In the spring of 2009, L’Aquila, a town in central Italy that is often rattled by earth tremors, was hit by a powerful magnitude 6.3 earthquake. The quake, which followed a series of weaker tremors during the preceding months, took the lives of 309 people who did not have time to escape.
Three years later, this autumn, a court in Italy sentenced an official who had been responsible for disaster response and prevention at the time to six years in prison for manslaughter. His crime, according to the court, was that he had reassured the public by saying that the tremors were a normal release of energy, not a sign of an approaching earthquake. Six seismologists who had worked with the official on risk assessment, but who failed to predict the earthquake, were also convicted of manslaughter and given the same sentence.
The verdict provoked a storm of public debate and caused indignation among scientists everywhere. More than 5,000 scientists from around the world have signed a letter of protest blasting the Italian court for being scientifically illiterate in using human law to condemn science, whose purpose is to explore the unknown. The scientists’ say the court is repeating the tragedy of Galileo Galilei, who was tried by a religious court nearly 400 years ago for proclaiming that the Earth moved around the Sun.
Is the court’s verdict really a vestige of the pre-Enlightenment era?
Science plays a very different role now in relation to public policymaking than it did in 1633. Galileo courted disaster by publishing opinions that opposed the then-dominant worldview of the Vatican. Now, in the 21st century, scientists have been convicted after having participated in public policymaking regarding risk prevention.
Galileo’s sacrifice indirectly helped give birth to the idea of academic freedom. Modern society has long since been convinced of the authority of science and relies heavily on it for making all kinds of decisions. Many examples of this dependence come to mind: meetings convened in Taiwan to discuss the safety of US beef; conferences organized by the WHO to handle influenza epidemics; experts’ participation in the testing and investigation of new pharmaceutical products; the setting of standards for the control of toxic chemicals; reports used in environmental impact assessments; safety and risk assessments for nuclear power; and extending to such matters as the development of science parks, policies concerning scientific and technical personnel, and future directions for scientific and technological industries.
Willingly or otherwise, science has become closely tied to public policymaking. The problem is that even now, 400 years after Galileo, science is still venturing into the unknown. Far more remains unknown to science than is known and it is therefore very important for scientists to resist making ambiguous or somewhat definitive statements about the unknown. They should also remind politicians and the public that making such statements is unwise.
Although society embraces the concept of academic freedom, protecting today’s Galileos so that they can engage freely in scientific work, it does not absolve scientists from being held accountable when those who have faith in their authority invite them to help formulate public policy.
The defensiveness that the demand for accountability may have engendered among scientists seems likely to be a loss for modern society in the short term, but in the long term, when scientists are no longer seen as being omnipotent, it may be a good opportunity for society to adjust the way it relates to them.