When an earthquake hit the Italian city of L’Aquila in 2009, it wasn’t much different from any other natural disaster. Earthquakes are impossible to predict with any degree of certainty, so nobody knew it was coming. Unfortunately, 309 people lost their lives.
The odd thing about this case, though, is that that local government is sending six scientists and a government official to prison for manslaughter — because their scientific opinion that a major quake was improbable is now considered “too reassuring.” Somehow, an accurate reading of the science at the time is getting these folks sent to jail.
When there were some tremors ahead of time three years ago, the local government set up a risk assessment committee to look at the scientific information and provide an opinion. There were six seismologists and one government official on the committee. After looking at the data, they concluded that a major quake was possible but improbable.
Other scientists now mostly look at the data and say they agree with the conclusions the committee reached. Still, the fact that more than 300 people died meant that government had to blame someone. There had to be scapegoats.
In some ancient cultures, there was a practice of taking a goat and symbolically putting upon it all the sins of the people. The goat was then driven away from the city or encampment — away to a place where it would die alone, taking with it the sins of the people. Humans still have the need to find scapegoats, because they need someone to blame for everything.
Reality can be a pretty ugly thing at times. It’s nice to think that everyone can be equal and nobody will ever go without anything, but reality is that people will never be equal (in the results they achieve) and some people are going to make decisions that hurt themselves.
It’s nice to think that everybody can be warned about a coming earthquake or hurricane or tornado, but reality is that we can’t make those predictions with accuracy. We can see some warning signs of some things at some times, but we just don’t know enough to be precise.
It’s nice to think that government bureaucrats can know enough to tinker with the economy and make everybody prosperous, but the reality is that when they make changes in one area, they cause problems in another — and they frequently don’t understand why they’ve done what they’ve done.
In so many areas of life, people want to deny reality by pretending they can control what they can’t control. The illusion of control makes them feel safer, but it forces them to find scapegoats.
Nobody was responsible for the deaths of the 309 people who died in the Italian earthquake, but governments have given themselves the power to pretend that they can assign blame. As a result, seven people are going to prison for telling the truth as well as they could.
The sad thing is that a decision such as this is going to prompt future scientists in similar situations to lie. It’s going to prompt people to warn of the worst possible case. And who can blame them?
When people deny reality — and try to pretend they can control what we don’t have the power to control — irrational actions result. We need to give up the illusion that we can control things — and we need to take away the power of politicians to punish people for telling the truth.
Sadly, many of the people affected by the earthquake will surely like these prison sentences. We may be modern people, but we still want a scapegoat to take the blame.