Scientific Illiteracy: Why The Italian Earthquake Verdict is Even Worse Than it Seems

The wrongful conviction of Italian seismologists is one more result of a failure to understand the fundamentals of science

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Guardia Forestale Handout / AP

An aerial view of the destruction in the city of L'Aquila, central Italy, April 6, 2009.

Yesterday was a very good day for stupid — better than any it’s had in a while. Stupid gets fewer good days in the 21st century than it used to get, but it enjoyed a great ride for a long time — back in the day when there were witches to burn and demons to exorcise and astronomers to put on trial for saying that the Earth orbits around the sun.

But yesterday was a reminder of stupid’s golden era, when an Italian court sentenced six scientists and a government official to six years in prison on manslaughter charges, for failing to predict a 2009 earthquake that killed 300 people in the town of l’Aquila. The defendants are also required to pay €7.8 million ($10 million) in damages. “I’m dejected, despairing,” said one of the scientists, Enzo Boschi, in a statement to Italian media. “I still don’t understand what I’m accused of.”

As well he shouldn’t. The official charge brought against the researchers, who were members of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV), was based on a meeting they had in the week leading up to the quake, at which they discussed the possible significance of recent seismic rumblings that had been detected  in the vicinity of l’Aquila. They concluded that it was “unlikely,” though not impossible, that a serious quake would occur there and thus did not order the evacuation of the town. This was both sound science and smart policy.

(More: Earthquake Damage: Are Bad Maps to Blame?)

The earthquake division of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that the world is shaken by several million earthquakes each year, most of which escape notice either because they are too small or are in remote areas that are poorly monitored. An average of 50 earthquakes do manage to register on global seismographs every day, or about 18,000 annually. The overwhelming majority do not lead to major quakes and the technology does not exist to determine which ones will. The best earthquake forecasters can do is apply their knowledge and experience to each case, knowing that you can’t evacuate 50 towns or cities every day — and knowing too that sometimes you will unavoidably, even tragically, be wrong.

“If scientists can be held personally and legally responsible for situations where predictions don’t pan out, then it will be very hard to find scientists to stick their necks out in the future,” said David Oglesby, an associate professor on the earth sciences faculty of the University of California, Riverside, according to CNN.com.

The Italian seismologists are appealing their sentences and the global outcry over the wrong-headedness of the ruling will likely weigh in their favor. But whatever the outcome of their case, they’re really just the most recent victims of  the larger, ongoing problem of scientific illiteracy.

(More: Earthquake Swarm Strikes California: 300 Quakes in a Single Day)

Just the day after the ruling came down, University of Michigan researchers released the latest results from the Generation X Report, a longitudinal study funded by the National Science Foundation that has been tracking the Gen X cohort since 1986. One of the smaller but more troubling data points in the new release was the finding that only 43% of Gen Xers (53% of males and 32% of females) can correctly identify a picture of a spiral galaxy — or know that we live in one.

Certainly, it’s possible to move successfully through life without that kind of knowledge. “Knowing your cosmic address is not a necessary job skill,” concedes study author Jon D. Miller of the University of Michigan, in a release accompanying the report. But not knowing it does suggest a certain lack of familiarity with the larger themes of the physical universe — and that has implications. It’s of a piece with the people who believe humans and dinosaurs co-existed, or the 50% of Americans who do not believe that human beings evolved from apes, or the 1 on 5 who, like Galileo’s inquisitors, don’t believe the Earth revolves around the sun.

(More: Washington Monument to Remain Closed Until 2014)

More troubling than these types of individual illiteracy are the larger, population-wide ones that have a direct impact on public policy. As my colleague Bryan Walsh observed, the issue of climate change received not a single mention in all three of this year’s presidential debates, and has barely been flicked at on the campaign trail. Part of that might simply be combat fatigue; we’ve been having the climate argument for 25 years. But the fact is there shouldn’t be any argument at all. Serious scientists who doubt that climate change is a real threat are down to just a handful of wild breeding pairs. But sowing doubt about the matter has been a thriving industry of conservatives for decades — most recently in the form of a faux scientific study published by the Cato Institute, that purports to debunk climate science as fatally flawed at best or a hoax at worst. Speaking of a federally funded and Congressionally mandated report by the U.S. Global Change Research Program that responsibly reviewed the state of climate science, the Cato publication argues:

It is immediately obvious that the intent of the report is not to provide a accurate [sic] scientific assessment of the current and future impacts of climate change in the United States, but to confuse the reader with a loose handling of normal climate [italics theirs]…presented as climate change events.

