Six Italian scientists and a former government official have been sentenced to six-year prison terms for failing to predict an earthquake. The charge was practice. The scientists were effectively tried for scientific malpractice, although the prosecution did not use that term.

The implications of this verdict for scientific research in Italy are alarming. Malpractice suits have had a devastating effect on the medical industry. We hope this sort of thing doesn’t spread to other countries.

We’re all for holding government officials accountable for their failures, but this is ridiculous. No one can know the unknowable. Even meteorologists make mistakes, and weather forecasting is a much better developed field than earthquake prediction.

This verdict could have implications for planetary defense. A major asteroid impact could have effects felt on planet-wide scale. A scientist who fails to predict an asteroid impact might conceivably be held accountable in any country, including Italy. Such fears might cause scientists to avoid the field or to “cry wolf” by always erring on the side of caution, leading to an ultimate loss of public trust.

One prediction we’re willing to stand behind: there won’t be a lot of international seismology conferences held in Rome in the near future.


Written by Astro1 on October 22nd, 2012 , Planetary Defense, Space Policy and Management

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