Legal Punishment When Scientists Fail to Warn of Earthquake


Putting scientists in prison because they did not accurately predict the danger of an earthquake and communicate it to the people is without precedent – at least as far as I can find.  And it’s probably not a terribly good idea. I guess the lawyers will appeal this one, but there is something else going on.

Junior High geography was pretty colorful at my prep school.  We studied the world, particularly the modern world, with a teacher who held us completely spellbound.  She had used all of her summers for traveling and showered us with rich discussions of the Mediterranean.  She painted a picture of a sun-drenched Italy that I found hard to connect to the ancient stories I heard about in Latin class.

I specifically remember her saying that all the buildings on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius had been freshly rebuilt.  Mount Vesuvius, being a volcano, tended to erupt.  When it did, pretty much all of the properties on the slopes were destroyed.  According to her, people would evacuate in a fairly matter-of-fact way.  This sort of thing tended to happen to people who lived on the side of an active volcano.  Then, with equal calm, they would return and simply rebuild.  Apparently the land was rich and good for farming. Those were the days when my family sat around the dinner table.  My parents would ask me and my brother what we had learned at school that day.  I remember them being really shocked when I told them about this one.  They could think of nothing more stupid than this way of living and rebuilding on sides of volcanoes.  I was able to head them off before they said too many bad things about Italians.

I reminded them that there were such things as Jewish Italians.  My favorite at the time was the Italian physicist, Enrico Fermi.  Actually, his wife was Jewish.  But a guy who loves and protects a Jewess is my idea of good stuff.  Kind of like my husband, who always says his better half is Jewish so he is half-Jewish. But, let’s get back to the idea of danger and earthquakes.  I absolutely do believe in the generalized and humanitarian responsibility of science.  Once, a person tried to recruit me for the CIA — yes, this actually happened in my life.  He told me I could work in some sort of closed human lab studying the brain.  I would have to promise to only share information with people who would use whatever I learned in a politically correct manner. I declined as politely as I could.  I was about to be married and could not imagine keeping secrets about my work from my husband.  I also thought science was something everybody deserved at least theoretical access to, because scientists could and would help humanity in ways we might not yet be able to imagine. So here we have scientists who failed to make an accurate prediction, and they are being punished.  I think the comment closest to the truth is that the trial might not have found the scientists guilty if proceedings had taken place farther from the tragedy.  I can understand, however, the need to scapegoat someone for the loss of a loved one. This may be the most horrible thing anyone can live through in this life.

Admittedly, one part of the equation that is clearly missing for me is the accuracy — or lack of accuracy — inherent in seismic prediction.  I would suppose, however, that there is some kind of margin of error innate, as in any prediction of things such as weather or natural disaster.  After an episode like this, I can only guess that Italian scientists will not want to work this job.  If I were in such a position, I would surely choose something else. I’m guessing they will, too. This sounds like a really great way to keep scientists closed-mouthed.  Oh, and let’s not forget unemployed.  I suppose they could always try to find work in construction.  After all, somebody needs to rebuild those homesteads that are built on the slopes of volcanic mountains and destroyed by earthquakes.

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