Well, no, but never mind. Our willingness to believe in junk science like this exacts a very real price — in an electorate that won’t demand action from its leaders on a matter of global significance; in parents who leave their babies unvaccinated because someone sent them a blog post fraudulently linking vaccines to autism; in young gays and lesbians forced to submit to “conversion therapy” to change the unchangeable; in a team of good Italian scientists who may spend six years in jail for failing to predict the unpredictable. No one can make us get smart about things we don’t want to get smart about. But every day we fail to do so is another good day for stupid — and another very bad one for all of us.

More: Massive Fishing Dock Washes Ashore in Oregon — 15 Months After Japanese Tsunami

95 comments
PapaFoote
PapaFoote

With "Patience", But "Persistence", - We Have Only Started Our "History of Humanity" - Be "Patient", But "Persistent"!

The Old Mountain Goat

pitou
pitou

With this story of scientists convicted of failing to predict an earthquake (!) and previous mediatic and legal circuses like the Costa Concordia event, one wonders if the International Court in the Hague should not investigate the Italian justice system. The West likes to meddle in internal affairs of certain countries (China, Cuba, North Korea, etc) but seems to close its eyes on what goes on in its own backyard. Italians are at the mercy of an unjust - dare I say it - even criminal justice system whos main drive is personal attacks on citizens, scientists, politicians, etc. Fingerpointing is what ignorant people do, not knowing anything else and not being actually interested in understanding and solving problems. Scapegoating satisfies cynics and incompetent people who enjoy the fact that others are being blamed for something. People are being imprisoned unjustly by a corrupt justice system, corrupt medias and governement. When will the international community take actions against the cartoonish justice system Italy has? People are being judged on television over there!

PapaFoote
PapaFoote

Some, "Take Them Off" - Some, "Don't"!

Let's See - as I "Remember" - back when "Somebody(s) Crowed" about "Waterloo", and for several years, the Conservative Right had only one thought - too "kill" our President Obama, one way or another!

Let's See - "Blinders" from the dictionary says:

"Something that prevents someone from gaining a full understanding of a situation - they will wear their cultural blinders to the grave"!

Some, "Take Them Off" - Some, "Don't"!

The Old Mountain Goat

ElBarcino
ElBarcino

I forgot to mention that contrary to what many people believe - the modern study of earthquakes and the propagation of elastic waves through the Earth is not based on abstract statistical data but on high performance computing, supercomputing and grid computing.

Supercomputers allow for 1:1 modeling and simulation of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc. The National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology is house to one of the largest - with a peak performance of 2.1 Pflops - and fastest supercomputers in Europe and still they didn't manage to use the tools available to them..

It is also known that a moth earlier another scientist had correctly predicted that the earthquake was going to happen. When he started to raise awareness he was removed from his job and referred to authorities for - as they called it - spreading fear...a court injunction was issued forbidding him to warn others....still he managed to save his family and friends....

ElBarcino
ElBarcino

On the other hand many people seem not to understand that in science, a prediction, is a very rigorous quantitative, statement, forecasting what will happen under specific conditions - based on scientific data; for example if an apple falls from a tree it will be attracted towards the center of the earth by gravity with a specified constant acceleration thus can be predicted that at some point the apple will hit the ground....

It is safe to predict that the apple will hit the ground as a logical consequence of scientific theories, repeated experiments and observational studies...

Earthquakes by themselves rarely kill people. It is usually the secondary events that they trigger such as building collapses, fire, etc. that cause the human disaster. Human casualties can be avoided by early warning and evacuation planning.

The Italian scientists were not expected to foresee the future as card readers do - they were expected to assess the situation based on collected data and current events. Unfortunately they issued the wrong diagnosis, even worst - they chose to engage in politics or public relation misleading the populations and as consequence, the city was not evacuated and many people died.

