Monday, October 22, 2012

Italy earthquake witch trial: 6 years in prison

A few moments ago, I randomly made a Google News search about the Italian earthquake trial that I discussed in June 2011 and September 2011. And holy cow, the verdict is just out:
L'Aquila quake: Italy scientists guilty of manslaughter (BBC)
That's incredible. Even a year ago when I talked about it, I still thought that the final verdict would be "innocent" – and the very fact that such a trial could have started in Italy at all looked unbelievably humiliating for the country known as Italy. Well, the verdict is "guilty".

Italy has officially become a banana republic controlled by savages who would happily condemn Galileo for his claims that the Earth revolves around the Sun again. It's still the same country and its institutions have made no intellectual progress in the last 300 years.

Six seismologists and an official were sent to prison for 6 years (plus they have to pay court expenses and damages) for telling people before the 2009 L'Aquila earthquake that there wasn't a reason to panic because a large earthquake was improbable.

What these people did was totally fine: they shared their prediction about (i.e. estimated probability of) the earthquake based on their best knowledge of seismology in which they're among the top Italian experts. A large, magnitude 6.3 earthquake did take place and killed 309 people but it's not these people's fault and earthquakes can always arrive unpredictably. The large earthquake can't even be shown to have been "caused" or "predicted" by the smaller tremors that preceded it. It could have been independent of them, too. As far as demonstrable evidence goes, the people are being convicted for a random unexpected and unpredictable natural catastrophe.

It's not possible to reliably or semi-reliably predict earthquakes and strong arguments exist that it will always be impossible. So it will always be unreasonable – crazy – to expect a 0% error rate in similar predictions; you will only be able to evaluate how good a forecaster is by looking at many predictions he has made. This fact isn't the seven people's fault. It's not even a fault of the community of seismologists as a whole. These things just can't be predicted because of the intrinsically stochastic nature of the underlying physical processes so chance will always play a major role when it comes to earthquakes.

The judge ignored a petition signed by 5,000 scientists that demanded the witch hunt to be stopped. The media are silent. When genuine scientists *really* want to protect human lives by offering their expertise as weapons against pseudoscientific misconceptions, they are no longer heroes among the journalists. The dirty journalists only celebrate crackpots who actually spread hysteria that helps to sell the newspapers, for example the global warming crackpots.

I am totally amazed by the word "manslaughter" because it means that the judge believes that the seismologists, and not Mother Nature, actually killed the 309 victims.

The verdict de facto lionizes crackpots who were screaming that there had to be a large earthquake and they just happened to be right in that case – while isomorphic and sometimes the very same crackpots are wrong in 99.9% of other cases in which they cry wolf – and it condemns the scientific method. They are wrong in 99.9% of cases because their predictive framework has nothing to do with science – it's all about a psychopathological paranoia – but even a broken clock is right twice a day.

The lesson for the scientists is clear: If you are a scientist who is qualified in a discipline that has implications for the safety of people, you must always recommend precautionary measures to be taken even if you conclude that the probability that something bad will happen is tiny. Italy may expect much more hysteria in various similar science-related situations than it has had so far because a court has declared a war on everyone who is honest and balanced.

Can you imagine that this sick logic would be applied e.g. to surgeons? Surgeons and perhaps other physicians could spend 6 years in prison after every death of a patient whom they or others were optimistic about. It's just insane. People sometimes die, natural catastrophes sometimes occur, and it's just impossible to identify a human culprit in most cases. Only if a professional makes a mistake in which he or she has demonstrably violated some established and functional rules to reduce the risk – and whether or not this was the case may only be determined by another expert – he or she could be considered co-responsible for the deaths. Nothing of the sort has taken place in this case.

If someone is made responsible for deaths of casualties of a natural catastrophe that can't be predicted according to any protocol that actually exists, it's just nothing else than a condemnation of a witch. I often thought that the witch trials were insane and we live in a very different world than Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. But we're not living in such a different world. We are still controlled by evil loons such as the Italian judge who don't want to hear anything about the actual abilities and limitations of the current science. They prefer to look for scapegoats and sacrifice them.

In fact, the current verdict is even more cruel and irrational than the 1692 verdicts in Salem because the convicted girls in 1692 were at least doing "something mysterious" that could have been called witchcraft so they were witches. The convicted folks in 2012 are scientists.

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