Science on trial

by Melanie Hall

THE decision to put six Italian seismologists and a former government official on trial for failing to predict an earthquake shows a fundamental failure to grasp the nature of science, according to researchers.

The scientists are standing trial on manslaughter charges for allegedly failing to adequately warn residents about an earthquake that went on to kill more than 300 people in Italy in 2009.

The move has provoked anger from seismologists around the world, who see it as an attack on science and insist it is impossible to predict earthquakes.

About 5,200 international researchers signed a petition last year supporting the Italian scientists, and the Seismological Society of America wrote to Italy’s president voicing its concern about what it called an unprecedented legal attack on science.

The seven defendants have been accused of giving “inexact, incomplete and contradictory information” about the smaller tremors felt by L’Aquila residents in the six months before the quake, and whether or not this should have led to an earthquake warning.

Part of this is the compensation culture, with people quick to point the finger of blame at anything they can to make a buck – if people could sue the sun for sunburn, a fair few would probably have a crack at it.

But it also highlights the fact that some people simply don’t appreciate that science is evolving, constantly being rewritten, as researchers make new discoveries and have to revise their theories – scientists do not, and cannot, hold all the answers.

The Italian seismologists are not the only scientists to have been forced into the witness box over the years.

In 2009 geologist Markus Haering was accused of causing earthquakes in Basel, Switzerland, during prospecting for geothermal energy. The geologist on trial was the director of Geothermal Explorer, the company working on the project.

The quakes allegedly caused by the drilling caused hundreds of thousands of francs in damage. The scientist, who had called the charges ludicrous, was acquitted.

Iranian physicians Dr Kamiar Alaei and his brother Dr Arash Alaei, who worked to treat patients with HIV/AIDS, were arrested by the Iranian government in June 2008. On December 31 2008 a one-day closed-door trial was held, after the brothers had been in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison for six months.

On January 19 2009 they were charged with being “in communications with an enemy government” and “seeking to overthrow the Iranian government under article 508 of Iran’s Islamic Penal code”.

Arash was sentenced to six years and Kamiar three years. In November 2010 Kamiar was released after more than two years of detention. Arash Alaei remains in Evin Prison. The doctors were awarded the Global Health Council Jonathan Mann prize for Health and Human Rights in June 2011.

It’s going back a bit, but a famous example of a scientist in the dock was in 1633, when Galileo was ordered to stand trial on suspicion of heresy. This was after Galileo published Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1632 with the permission of Pope Urban VII. Urban had two conditions: 1) Galileo was to include arguments for both heliocentric and geocentric viewpoints, and 2) Urban’s own views on the matter were to be included.

The book turned out to be biased in favour of heliocentrism and the Pope did not appreciate the perceived public ridicule. Galileo was found guilty of heresy.

James Lieber, a researcher at the University of California’s Semel Institute for Neurosciences and Human Behavior, was found guilty of faking interviews, tampering with data and urine samples, and stealing money intended for study.

Lieber was said to have “knowingly and intentionally falsified” data over six months during a 2005 study, which was funded in part with National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants.

This piece first appeared on melanie-hall.co.uk

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