Soothsayers, Science and Skeptics

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Common Dreams

Soothsayers, Science and Skeptics

Religious feeling is as much a verity as any other part of human consciousness; and against it, on the subjective side, the waves of science beat in vain.
—John Tyndall, Science and Man (1863)

2012 has been a tough year for science. It took a direct hit in Italy, escaped, temporarily, in North Carolina and had a minor set back in Virginia. It was an especially tough time for scientific soothsayers in Italy and North Carolina. In Italy they’re off to prison and in North Carolina they’re muzzled.

Italy proves that soothsaying can be as hazardous as the perils it predicts. In that country the fate of six soothsayers and one government official was decided by a judge on October 22, 2012, four hours following the conclusion of a 13-month trial. The case pertained to the failure of the 7 men to accurately predict the April 6, 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila in central Italy.

Six days before the L’Aquila earthquake struck, Italy’s National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks held a meeting in L’Aquila at which the 7 men were in attendance. Ernest Boschi, the former head of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, and one of the men convicted in the trial, was asked if the tremors that had been occurring in L’Aquila during the preceding several months presaged an earthquake similar to the 1703 earthquake that had devastated the town. In response to the question Dr. Boschi said: “It is unlikely that an earthquake like the one in 1703 could occur in the short term, but the possibility cannot be totally excluded.” That meeting and comments made by the scientists reassured an anxious public and evacuation plans were abandoned. Dr. Boschi was right to say the possibility could not be excluded. The earthquake came 6 days later, measured 5.8 on the Richter scale and resulted in 300 deaths, 1500 people injured, 80,000 made homeless and extensive property damage. Following their trial and conviction the seven men were sentenced to six years in prison and ordered to pay 7.8 million Euros. The case is now on appeal.

Long before that case was decided, North Carolina began considering what could properly be called a Scientific Soothsayer Protection Act known as House Bill 819. When first introduced, and until amended in July 2012, it outlawed soothsaying in determining future sea level rises although the goal had nothing to do with protecting scientists from lawsuits in case they got it wrong.

When scientists begin projecting what the sea level will be along the North Carolina coast by 2100, the Coastal Resources Commission of North Carolina issued a report that was based on computer models and came up with the troubling projection that the state should plan for a rise in the sea level of 39 inches by 2100, a rise considerably greater than what would have been projected based solely on extrapolating from the rise that had taken place since the beginning of the 20th Century. The projection alarmed (a) developers who feared those projections would imperil development on the coast and (b) legislators who don’t believe in global warming. Accordingly, a bill was introduced entitled “Sea-level policy restrictions; calculation of rate of sea level rise.” The act said, among other things, that no “State agency, board, commission, institution, or other public entity thereof shall adopt any rule, policy, or planning guideline addressing sea-level rise, unless authorized to do so under this Article.” The article banned the named entities from considering the possibility that climate change might accelerate sea level rise saying the rates of rise could only be based on historical data post 1900. In July the legislature succumbed to ridicule. The language was changed. The reference to “calculation of rate of sea-level rise” was removed from the title and instead of an outright ban on using science to calculate sea level rise, the state regulatory agencies were not permitted to “define rates of sea-level change for regulatory purposes prior to July 1, 2016.” It further provides that in 2015 the Commission “Shall compare the determination of sea level based on historical calculations versus predictive models.” That apparently levels the playing field between science and history.

Virginia is our third example. It commissioned a $50,000 study- to examine the question of sea level rise. It did not want the study to become controversial, however, so in commissioning the study it avoided using words that are inflammatory. The request for the study does not refer to “climate change” or “sea level rise” because says Chris Stolle, the sponsor of the study, those are “liberal code words.” He said that “sea level rise” is a “left-wing term’ that conjures up animosities on the right.” Mr. Stolle is also quoted as saying the jury is still out on whether or not humans have an impact on global warming. Instead of using the offensive words the legislature’s request refers to “coastal resiliency,” “recurrent flooding,” and “increased flooding risk.” Those are words filled with meaning for victims of Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey.

Outside observers may think Virginia and North Carolina are a bit of a backwater. They’re probably right. However, no scientists in either state have been sentenced to prison for their scientific endeavors. Yet.

Christopher Brauchli

Christopher Brauchli is a columnist and lawyer known nationally for his work. He is a graduate of Harvard University and the University of Colorado School of Law where he served on the Board of Editors of the Rocky Mountain Law Review. He can be emailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu. For political commentary see his web page at http://humanraceandothersports.com

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