An Earthshaking Decision

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The October 22 conviction and sentencing of Italian scientists for failing to predict a major earthquake illustrates a disturbing trend that is taking place: as character-impaired people take less and less responsibility in our society, the burden increases for others.

In the concluding chapters of my book Character Disturbance, I outline what I believe to be a most insidious and expanding trend affecting most industrialized societies: responsible members of society are slowly but steadily and incrementally having greater burdens placed upon them, whereas the fairly irresponsible and character-impaired folks are increasingly shouldering a diminished burden. It’s a frighteningly irrational yet clear and rapidly spreading ‘megatrend’ that neither bodes well for the survival of civilized order nor for the survival of the precious freedoms most western countries enjoy. But recently, in Italy, a most alarming example of this trend has come in the form of a court verdict in a trial, the likes of which have never before been seen. And the nature of the case itself as well as the court’s decision could have sweeping and troubling implications going forward.

On October 22, six seismologists and an official of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks were convicted on multiple counts of manslaughter, sentenced to 6-year prison terms, and ordered to pay fines in the millions. Their crime? Failing to correctly predict and adequately warn area residents about a deadly earthquake that claimed some 300 lives.

The region surrounding L’Aquila, Italy is seismically quite active and had been experiencing frequent, small tremors for weeks before the disastrous quake struck. But the models seismologists use — even when accounting for the recent increase in small quakes — suggested relatively low risk, so the forecasters did not find sufficient reason to believe a “big one” was imminent. And because sounding a loud alarm can often do more harm than good in such situations (e.g., the economic and social costs of institution closures, evacuations, trans-locations, service interruptions, etc.), the forecasters, who met shortly before the quake, did not issue a safety warning. In the end, however, nature had the final say, and a 6.3 magnitude quake soon caused the deaths of many, and destroyed numerous ancient architectural structures. In the aftermath, the people and the government decided that the scientists should have known better, were to blame for the loss of life and property, and took them to court.

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Whether the plaintiffs were truly seeking justice, or a degree of revenge, retribution, and a means to some easing of their emotional pain, will probably long be a matter of considerable debate. Prosecutors argued that the scientists — despite their prediction models and protocols — simply should have used better judgment. The ground had been trembling for weeks, they argued. And the scientists should have regarded these events as an ominous sign and warned everyone about the possible danger. Because they failed on both counts, lives and property were lost. Never mind that property would have likely been lost in any case, warning or not. And never mind that the people themselves had been experiencing the minor tremblor “warning signs” firsthand. Lives still might have been saved if residents had been warned by experts, heeded that warning, and fled the area prior to the big quake. So, at the very least, prosecutors argued, it was “negligence” on the part of the scientists that caused hundreds to die. And, after all, someone had to bear responsibility. Someone had to pay.

In the end, the court agreed with prosecutors. Although it did not rule on whether earthquakes can indeed be predicted, it did insist that the scientists, who serve the public interest, have a duty to adequately assess the nature of circumstances — including taking into sufficient account a region’s geographical history — and warn of possible danger when there are signs of it. Those who had lost family, friends, and property, and who had relived the pain of the quake all over again as the name of each victim was read in advance of sentencing, took some measure of comfort in the verdict. Meanwhile, scientists all over the world are reporting a marked sense of unease and apprehension. Who, they wonder, will be the next target when a prediction they make proves inaccurate?

Now, let me make something perfectly clear here. I know well and accept that there are certainly cases where those charged with the welfare of others have been so egregiously negligent or abusive that others suffer, and such negligent and abusive individuals should definitely be held to account. And anyone familiar with my books In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance knows that I’m well aware of the growing ranks of character-impaired individuals whose rampant irresponsibility brings untold pain into the lives of others. But sometimes it seems like we have lost our ability to draw a rational line between true gross negligence and conscientious, right-intended, and reasoned judgment that simply turns out to be deficient or erroneous in retrospect. And one has to also wonder whether we have become so intolerant of the de-facto uncertainty of life itself that we simply must make someone pay whenever things go awry — even through acts of nature. I predict that because we will never be able to subpoena Mother Nature or cross-examine God on his inadequate design plans for the earth, there will be more trials in the future like the one in L’Aquila when natural disaster occurs. And perhaps the day will even come when we sue either the TV weather person for not correctly predicting the path of a tornado, or the developer of the software used to predict the likely amount of rain after a flood wipes out a town in a low-lying area.

In several of my writings I suggest that the disturbing megatrend I mention at the beginning of this article can have only one end: many of the responsible among us will eventually find so little “reward” for shouldering their social burdens that they will cast them off and join the ever-growing ranks of the irresponsible. Eventually, there will simply be too few genuine and hardcore altruists left to carry the entire burden for everyone. It’s a frightening scenario indeed. And to think that, as whacked out and wrong-headed as I believe she was on so many issues, Ayn Rand might have had at least one valid point in the main theme of Atlas Shrugged, is even more frightening. But it seems clear that if we keep punishing fairly responsible people for not being perfect enough, they’re probably not going to want to carry the proverbial weight of the world on their shoulders anymore.

I must confess that I’m still not completely certain just what to make of the L’Aquila court decision. And a part of me is still a bit divided on some of the other, larger issues as well. You see, on one hand, I realize that she can only be as accurate as the existing forecasting technology allows. On the other hand, I resent the fact she gets paid so much to be so wrong so often. So, perhaps the next time our TV weather woman predicts only a 10 percent chance of scattered, light showers but a drenching downpour ends up ruining our family reunion picnic, I’ll become a party to the inevitable class action lawsuit!

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