You may have read that an Italian court has found six Italian scientists and an ex-government official guilty of manslaughter and sentenced them to six years in jail. Their crime was minimising the risk of the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake which killed 309 people.
The men were all members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks. The judge found that they issued “inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory” information which falsely reassured the public.
Scientists around the world are aghast. The leaders of the current commission resigned in protest. The world’s leading science magazine, Nature, thundered that “The verdict is perverse and the sentence ludicrous.”
I’m inclined to agree. Earthquake prediction is a very inexact science and science communication is a very difficult art. I hope that the verdict is overturned on appeal.
The moral of this might seem to be that the public is stupid. But, isn’t it the opposite: that the public has a superstitious faith in scientists? They are the new high priests of progress whose incantations bring prosperity, health and knowledge. They can even predict earthquakes.
If scientists are honest with themselves, I think that they have to admit that their press releases foster this image. When, however, that faith is betrayed, the public revolts. The L’Aquila earthquake scandal ought to lead scientists to be cautious about over-selling their wisdom.