Earthquake trial acquittal: scientific prediction and responsibility

earthquake01(by Eileen Dombrowski) “Today we have an earthquake after the earthquake,” declared a grieving relative of a victim of the 2009 earthquake in Aquila, Italy,  as charges against six earthquake scientists for failing to warn people of the quake were dismissed by an Italian appeals courts this week.  The case, distressing though it is, provides a gripping example for TOK knowledge questions that surround scientific prediction and its relative uncertainty in different sciences, and, more urgently, the relationship between expert knowledge and social responsibility.

The scientists were convicted two years ago for not warning the inhabitants of Aquila in advance of the 2009 earthquake that killed more than 300 people. Yet how could they possibly have predicted the quake when prediction is so uncertain in seismology? Scientists from around the world protested the sentence, and some media claimed that it was science itself that was on trial.

For TOK, some knowledge questions arise around prediction in the natural sciences: To what extent are the natural sciences characterized by being able to predict? What uncertainties attend prediction across the range of the natural sciences?

The legal case centred on the advice passed on to the public after a meeting of the experts less than a week before the major quake hit. A seventh man, a public official, has not been acquitted because the advice he gave townspeople was deemed too reassuring in face of the risks. It is easy to understand the perspective of the relatives of the victims, who blame bad advice for the death of their loved ones. Lawyers for the accused experts, however, contend that there is no certain causal link in any case between the advice given and people’s decision to remain in their houses on the night the quake hit.

For TOK, some knowledge questions arise around expert knowledge: What is an “expert” in scientific knowledge, or more broadly in other areas of knowledge?  Does “expert knowledge” equate to “certain knowledge”?  How can we best evaluate our sources of knowledge?

Other knowledge questions revolve around the relationship between science and social responsibility (or knowledge and ethics): What ethical responsibility do experts carry when giving advice on decisions or actions to take?  Does a society carry any responsibility for listening to or following the advice of experts? What is the relationship between ethics and law?

I’ve blogged before on this story of the Italian earthquake scientists, both when they were charged and when they were convicted, so refer you to my earlier comments if you’re interested in further details of this case: “scientists on trial for failing to predict” (Oct 8, 2011) and earthquake shock: prediction and responsibility” (October 23, 2012)  I’ve also used it as an example of a topic for a TOK presentation in the IB TOK Course Companion (page 418).

I’ve followed this story, I admit, with some agitation. I’ve found it distressing as I’ve thought from the perspective of those who lost loved ones and believe that their deaths could and should have been prevented by people on whom they relied for their safety. I’ve also found it distressing from the perspective of the accused experts who must wish they had known more, had known better, but who — according to the appeal court’s acquittal — were not guilty of giving bad advice.

Like me, many other teachers are likely to find this story resonates with them as they take responsibility, in many situations, for student safety. What knowledge is expected of us, and what are the limits of our responsibility when we use the phrase “To the best of my knowledge…”?

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