Six Italian scientists were convicted of manslaughter because they followed the evidence and didn’t predict a massive earthquake that killed 300 people in 2009. In Italy. Not some third-world backwater of a place, but what is supposed to be a modern, industrialized nation. In response to the convictions, most of the senior members of the Civil Protection Commission, including its leader, have resigned. If this could happen in Italy, where else could such trials occur? France, Germany, Britain, the United States?
Why did this happen? In my opinion a fundamental misunderstanding of the basic principles of science led to the easy scapegoating of these scientists when the public needed someone to blame in their grief. “Those damn scientists told us nothing was happening and then an earthquake killed 300.” Here’s the dirty, little secret of science. It can only make predictions based on the current knowledge of how the physical world works, and that knowledge is incomplete. Sometimes that leads to incorrect hypotheses. In this case, the scientists looked all at the evidence made a prediction and the physical world did something else. It would be no different if a doctor looked at a patient’s symptoms and test results and treated appropriately, but the patient died because of something unknown or unpredicted. We don’t blame the doctor because of the limitations of modern medicine.
I am encouraged by the public backlash to these convictions, but I can easily see the same thing happening elsewhere. The only way to combat this is to help educate our fellow citizens on how science works and what it can or can’t do.