Italian Court Convicts Scientists for Failing to Save Lives

hi-italy-earthquake-852In a move that calls to mind the Inquisition, the Scopes Monkey Trial and other cases where science was put on trial by fearful minds, an Italian court made international news in 2012 for charging six seismologists with manslaughter. The verdict was handed down back in October in relation to the deadly earthquake that struck  the Abruzzo region in 2009. This decision has sent ripples through the scientific community, and inspired a fair deal of rancor the world over.

The 6.3-magnitude quake that struck on April 6, 2009 caused the deaths of 309 people and injured about 1,500 others as well as laying waste to most of the buildings in the medieval town of L’Aquila. In the aftermath, six seismologist were put on trial for not giving the public “sufficient warning” about the quake, even though members of their profession the world over insisted that given the current state of technology, their was no way to accurately predict it.

italy-quake-rtr32cThat didn’t fly with the Italian court, which handed a sentence of six years apiece for the scientists after a 13 month-long trial. On the same day, four top Italian disaster experts quit their jobs, saying the ruling will make it impossible for them to perform their duties. And of course, that feeling was echoed far and wide, especially here in Canada where numerous officials lined up to denounce the verdict and express grief over its likely implications.

In an interview with Nature magazine at the outset of the trial last September, Italian prosecutor Fabio Picuti acknowledged that prediction was not (no pun intended) an exact science, replying “I’m not crazy. I know they can’t predict earthquakes.” Meanwhile judge Giuseppe Romano Gargarella, who oversaw the case, said that the defendants “gave inexact, incomplete and contradictory information” about whether a series of small tremors in the six months prior to the 2009 disaster were significant enough to issue a quake warning.

earthquakeSo in reality, the case was not about a failure to predict the quake, but was instead a matter of “risk communication”. As David Ropeik, a journalist for Scientific American‘s online blog, pointed out, that task fell to Bernardo De Bernardinis, a government official who was not a seismologist, and who tried to assuage public concern by glibly suggesting they “relax with a glass of wine”. He and other members of the Great Risks Commission and the national Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology were also tried in the same case. All of these men, according to Ropeik, did a very poor job of communicating the risk to the public.

But even with this distinction being made, between failure to predict and failure to communicate, this verdict still has many people worried. One such person was Gail Atkinson, the Canada Research Chair in Earthquake Hazards and Ground Motions, remarked “It’s a travesty… what it will result in is seismologists and other scientists being afraid to say anything at all.” Another was John Clague, a professor in the department of earth sciences at Simon Fraser University and a member of the Royal Society of Canada. “I just think scientists are going to be reluctant to deal with the problem,” he said, “particularly government scientists. Academics like myself, we’re going to be very guarded about the words we use”, referring to seismology and earthquakes.

In short, if there’s a question of liability, one can expect scientists to be far more careful about what they say, which is going to wreak havoc since science depends upon the accurate transmission of information. This state of mind, for many, calls to mind instances in Italy’s past where scientists were forced to hold their tongues and conceal their research and findings for fear of a public backlash.

vitruvian_man_leonardo_da_vinciThree prominent examples include Leonardo da Vinci, who’s extensive work in biology, anatomy, flight, and physics was documented with backwards writing to conceal it from prying eyes. Another is Galileo Galilee, a man who’s seminal work proving the Heliocentric model of the universe was hindered by the Vatican’s fear that it contradicted church doctrine. And third and last is the Luminati, an organization of Renaissance scientists who were purged for their interests in the natural sciences and mysticism.

So the question remains, are scientists and government panels to be held accountable for failing to predict, or accurately convey potential disasters? Moreover, is this is a case of scientists being persecuted, or just liability gone mad?


Rabbletown: Life in these United Christian States of Holy America, by Randy Attwood

Rabbletown: Life in these United Christian States of Holy America, by Randy Attwood

Hello and welcome to the first literary review I have had the honor of doing for a fellow author! On the docket for today, a sci-fi, near future dystopian work known as Rabbletown: Life in these United Christian States of Holy America, by Randy Attwood. Awhile back, this author and his work came to my attention by way of my writers group. Like many of us, Randy has been writing for many years, had an idea and manuscript that was just awaiting completion, and which he recently finished and made available as an ebook and paperback (see links below for info on where to find it).

Author Bio: Randy is a retired journalist, but also worked as the director of university relations for Kentucky University medical center and as the media relations officer for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. He retired in 2010 and now dedicates himself to his writing. He has several titles to date, and Rabbletown is (far as I can tell) the flagship of his fleet.

Plot Synopsis: The story takes place in a dystopian future, circa 2084, where the US has become a fundamentalist state (as the name clearly implies). The how and why of this are explained in the preamble, where ongoing tension between the US and Middle East eventually turn nuclear and result in the full scale devastation of both. Whereas the United States bombs Iran and environs into oblivion using its ICBM’s, the various nation-states and terrorist organizations strike back using backpack nukes and dirty bombs until most US major cities are ruined.

