A Disaster That Science Brought Upon Itself
The jailing of six Italian scientists and a government official for failing to predict an earthquake has caused uproar in the scientific community. The men were convicted of manslaughter on the basis that they failed to give an adequate risk assessment of the 2009 earthquake in the central Italian city of L’Aquila, which killed 300 people. Outraged by the court’s verdict, the CEO of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science wrote to the president of Italy to tell him ‘there is no accepted scientific method for earthquake prediction that can be reliably used to inform citizens of an impending disaster’. The verdict is ‘perverse’ and ‘ludicrous’, says the science journal Nature.
That’s true - the verdict is perverse. It has a strong whiff of the Middle Ages about it, except instead of dunking witches for bringing about a harsh winter and destroying crops, we lock up scientists for failing to foresee a fatal earthquake. But at the same time, isn’t the verdict also the tragically logical conclusion to the scientific community’s feverish adoption in recent years of the role of soothsayer, predictor of the world’s end and proponent of solutions for how to prevent it? Over the past decade, leading scientists have repositioned themselves as modern-day diviners, particularly in the climate-change debate, where they insist that not only can they tell us what the world will look like in 50 years’ time, but also what minute changes all of us must make now if we want that future world to be different. And their predictions are treated as unchallengeable credos, as all those awkward, anti-green question-askers who have been branded ‘deniers’ will know.
In such a climate, is it really surprising that scientists who fail to predict a natural disaster, who do not fulfil the role of saviour of mankind that the science community has carved out for itself, can be demonised? If scientists play God, it’s also possible for them to be treated as the Devil.