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RS75 - When Scientists Kill

Release date: December 2, 2012

We look to scientists to keep us informed about risks, such as: is this medicine effective? Is that level of toxicity harmless? How severe should we expect this upcoming storm to be? But when lives are at stake, tricky questions arise about how much responsibility falls on scientists' shoulders to get those estimations *right* -- and whether scientists should be punished if they fail. In this episode of Rationally Speaking, Massimo and Julia discuss a recent court case that shocked the world: A group of Italian scientists were sentenced to 6 years in prison for failing to effectively warn the public of an earthquake that killed over 300 people in 2009. Was this decision fair? And how should we decide where the boundaries of scientific accountability lie?

Julia's pick: "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life"
Massimo's pick: "Ten of the greatest philosophical principles"

Ian Pollock's "Risk and Blame" blog post 

Reader Comments (10)

My understanding is that tremors don't increase the chance of an earthquake any more than weird animal behavior or moon phase or anything else does, because we can't predict earthquakes.
The only effect the tremors might have had was to weaken the buildings, making them less safe in the event of an earthquake.

Scientists, like any professionals, should be punished if they commit malpractice, like using junk science or lying about risks, but where did the Italian geologists do that?

December 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMax

Great podcast, thanks.

December 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMark Erickson

It was, as usual, a very interesting podcast, but some things should be said about the L'Aquila trial:

- we still don't know the complete text of the sentence: it will be made public in the next few weeks. We can only suppose what could have been the reasoning made by the judge, using the text of the prosecutor's final address;

- legal reasoning uses a set of rules which are, of course, based on logic, but they are nonetheless peculiar of the legal system of the country (in this case, Italy), so it's hard to analyse a sentence using only standard logical rules, forgetting that some words like "blame", "responsibility" etc. can have different meanings in a legal context than in a normal chat;

- in Italy, as probably elsewhere, every now and then a sentence makes the headlines as completely "irrational", "out of this world", "medieval" or "reactionary", but every time it turns out that it is misrepresented by the press (an infamous case: a few years ago the news said that the highest court had ruled a rape "impossible" since the victim had a tight pair of blue jeans on, so the "rapist" couldn't have forced her to a sexual act without her consent - that was not the case, the sentence was quoted out of context and the meaning was different, but everybody still thinks that "the court said that you can't rape a woman with jeans");

- about the prosecutor's thesis, I have read in some blogs and articles (by people with legal education) that the key factor wasn't only the mistake in reassuring people that no earthquake would happen. The main problem seems to be that the six scientists were members of a commission that had the duty to evaluate risks, not (only) the probability of an earthquake. That also meant, given the long series of tremors of those days, to check which buildings were already damaged, for instance. Instead, the commission convened just for a very short meeting (less than an hour), and the minutes seem to have been changed after the earthquake, maybe to appear less reassuring. So the main charge to the six scientists seems to be an omission on their duty, not just the failure to communicate to the public the state of the art about earthquake prediction;

- that said, the main problem with the sentence probably lies in the causal link between the misconduct of the scientists and the people that died, allegedly because they changed their minds about leaving their homes after listening that "everything was OK, no reason to be afraid". But that, too, is a legal question, so it would be more important to discuss, as you did in the last part of the podcast, the relation between "causal link" as defined in the law and "causal link" in a logical sense, for a whole set of crimes and trials, not just this one.

(I hope my English will prove good enough to explain my point here)

December 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLopo

I would also point out (as a defense of the specific scientists incolved) that science and science education is also deserving of responsibility. Science presents itself in high schools (particularly in Europe) as a process of uncovering certain authoritative facts. I, as an educator of statistics, social science, and the 'scientific method' at a European university constantly battle this misconception of the very nature and abilities of the so-called 'exact sciences'.

Indeed, just last week I was criticized by a senior evolutionary biologist colleague for 'undermining students belief in evolution and science'. Other conversations have been equally disturbing (I am an anti science American, I am trying to 'legitimize social sciences as doing real science' to name two). While the American anti-intellectualism and irrational rejection of science precludes critical thinking and reasoned responses the claims of science and scientists - it seems clear to me that the extreme and incorrect view if science in the other direction is no more fertile a ground for critical thinking and reasoned responses. It is difficult for scientists to say anything useful to the public as practitioners in probabilistic knowledge - if their listeners will see any statement as a claim to Truth with a capital 'T'.

