Tuesday, October 23, 2012


There are miscarriages of justice all the time.  People get imprisoned for crimes like prostitution or possession of marijuana and society ends up paying a ton of money to ruin people's lives... for what?  Because we don't like their private choices about how they want to live?  There are at least a number of people who think we should punish those acts by imprisonment though.  In Italy there is a whole new category of crime being punished - failure to be omniscient.

Three years ago Italy suffered an earthquake.  Seismologists in that nation did not provide timely and accurate warning of the event ahead of time so they are going to prison for six years.  The charges, apparently, ignore the fact that nobody has ever successfully demonstrated the ability to predict an earthquake.  It has never happened.  So these people are going to prison for failing to do something that no human has ever done and which no human on earth currently could do.  That is a level of scapegoating that is hard to fathom.  It makes sense that when somebody is murdered, for example, people want to have a particular person to blame it on and feel better when someone is arrested.

But this is an earthquake!  We *know* that nobody did it!

If anything the Italian police should be putting the Pope on trial.  After all, he has a direct line to the Almighty and presumably should have been able to ask for a veto on the earthquake, or at the very least an accurate timeline.  I have my doubts on their ability to meander into Vatican City and arrest the Pope though (also this would probably end up in declaration of war!) but arresting the Pope makes an equal amount of sense.

The worst part about this is that it isn't just going to destroy the lives of seven scientists but also make doing science in Italy completely crazy.  If you fail to predict something bad happening in your field you can be imprisoned even if there simply isn't any reason to think you could have predicted it.  This is a terrifying prospect for anyone doing research, to be held criminally responsible for events that are completely out of your knowledge or control.  It is a disaster for Italy, a disaster for research there, and a very sad state of affairs for justice when the courts are willing to convict people for not being God.

1 comment:

  1. I couldn't believe it when I first heard about this story, but for the courts to actually hear the case and give them prison time??? Unbelievable. Scientists of the world unite your voices and have them set free!