I don't see a judgment of science as a whole here. I see a clear case of negligence and professional malpractice...

rose
rose

The more I go back reading this article, the more I can't help feeling  huge disappointment at the superficiality of its fact-finding research. This is no serious journalism. Sad to take notice that what I considered a highly reliable source is in fact not so. Not in this case. Mr. Kluger, in three months the motivations of the verdict will be published. Please have somebody have a look at them. At the same time, keep an eye on the parallel process to Mr. Bertolaso. After getting enough proper information, please come back and write your unbiased opinion, whatever that will be.  Don't just join the choir, since it is singing out of tune.

monsterkingkin
monsterkingkin

The Italian verdict isn't about scientific illiteracy; it is about total logical illiteracy. Just because the scientists had mentioned it was relatively safe to return home and the risk of a major earthquake was low, it didn't directly translate that earthquake wouldn't happen at all. Seismic activity is a phenomenon that can strike anywhere and anytime in the world. Historical frequency or pattern cannot guarantee history will repeat itself, just as scientists "predicted". I just don't know how someone can be responsible for deaths and destruction when they made their hypothesis base on their best ability on an unpredictable natural phenomenon. Or Italian judges just want scientists to tell everyone to sleep outside in fault zones regardless of risk level.

davidropeik
davidropeik

Jeffrey

You call it a good day for stupid, and then...one could say stupidly...miss the reality of what l'Aquila was really about. Yes, people were angry that the seismologists didn't predict the quake...but the only reason they were able to press that anger into a ludicrous legal vendetta was the lousy way the scientists communicated.  This is clear form the indictment itself, which holds the defendants to task for the inexact, confusing and contradictory way the scientist's communicated. It is also clear from the comments of Dr Vittorino, the head of the l"Aquila citizens group that pressed the case, who said people were angry not at the 'failed' prediction but at how unduly and innacurrately reassuring the communication from the scientists was. Even more, this case teaches lessons about the importance of scientists to communicate and not abdicate that role, as the communication on trial here came not from the scientists themselves but from a civil defense bureaucrat who chaired a meeting of scientists from the national Grand Risk commission, a bureaucrat essentially under orders from the national office to calm public fears. After the meeting the scientists left, and left the talking to this one fellow, who casually said things look 'favourable' and that the scientsts thought recenty tremors meant reduced risk. which was not what they had said. Only they had left town and didn't participate in the communicating.

That is what this trial was about, and...again, forgive me...your readers are left stupid given the way you have reported it. 

DaveRoss
DaveRoss

I would briefly comment on how misleading titles about this case might lead to misleading judgements.

Disinformation contributes to the age of the stupid. If sources would have been checked by journalists (Italian ones at the forefront!), it would be clear that the fact that led those Italian scientist to be convicted is not that they ‘failed to predict the earthquake’. Rather, it emerged that the High Risks Commission has spread contradictory and incomplete information to the local population which has led some families to remain at home, contrary to what they would have done if such information were not divulged.

If that is the case (in Italian criminal law the ascertaining of the facts can be appealed with new evidence), no ‘witch-hunting’ on scientists by the Italian judiciary has taken place. More simply, scientists bestowed with important responsibilities and powers need to use them with best care, as they are not above the law.

Finally, as an Italian lawyer, it has been appalling to read in international newspaper offensive and misleading attacks vs the Italian legal system.

wallman97
wallman97

50% of Americans who don't believe humans evolved from apes?  Those 50% would be correct by according to scientists.  The science is that both humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor species NOT that we started as apes and became human.  It's a common misconception.  

What's more disturbing is that the other 50% who do believe we evolved from apes when no one (not the scientists and certainly not the creationists) is claiming that.  

VascoNapoleo
VascoNapoleo

The problem seem to be the politicians who just don't want to tell bad news. I remember the movie JAWS with the town officials downplaying the existence of a shark and it is like that in real life. Politicians just don't want to give bad news and they will always try to spin it. But this doesn't mean that I think they should be on trial, they should just shut up and make the sure the emergency services are  prepared and have the proper funding to deal with a possible event. They should also make sure also that people know how they should react in case of an earthquake.  

