Blog 36. Italian Earthquakes and Scientific Illiteracy

In America, we have a society infused with technology but a populace that is scientifically illiterate.  That leads to governance by political correctness rather than by critical evaluation.  We’re not alone; similar things happen elsewhere.


On 3:32 AM on 6 April 2009, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake hit the city of L’Aquila in Italy.  That’s not unusual; earthquakes occur there at intervals of 50 to 200 years, and thousands of little shocks occurred during the last five years.  In 1703 the city was largely destroyed by an earthquake that killed 5,000 people in the region.  This time, about 300 people died.  On 22 October 2012, a court sentenced seven members of an Italian national commission to six years in prison for discounting the risk.  The global scientific community condemned the verdict.  The US National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of the UK issued a joint statement saying the verdict could cause scientists to avoid giving expert opinion for fear of reprisal.  Was the situation truly that simple?  A bad verdict against innocent scientists?

Bad verdict?

The scientists didn’t kill the people.  Bad buildings made of poor masonry did.  An official of Italy’s Civil Protection Agency claimed that an earthquake like this would not have killed anyone in California.  So why prosecute the scientists?

Or criminal negligence?

According to the prosecution, the scientists had spread “inaccurate, incomplete, and contradictory” statements after tremors were felt during days before the quake.  However, the convicted head of the Italian National Geophysics Institute claimed nobody predicted this earthquake, it being impossible to predict earthquakes.  A technician (from an unidentified agency) had predicted an earthquake based on increased emissions of radon gas from the ground, but he was forced to remove his findings from the Internet.  A mayor of a neighboring town complained that the technician was causing fear.  There’s some reason for discrediting this technician; prediction by radon has given inconsistent results. So who is right?

There is a valid argument that the scientists and authorities made light of the danger, but it’s also true that earthquake prediction is not yet (and may never be) sound science.

Why underestimate disaster?

Why would technical persons in authority belittle an impending natural disaster?  Well, think of the mess if they predicted a calamity and no disaster happened.  Business would shut down, people would leave town, and everyday commerce would be interrupted.  Those authorities would be accused of causing economic losses without valid reason.  In our country, we wouldn’t send them to jail; we’d just sue them.  We don’t regard the public as capable of evaluating probable events, and being responsible for making its own judgement regarding the risks.

We do believe, and we do utilize, a firm short-term prediction of a hurricane or forest fire.  We’re willing to forgive the authorities if the town isn’t flooded or the houses aren’t burned because everyone can see those storms and fires; everyone knows the authorities have good reasons for fear.  But, would any scientist dare to shut down commerce in Los Angeles by predicting an earthquake within the next month, while also acknowledging the uncertainty of the prediction?  As a society, we cannot tolerate inexact predictions of earthquakes, or of climate change, or of economic disparity, or other long-range predictions regarding complex systems.  We’re intolerant of evaluations that balance a common benefit against private losses.  Although that Italian spokesman might have had high regard for California’s building codes, Americans have a general aversion to any form of governmental regulation—including building codes.

President Reagan’s science advisor once said (slight paraphrase), “There is no energy problem the market can’t solve.”  Well, climate change was then and is now an energy problem that the market isn’t likely to solve, but any attempt to address it—any attempt to restrict private activity in favor of an anticipated public benefit—meets strong political opposition.  The opposition preys upon our scientific illiteracy with half-truths and misleading statements.  The UN adopted a strong climate statement twenty-five years ago, but the US has not yet subscribed to a meaningful recognition of the problem.  What is it that we are collectively unable to understand?