That title is lifted from Popular Science’s brief article. The idea is that scientists—as philosopher Christopher Essex reminded me, just like doctors and accountants and businessmen and engineers and everybody else who offers opinions for consideration already do—should put their money where their pronouncements are.
Pop Sci reminds us of how Bernardo De Bernardinis, the vice-director of Italy’s Department of Civil Protection
told reporters that citizens should not worry, and even agreed with a journalist who suggested that people should relax with a glass of wine.
Six days later, a major earthquake struck L’Aquila, a city in Abruzzo, killing more than 300 people. Soon after, citizens requested an investigation into the panelists’ findings, and the public prosecutor obliged. De Bernardinis and the panelists were charged with manslaughter and now face up to 15 years in prison. The L’Aquila judge who determined that the case could go to court said the defendants provided “imprecise, incomplete and contradictory information” and effectively “thwarted the activities designed to protect the public.”
That’s a lotta years! All for a busted forecast. (We covered the story here; it’s more complicated than the quotation suggests.)
And then, “In 1989 a scientific advisory group reported that it was unlikely that BSE could be transmitted to humans. Through the early 1990s, government ministries reassured the public that it was safe to eat homegrown beef.” It wasn’t. People died, grief ensued, but suing lawyers were not unleashed. (Government bureaucrats were instead.)
South African lawmakers are proposing to make forecasting the weather illegal unless one has a license to do so (link). Easy to scoff at this one, since as Mark Twain said, etc. Then, think how seriously weather forecasts are taken in, say, Oklahoma. Somebody there says a tornado’s a comin’, and people take action. Expensive action, too. So the forecaster better be damn sure of himself. And woe betide the weatherman who says all is well when it isn’t.
But sue him for a mistake? Well, why not? Much as we hate to encourage unslakeable lawyers and their symbiotic gelatinous bottom feeders like JG Wentworth who will buy out (among other things) structured settlements won in law suits, these scavengers (sometimes) provide the useful function of eating the necrotic flesh of capitalism.
Instilling the fear of buzzards into scientists might sharpen their wits. It might for instance stem the flow of purple, hyperbolic prose and Chicken Little-ing from the environmentalist crowd if they knew that their words were going to be checked against the facts.
But how do we decide who gets sued? Should we sue those guys who a few months ago predicted, via statistical modeling, that the neutrino had no mass? Should we pull to the bar the group who got us all excited, via statistical modeling, that the Higgs was finally found, but who were (probably) premature? What about all the champagne that was bought and probably consumed after the first happy but ultimately wrong announcement? Should the crew who manned the accelerator be legally responsible for the bill?http://wmbriggs.com/blog/wp-admin/post-new.php
Can we sue those fellows who swore that brief exposure to a 72 × 45 pixels American flag turned people into Republicans? They learned this “fact” via statistical modeling. And what about all those especially earnest folks at the EPA who will protect us no matter what, who create statistical models aplenty proving that exposure to some barely detectable chemical will increase our risk of cancer from 20% to 20.001%? Can we haul them off to jail after it proves that their fretting was false?
How about the climatologists who swore, by golly and by gum, that the temperatures now should have been warmer than they are? Tar and feather them, litigationally speaking? After all, lots of money was spent believing these forecasts were accurate. Who should pay now that we have learned that they weren’t? We needn’t arrest James Hansen, incidentally, because he’s developed the habit of hauling himself off to jail from time to time.
Why, if we were allowed to sue scientists for failed predictions, the courts would have to run twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year, even Christmas, and that would be just for the sociologists, like those guys who claimed, via statistical modeling, that brief exposure to a 4th of July parade turned people into Republicans. We’d have to build special holding pens for the climatologists.
Scientists have a special right to be wrong, don’t they? They’re better than ordinary people somehow, aren’t they? If we held them accountable, they might be too scared to think of new theories. And the world always needs new theories. And, hey!, somebody might even sue me!
Thanks to an anonymous reader for suggesting this topic.
See this real-life possibility of a meteorologist being sued from Brazil, a case where lots of money was involved.