MartaD.
MartaD.

Dear all,

I am a former resident of the city of L'Aquila (born nearby, lived there 6 years for university and work, had just moved back home when the quake happened) so I can tell you this. In L'Aquila EVERYBODY was scared to death. No pun intended. There had been quakes for 3 months, some up to 4 on the richter scale. Many were already sleeping in cars. The problem is, you may not know this, but winters in L'Aquila are rigid to say the least. -10 is the normal temperature at night. So sleeping in cars was not really the most comfy solution. Those who had the chance went back home, say students. If only 8 people died in the students' residence was because many residents had left, since Easter was around the corner. People with a job to go to, they could not go anywhere. So they stayed. And died.The problem, in all this, is that had they been told honestly: 'Sorry folks, we cannot predict earthquakes but still you should be alert', maybe the people wuold have presided the municipality demanding that buildings were checked and secured. Because where I was born, if you are not sure if something will happen, you are not sure that something won't happen either. And remember that the people there were psychologically drained. They wanted to believe everything was ok. By reassuring the population they just complied with the politicians. There is no money to go and check everybody's home, and say we find buildings which are not at norm, what do we do? We send them to a hotel? There's not money for that either. (About that, I'd like to point out that most of the hotels which hosted the inhabitants of L'Aquila after the quake faced the sad destiny of having to close down because nobody paid them and they had no cash income from turists since all the rooms were taken...)

So I guess the point is, if you decide you want to pursue science, be a scientist and say things how they are.

See now what the problem is?

sciteacher1
sciteacher1

Will this be followed by meteorologists being fined and imprisoned for not accurately predicting hurricane landings?  Folks will die if predictions say hurricanes will not come ashore in an area but then do.  Businesses lose profits when forecasters recommend evacuations, even when the hurricanes do not come ashore.  Too many lawyers and politicians, not enough scientists!!!

MassimoFerrario
MassimoFerrario

While I think that the verdict is completey wrong, it's important to note that its also wrong so write - as the article author does - that the Italian scientists where convicted  "for failing to predict a 2009 earthquake that killed 300 people in the town of l’Aquila".

I thnk that Nicola Nosengo statement on Nature (see http://www.nature.com/news/italian-court-finds-seismologists-guilty-of-manslaughter-1.11640) gives a better description of the Italian courte sentence:  "The prosecutor thus indicted all seven members of the panel for manslaughter, reasoning that their “inadequate” risk assessment had led to scientifically incorrect messages being given to the public, which contributed to a higher death count"

VincentLovece
VincentLovece

Well, this is embarrassing for Italy. While the Church has improved since Galileo, the secular Italian state sure hasn't.

rose
rose

Mr. Kluger's comment is missing to point out a key element of this process: the link between science and politics. The scientific meeting which took place in L'Aquila was, in fact, not scientific at all. The scientists did not meet to make the point of the situation. The outcome was decided in advance by politics, as from wiretappings of Mr. Bertolaso - former Head of Italy's Civil Protection- http://www.repubblica.it/cronaca/2012/10/25/news/terremoto_aquila_intercettazioni-45259736/?ref=HRER1-1 and http://inchieste.repubblica.it/it/repubblica/rep-it/2012/01/18/news/il_terremoto_negato-28369392/?ref=HRER1-1. He clearly says that the meeting sole purpose is a mediatic operation, and that the truth will not be said. 

The real debate around the world should now be about HOW INDEPENDENT SCIENCE IS? and I am wondering why instead the press is actually avoiding the discussion and MISINFORMING.

ElBarcino
ElBarcino

@Jeffrey Kluger

This is a very strange article....highly misleading to say the least.

For me what happened in Italy is a clear case of negligence - scientific negligence. Compare scientific negligence with Galileo Galilei calling illiterates those who found the so called 'scientists' liable for a wrong diagnosis that caused lost of 300 lives is what I call ignorance....

breindrein
breindrein

So the scientists should just sit back, give out a global extinction-level-event earthquake warning every day without even looking at info and be safe. I can do that job. No actual scientific work required. How about they also send the builders to jail for manslaughter because buildings collapsed? The scientists didnt kill the people, the building contractors did.

