x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Earthshaking ignorance

With its willful blindness to the limits of science, a court in Italy makes a ruling that seems more appropriate to the 17th century than to our own.

In the year 1633, the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei was sentenced to house arrest for the last nine years of his life, for the crime of teaching that the Earth orbits the Sun. In Nigeria in 2009, police "arrested" a goat on a charge of having changed into human form and trying to steal a Mazda 323, and then changing itself back.

Now Italy has again matched this level of scientific illiteracy. A court in L'Aquila has sentenced six seismologists and a former civil servant to six-year jail terms for manslaughter. Their crime: failing to predict a 2009 earthquake that killed 309 people and made 65,000 homeless.

A government body dispatched the seven to the town after some alarming minor quakes. In findings perfectly consistent with current science, they announced that a major quake was "unlikely … in the short term, but the possibility cannot be totally excluded".

These men have been convicted for not knowing the unknowable. Naturally the scientific community has been denouncing this trial ever since charges were laid. Accurate earthquake prediction would save countless lives, but so would a cure for cancer. But both are, for now, beyond human knowledge. The seven will appeal, and a higher court will surely reverse this laughable judgment. After all, this is not the 17th century.