The sentencing, by Italian judge Marco Billi, of 6 seismologists and an ex government official to 6 years in prison over the deadly 6.3 magnitude earthquake of 2009 in l’Aquila Italy received wide press coverage this week. It also created a whole lot of outrage as many people have seen an anti-science witch-hunt in the decision. Much of this outrage is based on the false assumption that the court sentenced the scientists for failing to predict the earthquake but this however appears to be far from the truth. The scientists’ wrongdoing, says the decision, was not failing to predict the earthquake but failing to properly communicate their science to the public. Their nuanced scientific evaluation of the situation was, it seems, incompetently and falsely turned into a misleading and detrimental (as we now know) public downplay of the gravity of the situation. The scientists wrong doing was not protecting their message from erroneous rewording and for not coming out to correct it when they realized it came out wrong. This is then a legitimate case for a court of law and the decision is not entirely without merit.
Consider the following definition of malpractice (taken from here):
malpractice is a type of negligence in which the professional under a duty to act fails to follow generally accepted professional standards, and that breach of duty is the proximate cause of injury to a plaintiff who suffers harm.
If the seismologists’ duty ends after they walk away from the delivery of their evaluation then they are not liable for malpractice but if they have an obligation to society to make sure that their science cannot be used to legitimize nonsense then they are.
If your science cannot reliably predict things then it is not enough to state that in refereed scientific journals. You need to communicate that to the public and you need to make sure that your “science” is not used to legitimize detrimental policies. Consider the case of what the IMF have been doing the last 3 years in Greece. They used “hardly safe assumptions” on the size of multipliers in effect inflicting an extra load of pain on a country which already brought itself on the brink of disaster. Here is the core question then:
If by using wrong assumptions you sink a country and its folk in a deep recession it will take years to come out of are you not liable for economic malpractice and do you then lift that liability by simply changing your mind after you screwed up an entire folk?
I would like to see a Greek court take on the case and causing an open debate on this. It will do economics good and it will do society good. Any Greek judges out there?