January 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBZ

Let's 'Imagine the Opposite'.

According an article on the Washington Post (referenced below), the scientist are being charged with criminal negligence for telling city officials on a risk-assessment commission that they were unable to make a detailed prediction about whether ongoing tremors might indicate a coming disaster. If this is the charge that suck, it has nothing to do with interacting with the public. A risk assessment board would be well versed in statistics.

What would negligence on the part of the scientist interacting with this risk assessment board look like? Even if they had to use Bayesian Inference the scientists could have come up with a probability for the earth quake.

Negligence with the risk Assessment board would then be any of the following:
1) Giving an estimate higher than their calculated probability.
2) Giving an estimate lower than their calculated probability.
3) Telling the risk assessment board they can make no estimate.

We know that the third is true. The scientists failed to do their job and crippled the risk assessment board's ability to do their job.

This leaves us with just two probabilities to calculate; The chance that this claim by the Washington post is true and the chance that this is the charge that stuck, and not the dumb one about the interview broadcast to the public. My gut feeling is that these two probabilities are both above 99%, which leaves me with the probability that the judge made the correct decision being .99 * .99 = .9801 or 98%.

You are both intellectually honest so I trust the information about the risk assessment board was not included in the articles you read. I had to point this out because I feel the take away lesson should really be to always do out the math when it comes to the potential for mass-casualties (especially when doing this math is your job) and to present these statistics without fear, even though you know the unlikely event could still happen.

Scientist's fear of math got them in-trouble. Don't be afraid to do math if you are a scientist.


March 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMikel

A round of applause for your post.Much thanks again. Will read on...

February 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKing Helmers

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March 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterYatin

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March 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterYatin
Troubling Case, Troubling Times. People's Biases are no joke and we are a hot Mess sad to say. Also about that case that got me thinking was the death toll. Since no one could know exactly how many people would die, at what point does the death toll become large enough for this to become a huge crime because something tells me that if the death toll was say less than 10, people might have had a different reaction to all of this? So then the question becomes at what point does a Human Life become less important? After 20, 50, 100, 200 ....?

Some other Biases that I see all the time & drive me crazy are Self-Serving Bias, Attribution Bias & Confirmation Bias.
April 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterErnesto
The Italian geologists should not have any criminal liability since they did not recklessly engage in an act or omission that actually caused the harm to the earthquake victims. Since the event of a serious earthquake, even given prior tremors, has at most a very low probability of occurrence, at best the court could reasonably find the geologists negligent. However, mere negligence should not give rise to criminal penalties. Otherwise everyone in society will refrain from taking on any responsibility whatsoever for fear of criminal prosecution.

Notoriously, in medical malpractice negligence cases the jury finds the existence of harm and then just assigns liability to the caregivers. Negligence actually requires more than mere harm. A proper finding of Negligence further requires that an action by the caregivers caused the harm, and that the caregivers violated a reasonable standard of care. The typical attitude of juries totally ignores the fact that people who seek medical assistance have health problems to begin with, and thus tend to have negative medical outcomes even with the very best of care. Juries also typically demand perfection from caregivers, and refuse to apply a reasonable standard of care. In part due to this Jury Incompetence, the USA has a tremendous medical liability problem that has led to legally defensive medicine, outrageously high medical malpractice insurance rates, and thus also outrageously expensive medical care costs.

Given the information in this most interesting episode of RSPC, the Italian scientists probably did not commit negligence.

Some smart food manufacturers have now started to place a statement on their label such as "produced in a facility that also processes nuts" to inform the consumer of a nut contamination risk, but also to inform the consumer of the slightness of that risk, and thereby fulfilling the legal duty to warn without overly worrying consumers with nut allergies.

The FDA's ridiculous delays in new drug and medical device approvals definitely kill a tremendous number of people.

Moral and Criminal culpability should relate to conduct and not outcome. However, due to our inability to perceive conduct accurately, we rely heavily on outcome to determine probable conduct.
January 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

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