Tag: Seismology

Scapegoating: Not Just for Backwards Micronations Anymore

Not too long ago there were a few stories here and there, rather bemused over a small nation where the ruling council, in a bit of disgrace, decided to have a literal scapegoat ritual. It wasn’t a very big deal, and I can’t even seem to find it in the news archives anymore. (As you might imagine, googling things like “scapegoat” and “small nation” tends to turn up mostly stuff like people blubbering about how America murdered Osama bin Laden.)

The reason I bring this up is that apparently Italy thought this was a really good idea, only since they’re so much more sophisticated and intelligent than some Backwardsistan, they decided to throw some actual people to the wolves instead.

Six Italian seismologists and one government official will be tried for the manslaughter of those who died in an earthquake that struck the city of L’Aquila on 6 April 2009.

See, turns out these guys took a look at their seismic readings and told everyone that a full-on quake wasn’t likely. Turns out they were wrong, quake happened, people died. Well, fuck. That’s a tragedy, but these things happen in science. You screw up, you make mistakes, then you publish anyway and try to paint anyone that disagrees as equivalent to Holocaust deniers oops, sorry, wrong science, nevermind. But anyway, yeah, misreadings happen all the time, (some) scientists admit when they’re wrong, there is no such thing as an absolute scientific discipline. (Except, as mathematicians would eagerly point out, mathematics. I call bullshit, if something is an absolute you can’t have “Swedish-style algebra” or what-the-fuck-ever.)

Try telling that to a bunch of Europeans who have been raised believing that personal responsibility is someone else’s problem.

At the time of the 31 March 2009 meeting, seismic activity had been going on in the area for more than three months, causing alarm in the population. De Bernardinis summoned the meeting and asked the scientists to assess the risk of a major earthquake and its possible consequences. The meeting was followed by a press conference by De Bernardinis and Barberi, where the two reassured the population that the seismic sequence did not necessarily hint at a major earthquake. De Bernardinis, in particular, appeared on television saying that “the scientific community tells me there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favorable”. A major earthquake did hit on April 6 though, killing 309 people. In the aftermath, many citizens quoted those statements as the reason they did not take precautionary measures, such as fleeing their homes. According to the accusation, many people who would otherwise leave the area decided to stay, and were eventually killed in the collapse of their houses.

Really, the most that you could say here is that De Bernardinis overrepresented the scientists’ assurances. It sounds like they told him the readings didn’t necessarily indicate a quake, and he decided that sounded better as “There won’t be a quake”, but even then it sounds like he worked in those “most likely”s and so on. People elected to stay in a region that had been undergoing months of seismic activity supposedly on his word alone, and this is supposedly the sole reason they were still there when the actual quake hit.

So okay, you can maybe make a case for trying De Bernardinis. It was his job, after all, to counsel people properly on their safety. If they could determine that his language was sufficiently placating to give people a false sense of safety, then you know what? Fine. Even if it is rather scapegoat-ish, why not hold a public servant accountable when he screws up? (It’d certainly be a refreshing change of pace if we did it over here.) Actually trying him for manslaughter seems rather extreme, but it’s their country, their standards, fine.

The problem comes in indicting every scientist they could apparently get ahold of that was involved in this. Not only is it blatantly scapegoating them, to give the people an outlet for their pain and rage, it is telling the scientific community “You are not allowed to be wrong, and if you are wrong we will make you suffer for it.” A fairly anti-science view from the supposedly enlightened Europians, don’t you think? This would be like if every time some American journal of health or whatnot put out a study saying “Eggs are actually deadly poison! Eat an egg and you’ll instantly fall over dead!”, we rounded up everyone that had ever been involved with the last journal of health that said “Eggs are vital to continued existence! If you aren’t eating an egg within the next five minutes, I hope you’ve lived a life without regret!” and put them through a public show trial before tossing them in jail for a few years.

Like the villains in some console RPG or dramatic TV show, Italy has a bunch of mourning, angry people on their hands, and has decided that the best way to deal with that is to give them someone to hate. The trial will be as much of a chance for Italians to focus that anger and helplessness into hate for specific faces (that are most definitely not their current government officials), able to tune in every day and see these guys being marched into the courthouse, and to either see them triumphantly convicted for their “crimes” or rage at them for escaping justice if they’re acquitted. Either way, their emotions are given vent, and they go home from the circus with their pockets full of bread.

As techdirt says:

That seems crazy, but the judge refused to dismiss the case, and it will apparently start this fall. What’s next? Will someone sue the weatherman for being wrong?

I might have gone for the Galileo reference myself, but either way. Ultimately it comes down to “I listened to some bad advice and I did something stupid. I don’t want that to be my fault. You find someone else’s fault for it to be for me.” A popular viewpoint in certain circles.