Human Exceptionalism

Scientism Partly to Blame For Criminal Charges Against Italian Scientists

I thought this was the Onion, but alas, no.  Italy’s head seismologist and five other politicians (and a government official) are actually being criminally charged because they failed to predict a deadly earthquake. From the  Fox News story:

Italian government officials have accused the country’s top seismologist of manslaughter, after failing to predict a natural disaster that struck Italy in 2009, a massive devastating earthquake that killed 308 people. A shocked spokesman for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) likened the accusations to a witch hunt. “It has a medieval flavor to it — like witches are being put on trial,” the stunned spokesman told Enzo Boschi, the president of Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV), will face trial along with six other scientists and technicians, after failing to predict the future and the impending disaster…

Judge Giuseppe Romano Gargarella said that the seven defendants had supplied “imprecise, incomplete and contradictory information,” in a press conference following a meeting held by the committee 6 days before the quake, reported the Italian daily Corriere della Sera In doing so, they “thwarted the activities designed to protect the public,” the judge said.

UPI’s coverage adds this wrinkle:

The seven were on a committee gauging the risk associated with recent increases in seismic activity in the area, and a week before the quake, some members of the group publicly declared there was no danger, an article in Nature magazine reported. In the aftermath of the quake, in which 309 people died, many residents claimed the public announcement was the reason they did not take precautionary measures in advance of the magnitude-6.3 quake. As a consequence, the public prosecutor of L’Aquila brought manslaughter charges, saying the committee’s risk assessment resulted in “incomplete, imprecise and contradictory public information.”

Everyone should object loudly to this unjust and reprehensible scapegoating of scientists for a natural disaster.  But this shows us, if nothing else, that today anything that can be imagined can happen in our hyper-emotion-driven world.  And even things that can’t: Who could have ever even imagined this?

But this isn’t a “Galileo moment,” as the US scientist quoted in the Fox News story implied.  Indeed, quite the opposite.  Why might the judge, prosecutors, and injured people blame scientists for not warning them about an earthquake, which they clearly didn’t see coming? Scientism’s success in capturing the public’s imagination.

Think about the pervasive role of scientism in modern political and scientific advocacy.  Are we not told that science has the answers to everything, not just the explaining of physical or natural phenomena, but to deciding right values, philosophy, and issues of right versus wrong?  Indeed, think about how often we hear the equivalent of, “The scientists said it, I believe it, that settles it,” coming out of the mouths of some of our most famous public intellectuals (and non intellectuals), media personalities, and politicians?  Apparently the Italians believed the hype and felt criminally betrayed when reality bit.

These charges are very dangerous to the scientific enterprise–not to mention ruinous of the lives of those being prosecuted and persecuted. The chilling effect on scientists will be horrendous.  There needs to be an international outcry in the hope of getting the charges dropped and all former positions restored.

But before the purveyors of scientism cluck-cluck too loudly, they should look in a mirror.  They are  harming the very enterprise for which they claim to advocate.  I think this ridiculous prosecution is a direct consequence.

Wesley J. Smith — Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism.

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