of our job'.

The Corriere della Sera daily said in a front page editorial:
The most worrying thing is that from now on, there will not be a single expert willing to join the commission because they know they could face very heavy criminal convictions for not having been able to predict a disastrous quake.

But this is not a conviction for failing to get the science right! It's a conviction for failing to get the message right. Those who have their knickers in a knot over this case probably haven't understood what exactly the scientists are being accused of.

And really now, how is this any different from a medical malpractice suit? Every time someone sues a doctor or a hospital for negligence, the medical community closes ranks. But they don't say that doctors will stop practising. They usually raise the bogey of higher medical care costs because of the rise in insurance premiums to cover public liability and professional indemnity. [Well, ooga-booga! We're not scared.]

It seems society is always held to ransom by powerful guilds. The moral of the story is that with every position of authority comes responsibility, and no one should be allowed to duck that.

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