Is Your Scientific Malpractice Insurance Paid Up?

“Thanks to his intuition as a brilliant physicist and by relying on different arguments, Galileo, who practically invented the experimental method, understood why only the sun could function as the centre of the world, as it was then known, that is to say, as a planetary system.  The error of the theologians of the time, when they maintained the centrality of the Earth, was to think that our understanding of the physical world’s structure was, in some way, imposed by the literal sense of Sacred Scripture.”

 Pope John Paul II, November 4, 1992

 

Pope John Paul II did for the Catholic Church in 1992 what scientists do every single day in their professional lives:  admit to a mistake in understanding the nature of the universe.  Scientists do it because it is a fundamental part of the scientific method to acknowledge the failings in our understanding of the world, and because of our collective commitment to improving that understanding by refusing to become doctrinaire.  A scientist gains no higher respect from his peers than when he tells them he was mistaken and goes on to share what he has learned from that mistake so that they may continue the advance of knowledge.  It is this fundamental pillar of the scientific method that has single-handedly been responsible for its tremendous and astonishing successes. 

As the pope noted in his statement, Galileo was one of those who were responsible for devising such a brutal and uncompromising commitment to the evidence of our own eyes and ears in drawing conclusions about the world.  For this, he was condemned by the Church, sentenced to live under house arrest at his farmhouse in Arcetri, where he would have little to do other than grow blind and die.  It would not be until 1835 — more than 200 years after his conviction — that the Vatican would remove his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems from its list of banned books and not until 1992 — more than 350 years after his conviction — that it would formally admit that it was wrong and Galileo was right.  (Some additional commentary that I have previously made about Galileo can be found here.) 

I find it unfortunate that it is again in Italy that ridiculous persecution of scientists is taking place.  It is not the Church this time, but rather the Italian state that is trying to hold scientists to a standard that fails to recognize the fundamental character of the scientific method.  On April 6, 2009, an earthquake struck Italy in the Abruzzo region, resulting in the death of more than 300 people and damaging thousands of building.  About 65,000 lost their homes and most of those were forced to live for weeks in makeshift “tendopoli” — tent cities — that were erected to house the quake refugees, a sad circumstance that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi thoughtlessly suggested was an opportunity for them to enjoy a “camping weekend.” 

The region had been experiencing Earth tremors for more than ten weeks in advance of the earthquake, and on March 30, a 4.0-magnitude earthquake struck the region.  There was concern among the public that a larger earthquake would follow, as indeed it did a week later.  A meeting of the Major Risks Committee, which provides advice to the Italian Civil Protection Agency on the risks of natural disasters was held on March 31.  Minutes from the meeting show that the following statements were made about the possibility of a major earthquake in Abruzzo:  “A major earthquake in the area is unlikely but cannot be ruled out”; “in recent times some recent earthquakes have been preceded by minor shocks days or weeks beforehand, but an the other hand many seismic swarms did not result in a major event”; “because L’Aquila is in a high-risk zone it is impossible to say with certainty that there will be no large earthquake”; “there is no reason to believe that a swarm of minor events is a sure predictor of a major shock” — all the sorts of cautious statements by scientists trying to place their understanding of the real risk in context of what they know about seismology and what they do not. 

But at a press conference later held by Bernardo De Bernardinis, a government official who was the deputy technical head of the Civil Protection Agency, reporters were told that “the scientific community tells us there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy.”  The idea that small seismic events “release energy,” like letting a bit of steam out of a pressure cooker, is one that is soundly rejected by seismologists; the Earth does not function that way. 

The bizarre aftermath has been the bringing of charges of manslaughter against De Bernardinis and six seismologist members of the Major Risks Committee for their failure to properly warn the public of the danger.  The charges were brought almost a year ago, but a preliminary hearing was not held until last week because of delays resulting from requests by dozens of those damaged by the earthquake to receive civil compensation from the accused scientists.  Astonishingly, the result of the hearing was not an outright dismissal of the homicide charges, but instead a decision to proceed with a trial that will begin on September 20. 

To my mind, this case is an absurd attack on scientists, demanding an infallibility from them that they never claim.  As one of the indicted seismologists noted, there are hundreds of seismic shocks in Italy every year:  “If we were to alert the population every time, we would probably be indicted for unjustified alarm.”  These scientists face not only potential incarceration for twelve years if they are convicted of manslaughter, but also potential civil liability for property damage resulting from the earthquake.  The fact that this possibility is even being entertained is alarming:  It is likely to have a detrimental effect on the kinds of information scientists are willing to share with the public.  And if there is a realistic potential for civil liability arising from the kinds of statements that scientists routinely make, it may indeed make sense for scientists to seek malpractice insurance.  The very idea, though, that scientific research should be haunted by the threat of legal liability in the way that medicine is already, is more than troubling.