Brendan O’Neill: A Disaster That Science Brought Upon Itself

  • Date: 02/11/12
  • Brendan O'Neill, Spiked Online

The jailing of scientists for failing to predict an earthquake is the sad conclusion to the scientific community’s depiction of itself as soothsayer and predictor of the world’s end.

The jailing of six Italian scientists and a government official for failing to predict an earthquake has caused uproar in the scientific community. The men were convicted of manslaughter on the basis that they failed to give an adequate risk assessment of the 2009 earthquake in the central Italian city of L’Aquila, which killed 300 people. Outraged by the court’s verdict, the CEO of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science wrote to the president of Italy to tell him ‘there is no accepted scientific method for earthquake prediction that can be reliably used to inform citizens of an impending disaster’. The verdict is ‘perverse’ and ‘ludicrous’, says the science journal Nature.

That’s true – the verdict is perverse. It has a strong whiff of the Middle Ages about it, except instead of dunking witches for bringing about a harsh winter and destroying crops, we lock up scientists for failing to foresee a fatal earthquake. But at the same time, isn’t the verdict also the tragically logical conclusion to the scientific community’s feverish adoption in recent years of the role of soothsayer, predictor of the world’s end and proponent of solutions for how to prevent it?

Over the past decade, leading scientists have repositioned themselves as modern-day diviners, particularly in the climate-change debate, where they insist that not only can they tell us what the world will look like in 50 years’ time, but also what minute changes all of us must make now if we want that future world to be different. And their predictions are treated as unchallengeable credos, as all those awkward, anti-green question-askers who have been branded ‘deniers’ will know.

In such a climate, is it really surprising that scientists who fail to predict a natural disaster, who do not fulfil the role of saviour of mankind that the science community has carved out for itself, can be demonised? If scientists play God, it’s also possible for them to be treated as the Devil.

Of course, outrage about the verdict is justified. These men should never have been arrested, never mind jailed. The trial effectively criminalised uncertainty, with the prosecution arguing that the men’s information about the earthquake was ‘generic and ineffective’ and ‘incomplete, imprecise and contradictory’. The crux of the case was that 29 of those who died in the quake had intended to leave L’Aquila, following a series of small tremors, but they were persuaded to stay by a statement given by the government official who has been jailed, Bernardo De Bernardinis. He said during the tremors period, ‘The scientific community tells me there is no danger because there is an ongoing discharge of energy’. This was incorrect – the scientists had actually told De Bernardinis that the tremors pointed to an increased risk of a quake but it was impossible to be precise about where or when such a quake might strike. This was clearly an instance of bad communication between officials and scientists, and between officials and the public, and it’s highly unfortunate that, in L’Aquila’s attempts to find someone or something to hold responsible for the devastating quake, it has all been dragged before a court and held up as something fatally sinister.

Fundamentally, the criminalisation of people for failing to predict an earthquake, and potentially lessen its impact, speaks to Western society’s discomfort with the idea of accidents or disasters, with the the idea that some things just happen and no one is responsible. Ours is an era in which we find it very hard to accept that some events have no logic behind them. And so we continually go on Medieval hunts for a malevolent force or person who might be blamed for various terrible things that occur.

Whether it’s quakes in Italy, flooding in England or tsunamis in Asia, there’s a blame game after every natural disaster. Religious believers blame sinful mankind, claiming he brought God’s violent or watery judgement upon us; environmentalists blame polluting mankind, arguing that our temerity to be industrious has upset ‘Gaia’s balance’; others blame government officials, accusing them of failing to safeguard every aspect of society from the whims of nature. In each case, the impulse to blame is a backward, pre-modern one, fuelled by a belief that some sentient, probably wicked force either caused a natural disaster or exacerbated its effects. It is not unlike when, between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, eccentric old women were branded witches and held responsible for, as one author describes it, ‘[bringing about] years of extreme hardship, in particular the type of misery related to extreme climatic events’ (1). Today, too, we seek out individuals or institutions we can blame for extreme events.

Indeed, it is worth comparing Italian officials’ response to the L’Aquila quake with the response of Enlightened thinkers to the Great Lisbon Earthquake of November 1755. That quake, which killed up to 100,000 people, became a key reference point for Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, Rousseau and Kant. They wrote about and argued over it for years. Kant in particular challenged the idea, then a given, that quakes such as this were acts of divine providence, punishment from on high for mankind’s errors. That simply didn’t make sense in relation to Lisbon, a devout Catholic city, in which virtually every church was toppled but the notorious red-light district was left standing.

Kant posited that earthquakes ‘are not supernatural events’ but rather are natural disasters, over which we have no control (2). This was a radical, and radically reasoned, reading of natural events, which challenged the idea that mankind was at the mercy of some external, watching force. Where the Lisbon quake generated heated Enlightened debate, the L’Aquila quake gave rise to a rush to apportion blame – signalling what a crisis of Enlightened thought there is today in comparison with 250 years ago.

Spiked Online, 25 October 2012