Criminal predictions

Criminal predictions

Column and photo by Hudson Lofchie

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If we could predict the future, what would the world be like? There would be millions of lottery winners every day. There would be no freak accidents. The stock market would be zero risk. There would be no deaths by natural disasters. But we cannot predict the future; no matter how accurate our formulas, algorithms, hypotheses and predictions are, they are still just educated guesses. We don’t criminalize stock brokers for failing to predict a market crash. We don’t criminalize the car companies when someone gets in an accident, and we don’t criminalize gas station stores when we don’t win the lottery.

Back in 2009, Italy was struck by a massive earthquake that resulted in 308 deaths and about 1,500 severe injuries. Leading up to the quake, Italy’s top geological scientists registered increased seismic activity, but made the assessment that an earthquake was not imminent.  Specifically, they said that a quake was “unlikely but not impossible.”

Now, three years later, seven of the scientists involved in the quake prediction have been convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison. Let’s cover that again: Italian scientists have been sent to prison for failing to predict the future.

Seismologists and scientists from all other fields of study around the world have voiced complete outrage at the Italian government’s actions. By criminalizing the failure of scientists to predict the future, this ruling has set a dangerous precedent that will significantly hinder scientific research in the future.  If scientists are afraid that making a mistake will land them in prison with a manslaughter charge, they will be too afraid to pursue any sort of meaningful research.

In response to the Italian government’s ludicrous actions, many of the government’s top scientists have resigned their positions in protest.  Among those who have left their posts is world-famous physicist Luciano Maiami, former head of CERN and the (now former) head of Italy’s top disaster committee, the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks. All seven of the convicted scientists were part of this committee. Now, not only has Italy ostracized a large group of experts that could have helped prepare for future events, but it has created an environment completely unconducive to proper scientific work.

“If scientists can be held personally and legally responsible for situations where predictions don’t pan out, then it will be very hard to find scientists to stick their necks out in the future,” said David Oglesby, an associate professor at the earth sciences faculty of the University of California, Riverside in a press statement.

Luckily, no other government in the world has ever sought to punish scientists for failing to predict the future, and hopefully no government ever will.  However, there is an issue at hand that is even larger than this isolated incident.  Such governmental actions are indicative of an endemic condition of governmental scientific illiteracy.  Here we have scientists, using every tool available to them, working in the best interest of millions of people, and they are now being punished by the state they worked so hard to help.

As Maiami said, “In no uncertain terms, this is the end of scientists giving consultations to the state.”
I wrote a column last week on the problems with scientific illiteracy in our own government. It is a well-known fact among seismologists that earthquakes remain nearly impossible to predict with any kind of accuracy, and a national government, especially national court systems, should be well aware that scientific fact should hold more weight than emotional testimony.

While it is unconscionable to try and downplay the heartbreak and despair of losing loved ones, convicting honest, well-intentioned scientists of manslaughter does nothing to help the situation at all.  Not only does it not bring  back loved ones who were lost in the quake, but it will make scientists think twice before sharing information that could potentially save many, many lives in the future.

It is my opinion — one that is shared by arguably every scientist — that governments and courts need to familiarize themselves with how scientific research and predictions actually work. It is exactly this uninformed behavior that has relegated Italy to an embarrassingly low ranking on the Index of Economic Freedom, subpar public infrastructure, astronomically high national deficit and little to no government-funded research.

Let’s take advice from Italy on how to make lasagna, not on how to deal with earthquakes.

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