Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Because Predictions are Never Wrong

Ominous news from Italy:
Six Italian scientists and an ex-government official have been sentenced to six years in prison over the 2009 deadly earthquake in L'Aquila.
A regional court found them guilty of multiple manslaughter.
Prosecutors said the defendants gave a falsely reassuring statement before the quake, while the defence maintained there was no way to predict major quakes.
It is important that the government, including government scientists, should be held accountable.  But the case here is not good.  The prediction of earthquakes is an inexact science; with current knowledge, we will always make mistakes.  And yet that seems to be all these people have been found to have done, made an error.

Earlier, more than 5,000 scientists signed an open letter to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano in support of the group in the dock.
After the verdict was announced, David Rothery, of the UK's Open University, said earthquakes were "inherently unpredictable".
"The best estimate at the time was that the low-level seismicity was not likely to herald a bigger quake, but there are no certainties in this game," he said
The implications of this decision are pretty dark.  If scientists face criminal or even civil prosecution for inaccurate predictions, then why should we bother?  It will drive people away from research, and leave us with a situation where we either have no predictions, or such carefully-worded and conservative statements as to be worthless.

Another thing that jumped out at me from this article was the following:
The seven - all members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks - were accused of having provided "inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory" information about the danger of the tremors felt ahead of 6 April 2009 quake, Italian media report.
The word "contradictory" there smells funny to me.  When scientists make predictions, we usually include a range of uncertainty; a margin of error in numerical estimates, or a range of possibly outcomes.  Did these people commit the crime of saying "it's probably nothing, but there is a small chance it isn't"?  I hope there's more to it than that.

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