Brian.Daurelle
Brian.Daurelle

It's funny that someone, writing an article about scientific illiteracy, would include such a gem as '...that human beings evolved from apes.'  Not only is this the thing that creationists like most to point to as an example of how riduculous they think evolution is, it also happens to be flat wrong.  Apes are just as evolved as we are, just along a divergent evolutionary path.  We certainly did not evolve from apes, nor or from fish or any other modern creature.  If you're truly well-versed in evolution. you should know to say that 'humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor', or perhaps even 'ape-like ancestor'.  But to simply put out there that people should of course know that humans evolved from apes is to open the door to people like Mr. Jonathan Martin here, who thinks that Lucy is either fully human or fully ape (while she is, in fact, equally neither) and that DNA decay-dating is an accurate measuring stick for the age of the earth.  The point is, in an article lambasting other people for scientific illiteracy, take care to avoid such blatant errors that enable the truly illiterate to persist in their ignorance. 

JonathanMartin
JonathanMartin

"It’s of a piece with the people who believe humans and dinosaursco-existed, or the 50% of Americans who do not believe that human beingsevolved from apes" 

No, that's called knowing the other half of the story that isn't taught in school, like the fact that the "missing links" between humans and apes are actually either fully human or fully ape, or the fact that by most dating methods, including C-14, Helium diffusion, as well as rates of DNA decay in fossils, the earth is very young.

Martian_14
Martian_14

This is sloppy science at work. Those scientist must have been consultants for Prometheus, the film....

Sadly, they did something stupid, too. A guy with a PhD and years of experience can and domake mistakes...

If they were that smart they should have kept their mouth shut, and admit their inability to predict squat. They should have been honest and admit they did not know squat about predicting earthquakes. Instead they were too condescending and reassuring,  they played with statistics. But, they forgot that statistics and nature are bitches, when you least expect they bite, maim and  hurt us...

akpat
akpat

This type of science is based on the probability of something happening. If the models suggest a good probability say 95% certainty that something will not occur then these are good odds and so go home to sleep. Unfortunately sometimes the 5% happens, however one cannot go through life thinking the worst all the time otherwise you might as well just abandon the village for another more stable site.

That of course would also be wrong and put these people into the cry wolf domain.

The court in Italy has come to a particularly stupid conclusion on this.

SrihariYamanoor
SrihariYamanoor

Stupid has fewer days in the 21st century? Did you tune out the GOP or what?

sumitron_2k@hotmail.com
sumitron_2k@hotmail.com

lol talibanization of law in italy...this ruling is a pity. If this is a start to what might happen in future the weather networks would b sued, most of the results provided would be taking the worst case scenario..(So earthquake tomorow yes, typhoon in florida should we evacuate in seattle..yes, simply stupid judge and law system in italy.. they should stick to desiging  - car, fashion..law doesnt seem to be their game 

dbmoran
dbmoran

This article shows the _reporter's_ illiteracy. The scientists were not charged with failing to predict the quake. Rather they were charged with essentially predicting that there would be no quake. Furthermore, part of the evidence at the trial was a recording of the Commission meeting which indicated that the scientists saw their role as providing reassurance to the population, rather than providing the risk assessment that their job called for. When the defenders of the scientists have to so egregiously misrepresent what the charges actually were, that is a strong indication that they know the conduct was indefensible.

Because the Commission issued a statement that there was "no danger" of a quake, people who had evacuated returned to houses that collapsed killing them. Others who had been taking other precautions stopped doing so. The scientists' defense was that the official public statement was a (slight) exaggeration of what they actually said -- their recommendation contained the boiler-plate disclaimer that it wasn't a total impossibility for a quake to occur. However, not only did they fail to correct the public statement, the reporting of this issue states that they gave media interviews reinforcing  the "no danger" message.

Remember that these scientists were an official commission whose job was to provide a risk assessment to the government and the people. The defense that "earthquakes are impossible to predict" is disingenuous because it presume that there is no ground between total unpredictability and perfect predictability. At the core of science is dealing with imperfect knowledge, and many fields of science routinely deal with probabilities, confidence intervals, false positives/negatives,... that are all normal components of a risk assessment (I am a PhD in one such field). The accounts I have seen show no indication that the scientists in question made even a minimal attempt to do this. I have not seen anything to indicate that they weren't grossly negligent in performing their job.

