I was alarmed recently while reading an article that detailed the unfortunate fate of Italian scientists who were convicted for allegedly providing “inexact, incomplete, and contradictory information.” In short, these scientists were found guilty for not warning the public about an upcoming earthquake, and thus, they were determined to be criminally negligent. The 6.3-magnitude quake happened on April 9, 2009, and took the lives of 308 people. The scientists involved were each sentenced to six years in prison because they allegedly failed to alert the residents in the town of L’Aquila that the small tremors felt during the time before the earthquake were in fact warning signs of a real quake, and thus, proper earthquake warnings and preparations were not performed, which could have saved lives. The scientific community generally agrees that predicting an earthquake is like predicting the weather—it’s not an exact science, and to further assume that the scientists were criminally negligent is even more preposterous. Even the best and most knowledgeable scientists are unable to accurately predict the future, and if they were able to do that, they certainly wouldn’t limit themselves to the scientific arena. More lucrative opportunities would beckon.
Even though I am not a seismologist or a geologist, common sense would not let me label the Italian scientists as careless. These educated individuals simply took into account a natural phenomenon and, from their education, experience, and interpretation of the collected data, concluded that no significant threat existed to the town of L’Aquila. Let us all not forget that it was the effects of the earthquake that killed people and not the scientists. If you’re driving on the highway and you see a car with a flat tire, you are not liable if the driver of that car later loses control because of the flat tire and hurts someone on the road (if you are morally obligated to lend a warning to an unsuspecting neighbor is a different story). After all, even if we assume a malevolent plot constructed by the scientists, what would they have to gain from purposely misleading the community at large? Jail time? Persecution? Moral guilt? Loss of their jobs and livelihood?
In a general sense, if such legal debacles were to become commonplace, scientists may also purposely try not to warn anyone if they were to face penalties for being incorrect or inexact after the phenomenon in question happened. Such a perverse paradigm would deter credible warnings from coming to light out of fear of retribution—the law would crush science.
Minority opinions are expected in any scientific field where the evidence and theories to explain a natural phenomenon are not ironclad. But to accuse “dissenters” in retrospect is analogous to a medieval witch hunt that essentially coerces everyone to submit to majority opinion. And when the majority thinks it’s right, then dangerous waters lie ahead.
Dissent is a part of life since each individual is unique. Particularly in the field of science, dissent is an integral component of expanding knowledge, developing new ideas, and refining hypotheses. The innovative sciences are a field whose structure is antithetical to closed systems and, by its very nature of experimentation and reproducibility, is perpetually challenging its own assertions. Accordingly, if science proudly persecuted dissent, we would all still think that the world is flat and the sun revolves around the earth.
I discovered the hidden danger of this ruling after contemplating the bold leaps some might take from this case in order to serve particular agendas. Consider a world where the following individuals are sent to prison: doctors who fail to make a correct diagnosis (leading to an outbreak of stuffy noses), meteorologists who fail to predict a lightning storm (leading to a farmer being struck by lightning and subsequently perishing), and oceanologists who fail to predict the coming of a large wave (leading to a surfer drowning).
In fact, suggestions on ways to persecute dissenters in regard to climate change have already begun.
Accurate and truthful information is good information. Information that is designed to mislead and dupe people is bad information. However, information that is disseminated as a means to shed a different or new light on a subject should always be valued. Even so, the most learned, intelligent experts in the world are limited by human foresight. Holding someone accountable for the trillions of possible variables that cannot be accounted for would be the same as holding human beings accountable for fundamentally not being God.
In the theory of systems of organization, there are two recognized models—open and closed. An open system distinguishes itself from a closed system by recognizing what is going on in the environment and paying attention to feedback, whether it is good or bad. Closed systems, which invariably all die, are rooted in history and tradition and characteristically ignore the world around them.
In the eyes of Thomas Groome, how we all learn is a transformative process that is divided into three components: the already, the present, and the future. In the already component, you know what you know. Those who teach do so deductively; there are no questions, and thus no discovery. The present process involves inquiry and unlocking dormant potential; discovery is active here. Within the future component exists the greatest potential, and this realm is directed beyond our current limits. This is the place where creativity and new ideas happen. This is where Einstein developed the theory of relativity, and this is where George Washington Carver discovered that the peanut has uses beyond making peanut butter.
The whole point is that we live in a world that is moving and expanding at an ever rapid pace, and the ocean of knowledge of what we don’t know is vastly larger than what we do know. Whatever our political standpoints are, we should never allow contrary opinion to taint the pursuit of objective, raw knowledge. The only way to unlock the vast potential of the future is to release ourselves of the limits of the already.
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal