It’s hard to believe that anyone in this day and age would say something like “let’s lynch the scientists.”
Unfortunately, the sentiments once reserved for medieval peasants’ feelings towards the local “wizard” when he told a bad fortune are resurfacing in the modern world.
Let us imagine, for a moment, a hypothetical situation.
Rusty Garrett, a respected and popular voice of local weather for over 20 years, is in the office on the night of a big summer storm.
It’s a type of storm system that in the past has created severe weather, including tornadoes. Rusty Garrett knows this from years of experience and is watching the storm closely.
The radar, however, is not indicating any type of tornadic activity. The storm-chasers on the ground can’t see any sort of funnel clouds or anything that would indicate a tornado was imminent.
It looks like our area is out of danger and they are about to give the “all clear,” when a tornado suddenly forms outside of a small community — say, Central Texas City, a town of about 300 — and tears through the town killing 30 people.
Naturally, the people of Central Texas City would be angry the next day.
Rusty Garrett did everything he could to accurately predict the storm and warn the people in its way and it was only due to a freak happening of nature that he was wrong.
Their loved ones were taken and their homes destroyed in the hypothetical tornado and the man they trusted to tell them when they were in danger had failed. In fact, all of the local weathermen had failed them.
At this point it doesn’t matter how many times Rusty Garrett or the other weathermen said things like “stay in your houses” or “find a sturdy building.” They didn’t predict that the tornado would hit Central Texas City and cause so much damage.
It’s a natural reaction. When confronted with tragedy, we look for a place to lay blame and it often goes to figures like doctors and officials who “could have done something about it.”
We blame them, they lose a little bit of credit and maybe make an apology, and we all move on knowing that they did their best and we’re not really mad at them as much as our circumstances.
What we do not do is bring them to trial for manslaughter.
That is what happened, unfortunately, in Italy a few weeks ago.
Seven leading seismologists formed a panel to assess potential danger to the town of L’Aquila. Their predictions were wrong and 300 people died.
Unfortunately the opportunity to bring a country together after this tragedy was marred by the arrest and conviction of the scientists involved.
Instead of days of shared mourning and repentance, the situation devolved into a scene reminiscent of the blood sports of ancient Rome.
This time it was the Italian legal system and the court of public opinion that ripped apart the people with the different ideas, not lions.
That kind of knee jerk reaction — blaming people that, through chance, couldn’t prevent a tragedy — is tantamount to blaming the prettiest girl in town when your cow gets sick. Convicting them of manslaughter is dangerously close to burning the “witch” at the stake.
More disturbingly, this trial sets a worrying precedent for the responsibility of scientists in consulting roles across the world. Volcanologists in Italy may be less willing to officially predict an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius if they feel there will be repercussions for making a wrong call.
Other, less democratic countries may seize the chance to scapegoat scientists using the Italian trials as an example. Imagine president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad jailing economists in his country for failing to predict the effects of UN sanctions.
In the American climate it would be dangerously easy to fall into a similar situation.
If Hurricane Sandy had been predicted to hit South Carolina instead of Manhattan, New Yorkers would be livid.
It would be easy to get swept up in some of the victims’ search for someone to blame and the National Weather Service would be tempting.
But instead of blaming people tangentially related to the problem, we should focus on consoling the victims’ families and moving past the tragedy as a country.
As Americans, and even more as just regular folks, we need to learn from the L’Aquila case and make sure it won’t happen again. Science isn’t a magical force that lets us know everything at once. It’s as good as the imperfect people that study it, and we must remember that.
The Italian scientists were wrong, and they share some of the blame for the deaths.
But they should be held responsible in the scientific community, not in a court of law.