Kimhyttel
Kimhyttel

Italian justice is worse than it's reputation.

vegaviscount
vegaviscount

Not so different from their handling of the Amanda Knox case.

M.C.Gurnemanz PhD

GaryMcCray
GaryMcCray

Whether scientists are responsible for what they do has always been a point of contention.

When I worked at Lawrence Radiation Laboratory a pervasive and widely accepted attitude was that it is the government’s responsibility to determine what to do with scientific discoveries and it is the scientist’s only responsibility to perform such research as the government sees fit.

Robert Oppenheimer disagreed with that and thought that scientists had a responsibility to not use their "science" to further research on things with massively destructive potential.

He came to this conclusion after being primarily responsible for the development of the Atomic Bomb and it is the reason that he was ostracized, denounced as a traitor and that Edward Teller was responsible for developing the hydrogen bomb.

Although I worked directly for (but way down the food chain) Edward Teller as the director of our Laboratory, I very much embrace the principals of Oppenheimer, scientists are in fact one hundred percent responsible for everything they ever do just like everybody else on the planet.

Although authority always claims otherwise, to me the reality is each individual is absolutely and completely responsible for each action they ever commit.

Scientists are responsible for their own actions and for their inactions.

That having been said, we live in a world that widely accepts displacement of responsibility and to find these Italian scientists criminally liable for their failure to predict the consequences of a potential earthquake is patently absurd.

At present there is a considerable lack of available scientific predictability and to find the scientists or any human being for that matter at fault for being unable to correctly predict a natural event is completely outside the scope of any normal or accepted response.

It actually seems a holdover from when kings and witch doctors had to accurately predict eclipses to solidify their power.What Nonsense!

fitty_three
fitty_three

This is the worst mistake the Italians have EVER made. Why would any scientist want to work there?  It's a Galileo remix except this time instead of the Inquisition it's the legal system. It's like seers in the courts of kings having their heads chopped off for not predicting a comet's appearance.

And make no mistake about it, Italy will pay a high price.  Naples sits right next to one of the most intensely geologically active sites in the world.  

There's a reason why that bay looks so round...

HudsonValleyTim
HudsonValleyTim

How can we possibly expect action from our elected leaders when they are so-often the ones spewing-out this nonsense?  Look at yesterday's physiological pronouncement by Indiana treasurer and U.S. Senate candidate Richard Mourdock (R-Ind), who claims that rape-pregnancies are God's will. This is apparently the reason that the woman's own body does not deploy its rape-pregnancy defense systems espoused by Todd Akin (another GOP scientific genius running for the US Senate).  If God wants you pregnant, then pregnant you shall be.  I'm religious (and Catholic), and believe that babies are a gift from God, but I cannot square that with these imbicillic ideas.

At some point, the people of any civilized society have to stand-up and take responsibility for the people that they (we) elect to represent them (us).  If you don't want to be labeled a backwater know-nothing, then you need to do your very best to assure that you don't send one to Washington (or any government seat, for that matter) to represent you. 

Jaguar6cy
Jaguar6cy

Holding scientists responsible for coming to, and announcing, incorrect conclusions is a terrible mistake.To the “unenlightened” it will appear that science can be fallible.And that concept cannot be encouraged in the public mind. Who knows where that concept could lead?

PlumbLine
PlumbLine

The Bible says there is coming an earthquake so great, that it will shake the whole earth at once just before Christ returns.........the largest in earths history.......Revelation 16:17-19..........17 Then the seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple of heaven, from the throne, saying, “It is done!” 18 And there were noises and thunderings and lightnings; and there was a great earthquake, such a mighty and great earthquake as had not occurred since men were on the earth. 19 Now the great city was divided into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell.

kalinysta
kalinysta

"50% of Americans who do not believe that human beings evolved from apes,"

The writer just proves his point.  Human Being DID NOT EVOLVE from apes!!!  Humans and Apes evolved FROM A COMMON ANCESTOR.  That's not the same thing!!!