From time to time the fields of science and politics find themselves overlapping, or even at odds. The most obvious example is the question of man made global warming. Big government loving statists seem to believe global warming is happening, it is being caused my human activity, and the government can solve the problem by imposing rules, regulations, and taxes. Global warming skeptics believe that the earth’s climate has changed in the past and will change in the future. The reasons why are unclear.
In the news yesterday was a shocking story of a new clash between science and politics. Six Italian scientists and an ex-government official were sentenced to jail for failing to give an adequate warning of a potential earthquake in the town of L’Aquila in 2009. They were convicted of manslaughter. The government argued the scientists were not expected to predict the earthquake, just issue a warning that such an event was possible. The geophysicists said such predictions were nearly impossible given the current state of the science of seismology.
The government successfully argued that a series of small tremors, or swarms, in the days leading to the large quake should have been ample warning of the future disaster.
The trial was held in L’Aquila in a temporary courtroom that had been built on the site of a building that was flattened by the quake. Several local residents were in attendance and were allowed to testify. I’m not knowledgeable in Italian legal affairs, but it seems the village that was destroyed would not be a neutral place to conduct the trial.
The verdict sent off alarms throughout the scientific community. Alan Leshner of the American Association for the Advancement of Science said in an open letter to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano written in June 2010:
Years of research, much of it conducted by distinguished seismologists in your own country, have demonstrated that there is no accepted scientific method for earthquake protection that can be reliably used to warn citizens of an impending disaster. To expect more of science at this time is unreasonable. It is manifestly unfair for scientists to be criminally charged for failing to act on information that the international scientific community would consider inadequate as a basis for issuing a warning.
The judge in the case, Marco Billi took four hours to reach his decision. The defendants said they would appeal the verdict.
There will be two obvious results of this decision, neither good. First, in attempts to protect themselves from similar prosecutions in the future, scientists will issue more and more warnings for fewer and flimsier reasons. Like the boy who cried wolf, eventually the warnings will lose their effectiveness. People will pay less attention to each one when it turns out to be inaccurate. When another earthquake finally occurs, even if a warning is issued, chances are people will not pay attention to it since many others were false.
Second, scientists will be less diligent in trying to predict earthquakes. They will keep information to themselves instead of sharing it with others who may be able to build upon their knowledge, discoveries or theories. Fear of prosecutions or lawsuits will serve to cause science to withdraw into itself.
The larger issue is the intrusion of politics into the world of science. If politicians think they can build themselves up by tearing scientists down they will not hesitate to do so. Since politicians run governments, politics and emotions will usually trump science. Unproved theories will be suppressed in fear they may be wrong aand open the research to lawsuits or prosecution. In the long run this will harm all of humanity by slowing scientific achievement.