On Monday, 10-22-12, an Italian court sentenced several geophysicists to six years in prison for underestimating the danger of an earthquake in which some 300 people died. Well, actually, they were convicted of trying too hard to assuage people’s fear in the presence of ongoing tremors and a non-scientist’s dire predictions.
Everyone will, doubtlessly, expect me to pile on in the condemnation the Italian court clearly deserves. The non-scientist, after all, was neither right in his specific prediction, nor did so with any reason other than self-promotion. Add to this the fact that seismology is still a very young science, as are most of them.
But seismology has, in its defense, an open position of inability to pinpoint the danger of a pending earthquake. Seismologists readily admit they can’t do anything like that yet.
To send scientists to jail for admitting that is warning the rest of the scientific community to claim they know more than they do or pay the consequences. That runs counter to the existing culture of science, one of its strongest characteristics.
But don’t get so far ahead of me. It’s not really such a bad idea to punish irresponsible prediction, or, as seems equally relevant, ignoring rational prediction.
Climatology makes no such disclaimer as that of seismology. True, you could easily say that climatologists can’t tell you with much reliability where the tornado will touch down, or whether there’ll be a hurricane on the Alabama coast this year. But, by virtue of nothing less than virtual unanimity, they do seem to believe they can predict the future climate.
But wait, you say, there surely can’t be an argument for imposing criminal liability on scientists for agreeing with the other scientists.
Well that’s not quite where I’m going with this. I’d like to propose that ignoring the virtually unanimous position can, when done by policy makers, constitute criminal liability. After all, there are lives on the line, and pretending Climate Change, or the dangers of higher sea level, or of severe weather, should, I think, carry criminal penalties. Why not hold our policy makers accountable when their positions fly in the face of overwhelming testimony from the experts when the outcome causes real damage?
Consider “Super-storm Sandy, for example–or perhaps better, hurricane Katrina–or the heat wave in western Europe in 2010 (50,000 dead)–or the drought in America this year–or the dust in Beijing–there seems to be no end to examples.. No specific weather pattern can be definitively blamed on Climate Change, of course, but Climate Change anticipates them all.
Yet, in this country, we have prominent politicians who recklessly continue to deny it even exists. Their positions are at the root of why we’re doing very little or nothing to prepare for the inevitable consequences. It’s why Climate Change was virtually absent from the recent Presidential campaign.
When their denial puts us at greater risk, perhaps we should be able to sue them, or even have them jailed. Maybe that would have the effect of making them sit up and take notice. They are our representatives, after all. They’re supposed to evaluate the real dangers inherent in things like Climate Change. They’re not supposed to be doing a litmus test of which side of the debate will have the best political capital (read most money) for their political campaigns. Maybe we should have some teeth behind our vote.