In October 2012, an Italian court convicted six scientists and one government official on the charge of manslaughter, sentencing them each to six years in prison. The alleged crime: their failure to predict a 2009 earthquake resulting in the deaths of 309 people. As of last month, all seven defendants have filed for appeals, arguing the universally-held view in the field of seismology that precisely predicting seismic events is almost always impossible.
Italian courts would establish disastrous precedents by allowing the convictions to stand. The ruling of Judge Marco Billi in convicting the seven men establishes the principle that intellectuals are legally responsible not simply for errors in the practice of their profession or faulty advising, but for the limitations of their field. It demands from them not rationality, but omniscience, and requires that they have knowledge and abilities exceeding the capacities of modern science. It engenders a culture in which those who seek to understand the world through scientific inquiry are in greater danger for every successive measure of knowledge and expertise they achieve, and in which independence, intelligence, and achievement become a man’s greatest liabilities.
What implications would such a legal theory have if upheld in appeals? A chilling effect can already be observed as vulcanologists studying Mount Vesuvius have proceeded more hesitantly in discerning the likelihood of the volcano’s eruption, an event that would have massive implications for nearby Naples, reasoning that it is safer to have never asked important questions than to fail in answering them.
What about in other fields? Could oncologists be convicted for declaring a patient’s cancer to be in remission in the event that it later recurs? Could economists be convicted for failing to predict a crisis or misjudging a recovery? How avidly would men pursue important questions in such a society? Of what intellectual quality would be those who did?
No one is omniscient. Mankind’s scientific knowledge, although astoundingly advanced, remains limited. But the fact that we don’t know everything is no excuse for evading that which we do know—and so court officials responsible for the convictions in this case have no excuse for evading the known facts about seismology and no excuse for imposing these grotesquely unjust sentences. Hopefully those overseeing the appeals court will uphold the genuinely highest human standard: rationality.
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