The Perils of Trivia & Ignorance

So the Italian scientists have been found guilty of manslaughter for their conduct during the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila.  The usual narrative is that they were unfairly found guilty for failing at an impossible task:  predicting when an earthquake would strike.  We, of course, respond, “Duh!  How could these idiots do such a thing?  Everyone knows scientists can’t predict earthquakes!”

The problem with this narrative is that humans aren’t exactly random in their behavior.  Generally, whenever you find yourself thinking, “how could anyone possibly be that stupid?” it’s because you don’t really understand the whole situation.  Likewise, when the media takes the “how could anyone possibly be that stupid?” angle, you can be sure they’re not reporting the whole story.  We all have our reasons, and even when they’re bad, they make sense on some level.  This Nature article from last year does a good job of giving a broader view of the circumstances surrounding the trial.

Of course, the cry from scientists is now, “It’s obvious that scientists can’t predict earthquakes!”  But the facts of the case do not indicate that this was what the people of L’Aquila were really told beforehand.  Consider:  They had an official governmental body called the “National Commission for Forecasting and Predicting Great Risks.”   This commission took earthquakes under their purview and then took it upon themselves to hold a press conference and dispense generic assurances that apparently amounted to “there’s no need to worry.”  Now, if it’s your job to predict great risks and you say there’s no need to worry about a major earthquake (beside the usual fact of living in an earthquake-prone area), you have effectively made a prediction regarding earthquakes.  This raises a very important question:  If earthquakes are a great risk that it’s obviously impossible to forecast or predict, whey did this commission take it upon themselves to say anything other than “we simply don’t know; earthquakes are impossible to predict?”

There are instances where the scientific consensus on an issue amounts to a handful of trivia.  Unfortunately, dispensing trivia imitates providing a sound understanding inasmuch as it allows people to appear informed, intelligent, and in control to those who are uninitiated on a given subject.  Whether or not it’s real, people can choose to use this appearance to claim a kind of intellectual authority.  It’s no secret that scientists often capitalize on this.  There is an growing attitude among scientists that science should play the primary role in public decision-making.  Accordingly, opportunities for government-funded positions of authority for scientists are increasingly called for and, when granted, eagerly snapped up.  These are seen as great victories for science and society, but what happens next when those in authority are called on to earn their keep?

The citizens of the town wanted to know what to do in the face of the recent swarm of tremors in the area (and sudden shock right before the big quake).  Apparently, the only scientific answer with any intellectual integrity is “we don’t know what you should do.”  But that’s not what they said.  When asked for advice, they parceled out trivia without acknowledging what they were doing.  They said the kind of phenomena the town had experienced only indicated a 2% chance of a major earthquake.  They said things were normal.  They said there was no out-of-the-ordinary danger.  Given their measurements, this is all true with respect to trivia–there was no scientific reason to conclude that risk in the area had suddenly increased.  Nevertheless, all of this became wrapped up in the mantle of advice due to the press conference at which they publicly exercised the positions of authority granted to them.  The appearance covered up the ignorance; the handful of trivia replaced the local tradition of getting out of the house when there are big tremors; and many lives were lost as a result.

Now, forecasting and predicting great risks is a tall order when it comes to natural disasters.  It may very well be the case that an honest Commission would have to say “I don’t know” on most of the issues on which they are consulted.  It may be that the people of Italy would not feel that the Commission were earning it’s keep if all it produced were a constant string of short but honest press conferences that admitted “I don’t know.”  So be it.  Better to have unemployed scientists than to employ scientists to use trivia to obscure and diminish the life-saving practical wisdom of tradition.  You might note that despite this utter failure of probabilistic risk assessment and the obvious inability of science to predict earthquakes, the Nature article still promotes the responsibility of scientists to replace tradition with such things at the end of the article.

Knowledge and leadership are two entirely different things.  Scientists want more and more authority to lead society because of their knowledge, but authority is inseparable from responsibility.  If the limitations of your field of knowledge make it impossible for you to be legitimately held responsible, then you should not accept the authority in the first place.  Deciding what we do when we hear “I don’t know” in the face of great risks is the place of wisdom, not science.  Rather than usurping wisdom’s place, science should have remained in the universities and recorded trivia.  One day, such trivia may lead to understanding, and when that day comes, scientists might honestly say more than “I don’t know.”  But until that day comes, they would do well to avoid seeking social authority.

[H/T:  Vox Popoli]

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