Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Criminalizing a difference of opinion

Well, I know I wrote about it when Italian authorities charged seven members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks for failing to predict an earthquake that destroyed the Italian city of L'Aquila back in April of 2009.

Yesterday the seven commission members were all convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison. Prosecutors argued that their negligence and malpractice led to the loss of life. I guess we'll all have to look past the fact that acting negligently is a far cry from acting intentionally or knowingly. But, that's Italian (in)justice for you.

Interestingly enough the town had been destroyed on three previous occasions by earthquakes, in the 14th, 15th and 18th centuries. Sure, shit happens every now and then - but when it happens a second time I'm thinking some warning bells should go off somewhere.

The government's theory is that the scientists downplayed seismic data and gave an overly optimistic forecast that the town was in no danger from an imminent earthquake. That forecast was wrong.

The problem is that scientists can, and do, differ when looking at the same data. It's all too easy to second-guess someone after the fact. And, unless one can show that the scientists deliberately ignored data that pointed to the likelihood of an earthquake, it's hard to fathom how one could face a criminal conviction for guessing wrong.

Walk into an American courtroom on any day and you're likely to see a pair of experts looking at the same data and disagreeing about what it means. They're both being paid by one side or the other and everyone who's ever participated in such litigation knows the drill.

This court decision certainly isn't going to make anyone jump for joy at the prospect of predicting natural disasters in the future. In fact, it's likely that scientists afraid of being second-guessed will scream that the sky is falling if there's even the slightest chance of a disaster occurring.

And, should the Italian people be exposed to an endless dog-and-pony show about the latest disaster on the horizon, they will stop paying attention to the warnings. The government will then have made the problem far worse than it was in the first place.

The loss of life in L'Aquila was a tragedy. I don't know if it was a tragedy that could have been prevented. I do know, however, that dragging the scientists before a criminal court to criticize their inaccurate prediction is the wrong outcome.

Are politicians going to be held to the same standard? Will we see Italian pols forced to stand in the dock because they lied to voters during the campaign? Somehow I think not.

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