View 747 Tuesday, October 23, 2012
I was on TWIT this week. See http://twit.tv/show/this-week-in-tech/376
Here is a more complete account of the earthquake prediction story:
From a colleague in another conference:
From what I have seen so far, the actual case seems to be about scientific over-reach. The scientists were convicted not of failing to predict an earthquake, but of declaring that an earthquake was "very unlikely." If, as reported, the scientists correctly stated that it was impossible to predict an earthquake, why did they then qualify it with a statement that one was very unlikely? By implication, the statement predicted an earthquake was "very unlikely" to occur, and if we can’t predict earthquakes will happen, how can we predict one won’t happen? While there is a definite anti-science trend in some quarters, I think it is not entirely fed by ignorance. Instead, scientific over-reaching, pretending to knowledge we do not in fact have, has led to too many cases of "nothing can go wrong," "there’s nothing to worry about," "we understand all of the risks," and so on. I think that is what led to the convictions in Italy.
Given the state of earthquake prediction science – there isn’t any, and no one can reliably do it – it’s hard to understand how one might be convicted of manslaughter for not predicting an earthquake. Surely there is more to the story, and so far we have not seen trial transcripts. From the New Scientist article:
So what did the six seismologists that have been charged do?
They spoke at a meeting on 31 March 2009 – a week before the quake – organised by Italy’s Civil Protection Department. At the meeting, they said that while they could not rule out a major quake, and it was best to be prepared, there was no particularly good reason to think that one was coming.
Afterwards, the department’s deputy head Bernardo De Bernardinis told the media that the small shocks were reducing the seismic stresses, lowering the chances of a major quake. "That’s completely wrong," Musson says.
This statement, according to the prosecution, gave false confidence to the inhabitants of L’Aquila. This may be true. However, Musson says, "I haven’t been able to work out why the other six are being held responsible".
One thing we can expect from this is a great deal more care given to statements about upcoming disasters.
Now imagine what would happen if, instead of global warming, we get big glaciers? Or perhaps sociologists can be charged with crimes for spending money on various crime reduction schemes if they don’t work? Or perhaps the soothsayers can be changed with not giving true sooth. There is still much to learn from this.
The debate went about as I expected. Mr. Obama believes our Libya policy has been a success, and Mr. Romney was smart enough to let that stand without challenge. Given Mr. Obama’s reaction to comments on Benghazi in the debate before this one, that seems an intelligent thing to do: there is little Mr. Romney could tell the debate audience that it does not already know about the success or lack thereof of our Libya policy.
Mr. Romney’s best line: “Attacking me is not a foreign policy.” Mr. Obama’s: On being told that we have many fewer ships than we had in past times, “We also have fewer horses and bayonets.” He then added that we now have ships called aircraft carriers. Airplanes land on them.
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