What emerges is, predictably, a renewed Dark Ages where civil authorities are replaced by religious ones, the Evangelical movement becomes the dominant political force in America, and Jews, Muslims and Catholics are either suppressed or eradicated. The president of the US is known as the Pastor President, and all offices (governor, mayor, etc) are also required to take on the title of pastor before their rank. Each president is named in honor of famous Evangelists; the current president is Jerry Falwell V, his VP is Pat Robertson.

In addition to demonstrating their lineage from these current media figures, this is also a clear and delicious stab at the Christian Right and its political machinations! Other names of note include Cheney – a former member of the regime who is languishing in jail after an attempted coup – thus ensuring that the political right are also included in this indictment. What’s more, the civil authorities are known as Inquisitors, who are naturally the enforcers of religious law, extract confessions through torture and regularly stone those who sin.

Foreign policy is similarly medieval in this day and age. Whereas the US has become a Christian Republic, there is talk of the “Caliphate”, presumably a united Arab world, where Christian and Muslim soldiers fight for control of Jerusalem once again. It is hinted in the story that this “Crusade” is not real, merely a political tool that the Pastor Presidents use from time to time to drum up support. Still, the purpose of having it is clear. Whereas politics in the US are now dominated by religion, so to is their view of the world.

In any case, what follows is a story of how one town – Rabbletown, Kansas (a borough of Topeka) – is working to create the country’s greatest Cathedral in preparation for a visit from the Pastor President. The main characters, the Mason Bob Crowley, his wife Cheryl, Pastor Governor Jerry Johnson IV, Healer Elmer, Father Superior Robert, Friar Francis and Pastor Teacher Harold, give us a inside view of life in this future Kansas town, presenting it from various angles and providing exposition of how society works. Their particular POV’s are also important when a seminal development takes place, the appearance of a boy who has a knack for quoting Bible verses and seems somehow… “touched” by the Lord. This boy is none other than Bobby Crowley, the son of Mason Bob.

(Spoiler Alert!): The story begins to truly come together after a series of holy events takes place involving Bobby and a routine stoning. Everyone, from the President to the boy’s father, becomes swept up in a frenzy after news of it spreads, the authorities condemning it as the work of Satan while others proclaim the boy to be Christ reborn. Repression and division follow, with the so-called holy authorities becoming very much the enemy of those who appear chosen and righteous. Needless to say, the allegory is clear. In time, the division between the authorities and believers reaches (ahem!) Biblical proportions, in a scene that very much resembles that of Jerusalem during the time of Jesus.

Weaknesses: It is this last part which fell short for me. Given the background and nature of the story, one would get the impression that religion is being cast in a negative light, or at least that it is being mocked for its current excesses and abuses. However, the story also seems to be making the point that religion will be the source of salvation. While this would seem like a keen observation about the duality of faith – the line between salvation and condemnation being so fine – it also makes for an unbelievable ending. Whereas the question of Bobby’s holiness would have seemed best if left vague and metaphorical, there is no doubt about it in the story. Bobby is literally divine, his nature and purpose a force of righteous redemption.

There are some other weaknesses, such as the relevant facts being presented in a matter-of-fact way that leaves the reader feeling spoon fed. The dialogue also comes off as expository and forced at times, something you wouldn’t expect to hear from real people no matter how politically conscious they are. And the intro gives us a full dose of the background which leaves the reader feeling less inclined to read and discover for themselves what’s already happened, what has led the characters to their current situation. And the ending, well its a little predictable given all the Biblical allusions. However, these are hardly fatal and don’t really take away from the overall plot. Really, its just the ending that felt like it misfired.

Strengths: Overall, the story has all the elements of good satire: corruption, decay, selfishness and power mongering; with small, shining lights of redemption amidst it all. The bit about people’s daily lives and how they turn to their PPC’s (Personal Pastor Counselor) is also quite ingenious, predicting the emergence of an internet-based personal religious counseling. The mock history, particularly the part about the Catholic Accommodation was also a stroke a fine art (I shan’t describe, read it yourself!).

And above all, the mockery of the Evangelical movement and its political ambitions feels quite apt. For what can be said about people who seem to think that its a good idea to combine religion and politics, and have little to no qualms about condemning their “liberal” adversaries and all the “undesirables” of society? If they got their wish, would it really resemble anything other than Taliban-style medievalism?

Hence, I recommend Rabbtletown for those people looking for a dystopian read with a religious twist. It’s clever, fun, and a short read which will inspire thought. And, given some tweaking and a little expansion, it could even be a bestseller someday! Hey, you gotta have faith (ba pa ra pum pum!).