Liability For False Prophets

  • Date: 09/11/12
  • Dirk Maxeiner and Michael Miersch, Die Welt

An Italian court recently sentenced seven scientists to long prison terms because they had allegedly failed to predict a major earthquake which destroyed the town L’Aquila in 2009. The seismic analysis of the experts, the prosecutor concluded, was flawed, useless and inconsistent. Undoubtedly, this is a miscarriage of justice since everyone knows that it is impossible to predict earthquakes.

Just imagine the understanding of these Italian jurists would be common practice. How many highly respected experts would probably be in jail? There have been many momentous failed predictions in the past several decades. Not only have these false prophets not been punished – they have been amply honoured instead.

Let’s just take climate scientist Mojib Latif who is a frequent media guest. In 2000, he predicted: “Winters with heavy frost and much snow as they used to be twenty years ago will no longer happen in our region.” It could be that somebody believed his prediction and, on this basis, made a decision about a new heating system. Tough luck. In the meantime, Professor Latif has claimed that global warming leads to colder winters.

Dennis Meadows was also wrong when he, commissioned by the Club of Rome, wrote the international bestseller “The Limits to Growth”. In the book, he predicted that all major commodities would be depleted by 2000, or extremely scarce. Yet none is. And what happened to Mr Meadows? He spreads his discredited theories in a new look in brochures of chemical companies and at German media conferences where he seems to be safe from critical questions.

Similarly unchallenged is a small group of German professors who acted as scientific advisers regarding the German ‘Waldsterben’ (forest dieback). While the Federal Office for Statistics was announcing that the German forest keeps expanding instead of shrinking, the creators of the Waldsterben scare were still being honoured with prices and academic ordinations.

Today’s climate researchers have found an ingenious solution to the forecasting risk. Global warming, they now say, will lead to more extreme weather events. Whether it storms or snows, whether it is too hot or too cold, too dry or too rainy. They are always on the safe side. These all-purpose forecasts would even survive Italian judges.

Translation Philipp Mueller

Die Welt, 2 November 2012