Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Demonizing Science

If you pay attention to science news, you'll know about this.

If you don't, then you should.

Back in 2009, three hundred people were killed by a significant earthquake in the Italian town of L'Aquila. Sadly, these things happen. Earthquakes can do a lot of damage. I'm lucky...I've never been in a bad one. The largest I experienced was the 5 point something that wrecked half the repointing on the Washington Monument. (And a good part of the repointing on the building I live in). Disturbing and annoying, but only property damage.

Three hundred deaths is a lot. That's a mass casualty incident by the standards of everywhere but certain overcrowded third world countries. When these things happen, people investigate and they try to work out how to fix it. And sometimes they look for people to blame.

Which is exactly what happened in Italy. Six scientists and a government official have been jailed for six years for failing to predict the earthquake. It was, perhaps, unfortunate timing - they had just said a major quake there was unlikely.

But here is the thing.

We can't predict earthquakes. Not yet. It's hard enough to predict the weather, on which we have far more data. The best we can do is point to places where they are more common and places where they are less common. (There is no place on the planet that is immune to earthquakes. Even if you don't live in an 'earthquake zone', you can still get an earthquake, although they tend to be smaller...but also shallower and affecting a larger area). The most warning anyone has ever gotten of a quake based off of science was a matter of a few minutes.

So. Now we have a government throwing scientists in jail for...well...I liked the comment of the Christian Science Monitor on the matter...'not having a functioning crystal ball'. And they aren't in jail for fraud or lying - no, they have manslaughter convictions on their record for the rest of their lives.

I cannot imagine anything more chilling for young people considering going into science than the threat of jail time if they get something wrong that almost nobody has ever gotten right.

I don't know what right of appeal these men have, but I do know that anyone who believes in science should be speaking out for them. Was the earthquake a tragedy? Yes. But it was not a tragedy that was anyone's fault and I thought we gave up putting our sins on a goat and chasing it out of town many, many years ago.