An Imprecise Science

In October this year, six geoscientists were jailed for not predicting the imminence and severity of the earthquake which hit the Italian town of L’Aquila in April 2009, killing 309 people and leaving thousands homeless. The justice – or injustice – of the sentences is obviously a matter of debate. But there are a number of lessons to be learnt from this tragic story.
This article appeared in Vol. 9, No. 6 - 2013


Collapsed house after the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila. Source: Fbencivenga/ Geoscience is for the most part an imprecise discipline. Where other scientists deal with nanoseconds, geologists consider five million years to be a mere blink of an eye – give or take another million. We are getting much more accurate at estimating the thickness of a sedimentary layer identified on a seismic record, but know that the figure suggested may easily change when we are able to clarify it through drilling. I suspect that the words ‘probably’, ‘possibly’ and ‘may be’ are used far more frequently in the average geological report or dissertation than in any other science. Geology is often described as an ‘imaginative science’; being able to imagine what is happening, or has happened, inside the earth is a vital part of the geoscientist’s toolkit.

But such vagueness is not readily understood by the general public and it is important that geoscientists are aware of this. It is, perhaps, an argument for an increase in the study of earth sciences in our schools. Few of us will be required to predict the possibility of earth shattering events, but the responsibility of making sure any audience fully understands the implications and range of our statements, and the science behind them, cannot be ignored.

The sentences also suggest that in future all scientists will be wary of making any predictions or statements which could conceivably be proved wrong. Alternatively, they will err so much on the side of caution that their audience will accuse them of continually ‘crying wolf’ and cease to take them seriously – not a triumphant result for either science or the human race.

The jailing of the L’Aquila scientists is also a fine example of the ‘blame culture’ so prevalent today. Since describing such catastrophic and unpredictable events as ‘Acts of God’ has fallen out of favor, we seem obliged to attribute them to Man – or men in this case. But that, of course, is quite a different discussion.


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