Julian Sheather: Time to claim kin with the volcanologists?

No, I am not about to declare myself a closet trekkie. I have in mind the decision by Judge Marco Billi to jail six Italian seismologists for giving ‘false assurances’ before an earthquake hit L’Aquila in 2009, a decision, as the BBC just couldn’t help saying, that sent “shockwaves” through the scientific community. What made the alleged assurances false was not scientific mendacity but the complexity and unpredictability of the world. As Bill McGuire, professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, put it: “Most of the time, small seismic shocks, such as were experienced in the L’Aquila region for months before the ‘big one’, are not indicative of a larger quake to come. Franco Barberi was absolutely correct, therefore, to announce – a few days before the magnitude 6.3 quake that flattened much of the city – that there was “no reason to believe that a swarm of minor events is a sure predictor of a major shock.”‘ Personally I cannot spot an assurance there, false or otherwise, just an honest statement of scientific uncertainty.

Michael Fish ate a lot of humble pie after the great storm of ’87. His diet demonstrates the difficulty of predicting the behaviour of complex and potentially unstable systems; and what is true of the earth sciences is true of the medical and biological ones. Human bodies and minds are complex: the human brain is said to be the most complex system in the known world. Science has enormously increased our knowledge of the workings of our bodies and mind, but as any honest neuroscientist will tell you, they are still nibbling at the edges of the vast unknown. Consider form US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s now notorious tripartite distinction between the known, the known unknown and the unknown unknown. The science of predicting the behaviour of complex systems is firmly in the camp of the known unknown: it is unreliable. And this matters for medicine. Psychiatrists cannot faultlessly predict the future behaviour of the mentally disordered. Clinical evidence can be ambiguous and shy of interpretation. And variability is surely an iron rule in evolved organisms like ourselves. And the law is not just coming for seismologists. In a recent editorial in the BMJ Vivienne Nathanson, director of professional activities at the BMA, drew attention to the imprisonment of Cyril Karabus in the UAE, a paediatric oncologist who was tried in absentia and without his knowledge for the death of a three year old from leukaemia.  He was arrested during a short stop-over in Dubai.

Contemporary law is generally concerned with the administration of justice, with the giving to people of what they are owed. Judge Billi’s justice has more than a whiff of the Old Testament about it. This is not about establishing fault and offering reparation. This is eye-for-an-eye stuff. In the face of an unstable and violent world, the judge has turned the seismologists into scapegoats. In René Girard’s classic formulation, the scapegoat provides psychological relief to the troubled community. The world cannot be punished for its instability so the seismologists are punished in its stead.

Hubris is sometimes said to be science’s besetting sin. In the first of Kieslowski’s Decalogue films – thou shalt have no other Gods before me –  the protagonist Krzysztof is asked by his young son Pawel if it is safe to skate on their frozen pond. Krsysztof does the calculations on his personal computer, which he worships, and pronounces the ice safe. There is a freak local thaw and Pawel drowns. Make not a God of science, or your personal computer. And yet the curious thing about Billi’s judgment is that it does not puncture scientific hubris, it inflames it. It grants to science a prophetic power that no sensible scientist would accept. And the potential consequences of Billi’s judgment are disastrous. The philosopher Karl Popper once said of science that our hypotheses die in our stead. OK so the seismologists are not going to be killed for their troubles, but they do face six years imprisonment. And the world will not be made safe if scientists cannot risk hypothesising about it; on the contrary. Time to claim kin then with the volcanologists.

Julian Sheather is ethics manager, BMA. The views he expresses in his blog posts are entirely his own.