Faith in Scientists

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.

Michael Cook


Michael Cook likes bad puns, bushwalking and black coffee. He did a BA at Harvard University in the US where it was good for networking, but moved to Sydney where it wasn’t. He also did a PhD on an obscure corner of Australian literature. He has worked as a book editor and magazine editor and has published articles in magazines and newspapers in the US, the UK and Australia.

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  • Clement_W

    Having had pretensions to being a ‘Scientist’, I have, late in life, realised that I was, in fact, committing the Original Sin. That is, simply, mistaking the Created for the Creator! or mistaking the Gift of Knowledge with the just the rudiments of Wisdom to Understand, claiming to be a Priest worshipping at the altar of Knowledge. A priest of what deity? Self – the ability to MAKE the golden calf!

  • Peter Nyikos

    One sentence needs to be modified. It is the sarcastic comment, “They can even predict earthquakes.” As the linked _Nature_ article makes clear, the issue was whether they can say that there is a heightened risk of major earthquakes in the wake of numerous minor tremors. Here is what the article says about that:

    “Despite the way the verdict has been portrayed in the media as an attack
    on science, it is important to note that the seven were not on trial
    for failing to predict the earthquake. As members of an official risk
    commission, they had all participated in a meeting held in L’Aquila on
    31 March 2009, during which they were asked to assess the risk of a
    major earthquake in view of the many tremors that had hit the city in
    the previous months, and responded by saying that the earthquake risk
    was clearly raised but that it was not possible to offer a detailed
    prediction. The meeting was unusually quick, and was followed by a press
    conference at which the Civil Protection Department and local
    authorities reassured the population, stating that minor shocks did not
    increase the risk of a major one.”