Do scientists have all the answers? Many people like to think so. After all isn’t science meant to be the rational, evidence-based approach to explaining the way the world works- and therefore, shouldn’t scientists be the rational, reassuring bearers of that ‘knowledge’?
What about when their predictions turn out wrong, should scientists be held accountable? The Italian government believes so, as 7 geologists in Italy are being charged with manslaughter after failing to predict a large earthquake that devastated the city of L’aquila and killed over 300 people in 2009.
Aftermath of earthquake near L'aquila, Italy
The judge in the case says that the scientists supplied “imprecise, incomplete and contradictory information,” in a press conference 6 days before the quake, and therefore “thwarted the activities designed to protect the public.”
However, one of the seven scientists said there were no grounds for thinking that a major quake was imminent, even though the area around the town had been experiencing a series of smaller tremors in the previous months. The prosecution claims the commission made statements that gave the town’s people a false sense of security.
Did the scientists really release statements to falsely reassure the people, or did the press gather their statements and interpret them as such? It is likely that the statements given by the scientists were backed up by as much evidence as possible, but that they simply weren’t as appealing and definitive as ‘stay in your homes, there is nothing to worry about‘ or ‘evacuate your homes immediately’. So people remained in their homes because the scientists did not have enough evidence to advise for an evacuation. In the aftermath of the quake, the blame quickly fell upon those scientists.
The public can become frustrated with scientists for not knowing all the answers, and instead referring to evidence that ‘suggests’ or ‘supports’ something- but scientists and supporters of scientific thinking must stand by this. The chief of the American Association for the Advancement of Science has said this case ”reflects a lack of understanding about what science can and can’t do… This just feels like either scapegoating or an attempt to intimidate a community.”
Science is not the process of proving a fact, but in a way searching for evidence that disproves it. Only then can that possibility be eliminated, and a theory become more refined. So the scientists were not able to advise an evacuation because they did not have enough evidence. Now they stand trial for applying the scientific method, and being unable to predict the future!