Incorrect facts are now illegal

So, you know how seismologists are entirely capable of accurately predicting earthquakes, right? No? Well, there’s a good reason for that – they can’t. Human technology is simply not capable of warning us when or where an earthquake might strike. Unfortunately, this hasn’t stopped Italy from deciding that a group of scientists should be jailed for 6 years for not predicting an earthquake which shook the town of L’Aquila in 2009.

At first, I really wasn’t sure what to make of this. It sounds like a headline from a spoof magazine like The Onion… but no. The Italian court is quite serious. They are charging a group of seismologists with manslaughter for not warning people to evacuate before an earthquake they had no way of predicting. As if they actually knew about it all along and simply decided not to share the information.

Of course, it’s a tragedy that over 300 people died in that earthquake, but placing the blame on a group of seismologists who were simply stating facts is just absurd. Simply, they had explained that a large quake was improbable – at the time, it was – and stressed the impossibility of predicting quakes. Apparently, the court has now deemed that them not being able to predict the quake which followed was enough for a 6 year jail sentence, and the order to pay over 9 million euros in damages. For something which could not possibly have been their fault. Which leaves me to wonder how many actual criminals get away with lighter sentences. Is it really so important to place the blame on someone?

This is concerning. Deeply concerning. And frankly quite ridiculous. It’s only going to serve to promote distrust. Yet more people are going to hold the belief that “the scientists are lying to us”, and those of us who actually are scientists are going to think twice about making any kind of statement of facts. In case we turn out to be wrong.

You could liken this to me stating a simple fact – that the chances of a large meteorite impact are incredibly small, but utterly impossible to fully predict. I could reassure people (as, honestly, I would) that the odds of their house getting hit by a meteorite are literally astronomical. Apparently, if their house happened to be destroyed by a random meteorite impact (and it’s also true that an average 500 tonnes of meteorite debris fall to Earth every day), they would now be able to cite this court case as a reason why they would be able to blame me for that! A comparable scenario is true in all manner of scientific fields. Surely this decision can’t stand!

Seriously, Italy? This is preposterous. What are you doing?

As an aside, I probably shouldn’t find the line “Monday is the 30th and final hearing in what, by Italian standards, has been a lightning-fast trial, having lasted just over a year” from this article amusing, should I? I’m sorry… I need to find some humour here, because this whole debacle is so utterly depressing…

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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8 Responses to Incorrect facts are now illegal

  1. pax says:

    “I need to find some humour here, because this whole debacle is so utterly depressing…”
    — I hear you, I hear you.
    I can do nothing but shake my head. This feels like middle ages. Like kings killing their astronomers for failing to predict the next war or the death of their favourite mistress from the stars :( And that’s 21st century in Europe … *shakes head*

    • It feels like last month to me, with the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew being blamed and punished for a tree falling and killing a woman during a storm.

      What I want to know is, if 9 mil euro’s is what the Italians want for an unpredictable earthquake, how much will the world want if SETI fails to predict an alien invasion.

      • invaderxan says:

        Oh, really? I hadn’t heard about the incident at Kew. Bad times.

        Though at least in the event of an alien invasion, I think human bureaucracy may no longer be relevant. Sometimes I even wonder if that might be a good thing…

        (Ps: I’m pretty sure that in the event of an alien invasion, someone will try and take me to court for that comment!)

    • invaderxan says:

      Wow… I hadn’t thought about it like that, but it really is like those medieval kings, isn’t it? So much for progress…

  2. Prof. Bleen says:

    Worse yet, saying an event is “unlikely” and having it occur isn’t even incorrect. The only way to say a statement of probability (not equal to 0 or 1) is incorrect is to test it a bunch of times and see whether the observed frequency is consistent with the predicted probability.

  3. Baribal says:

    And thus, scientific advise in Italy now consists of “no comment”.

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