Something unusual is happening in a place called L'Aquila in Italy, which suffered an earthquake on April 5, 2009, causing large scale damage to property and the loss of over 300 lives. The citizens there have sued a group of 7 scientists for manslaughter.

The case is being heard in an Italian court and the judgment expected with great anxiety by the scientific community, and with hope for justice by the citizens there.

This is perhaps the first time that a community has taken a group of scientists to court for having caused a large number of deaths by negligence.

Expectedly, scientific societies and academics have condemned the petitioners; one such group has said that it was unfair and naïve of the local prosecutors to charge the scientists for failing to alert the population of L'Aquila of an impending earthquake. The incident has been covered widely across the world, and in scientific circles (Nature, Science, Scientific American, The Economist).

Why this accusation of manslaughter against a group of 7 seismologists who were, on the face of it, trying to help and advise the citizens of this medieval town, situated in a well-known earthquake-prone zone, where the people since long had learnt to live with this ever-present danger?

One citizen said: “I am not crazy. I know they can't predict earthquakes. The basis of the charges is that they (as the scientific committee advising the town) had certain duties imposed by law: They were obligated to evaluate the degree of risk given all factors, and they did not”. Another citizen said: “this is not a trial against science. Their persistent advice to us was to be calm and not to worry. As a result, many of us did not move out of our houses (as we normally would have) and a lot of us lost our lives.”

Indeed, two members of the scientists group had a press conference (along with the city mayor) and said that the seismic situation was normal and posed no damage.

Herein is the crux of the law suit. Rather than admit that seismic predictions are uncertain, they claimed no danger. In a commentary on it, Dr. Willy Aspinall, a Professor in Natural Hazards and Risk Science, says that scientists in sensitive situations should think carefully about their use of social media (such as press conferences), and of the legal implications. He puts it succinctly: “the world is litigious and scientists are not immune”.

Lateral and collateral

The engagement of science with society at large is a recent phenomenon, where the results of science and technology are being used by industry and, more importantly, by the governments for widespread use by and for society. When scientists are called to advise governments and the citizenry on issues that affect natural resources and the everyday lives of people, they need to be sensitive to the voices of society.

It is in this transaction between science and society that conflicts can occur. In any decision based on application of science for social purposes, the situation is never linear or a simple A leads to B. It can collaterally beget C, D and E.

And when a decision by industry or the government is taken on the use of A, emphasis is given on the result B. And people who are affected by C, D or E tend to raise their voices. Silencing them and attempting to go ahead with the decision leads to conflict.

We see it in our own society — be it on the issue of GMO, nuclear plants or some clinical trials. In each of these, there are advantages as well as risks engaging all stake-holders and addressing each advantage and each risk is important before embarking on the application of any technology.

Sociologists' vital role

It is here that sociologists play a vital role. Dr. Shiv Visvanathan, an erudite analytical sociologist, has recently pointed out (Tehelka, Oct 4, 2011) how the scientists and activists have to work in tandem, each understanding the challenges the other faces. Scientists need not lose tempers when questioned, nor activists always accusative. Governance requires the opening and questioning of scientific knowledge but not just by scientists or specialists.

He says that we have entered an era where scientific knowledge can no longer offer certainties in many domains. This, however, is a curious statement, since scientists always knew this. It never does when the results depend on how various parameters affect the outcome. As the Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich remarked in 1974: “everything depends on everything else”.

And when he says that the classic definition of science as public and certifiable knowledge is flawed, I find it curiouser. Science is public. Science, more than any other, is verifiable and certifiable knowledge. It posits that while A leads to B, it can also lead to C, D and E. It is for society to choose and this is done only through engagement.

Also, I am not sure whether we in India have worries about epistemology, and theories of science as truth and as valid knowledge. This would be true of societies where ideology and belief systems are in direct conflict with science (creationism vs evolution), but in India? Then again, to dub science with “its theological self-claiming infallibility” is somewhat harsh.

If there is one system of knowledge that admits its fallibility and attempts to improve, it is science, not theology.

dbala@lvpei.org

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