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Back in 2012, Italian courts convicted a group of scientists for manslaughter, a fact that was widely reported as the scientists being given the death sentence for failing to predict the 2009 earthquake that killed more than 300 people. The conviction was, in my opinion, totally bogus, but the headlines got the main point of the conviction wrong.
The actual conviction was due to the scientists supposedly reassuring the public that it was safe to return to their homes after a series of smaller earthquakes had rocked the area. The question is whether or not the scientists really said and meant this, or whether corrupt politicians goaded them into misrepresenting to the public the more scientific statement – that currently scientists have no foolproof way to predict large earthquakes, and so the data to date suggested there was no higher than normal probability of a large earthquake, despite the swarm of smaller earthquakes that was happening.
You see, at the time, there was one amateur who noticed the swarm of earthquakes and started warning people that this was a sign of a larger earthquake to come. People panicked, leaving their homes and sleeping in their cars. Politicians dragged the seismologists out to reassure the public so everyone could just get back to work. A few days later, BAM, big earthquake that kills hundreds of people.
In retrospect, this looks like the amateur was right. That’s known as confirmation bias: the human tendency to remember the hits and forget the misses. Like when you think of someone just before they call you on the phone. You may think that was a psychic connection, but you’ve forgotten all the times you thought of that person and they didn’t call, or all the times they called without you thinking of them at all.
People forget all the earthquake swarms that never result in a large earthquake, and they remember the ones that do, especially if there’s a guy running around yelling about how the sky is going to fall.
That’s why we have scientific data: records of all the earthquakes that happen, regardless of whether they are tiny, or if they come in swarms, or if they come immediately before a larger quake.
I highly recommend the app QuakeFeed…it’s free on ios, and it pulls data from the US Geological Society to show you a list or a map of all the quakes that happen around the world as they happen. It’s really astonishing to realize that the tectonic plates are just constantly moving under our feet, creating little shudders every few minutes or so.
Anyway, I’m talking about all this now because, to bury the lede a bit, 6 of the 7 the Italian scientists have just had their convictions overturned, at long last. The 7th is Bernardo De Bernardinis, who told the press that the smaller tremors actually decreased the risk of a major earthquake because they allowed the plates to release energy safely. That’s a load of bullshit, and so he’s going to spend another two years in jail.
Is that fair? I’m actually not sure but I think so. I believe that pseudoscience can be dangerous, and when it is dangerous, its practitioners should be held accountable. If an oncologist told people with a high risk of skin cancer that laying in the sun excessively was perfectly safe, I think they should face repercussions when those people eventually develop cancer. If a biologist told people it was safe to ride wild hippos, I’d hope they would be responsible when someone gets trampled to death. And when a geologist gets in the pocket of corrupt politicians and tells people that the science says they’re perfectly safe living in suboptimal buildings in an earthquake-prone area, then yes, I think a few years in jail isn’t egregious when 300 people die as a result.