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On the 23rd of October 2012, a somber mood engulfed an Italian courtroom in L’Aquila, a city that crumbled down following the death of 309 people killed by an earthquake (Povoledo 2). The judge, Marco Billi, was just about to sentence seven people for manslaughter, most of whom were seismologists and geologists for failing to uphold their mandate of informing the public of an impending disaster. The proceedings evoked sharp criticism from the scientific world, fearing that the verdict would set a bad precedent to scientists who will be rendered vulnerable in case of disaster strikes in the future. Even though scientists predict and issue scientific knowledge about an impending disaster, they cannot pinpoint the exact time the tragedy would strike. Additionally, there is another issue related to the development of scientific knowledge, which takes time as it is subjected to a lot of criticism before it is adopted. As such, the thesis statement runs as follows, whether it was prudent for the judge to convict the scientists of manslaughter.
The process of developing scientific knowledge is quite intricate. The process involves observation, the framing of hypotheses, experimentation, and a final observation. The initial observation is made within the context of “a prior knowledge and experience” (Hirschheim 1). The credibility of the hypotheses depends on whether they can empirically be established or not. This sets the stage for experimentation, which verifies the truth of a pre-existing theory. The science proceeds to the final stage after disapproving a pre-existing theory. At the final stage, “the science progresses through the accumulation of multiple confirming instances obtained under a wide variety of circumstances and conditions” (Hirschheim 2). In a nutshell, scientific knowledge basically takes this route: science-data-theory-understanding. The final product is then communicated to the public via different modes of communication – verbal or written. The later mode of communication is the most preferred method and as such, peer-reviewed journals are embraced. Nonetheless, these attract a lot of submissions that leave the editors undecided on the kind of scientific knowledge to publish. Moreover, the editors’ choices are sometimes influenced by reviewers who may cite some case studies against the science for the sake of nullifying challenges that threaten the “standard knowledge within the scientific community” (Hirschheim 2). This is done irrespective of the flawless nature of the experiment that validates the science.
Following the process taken by scientific knowledge to reach the public, it was irrational of the Judge’s decision to convict the seven for manslaughter. Prior knowledge and experiences portray L’Aquila as an area that is not prone to earthquakes; therefore, a tremor of that magnitude (6.3-quake) was not anticipated. Also, just like the defense lawyer stated, as much as it is possible for scientists (geologists and seismologists) to predict an impending tragedy, the precision of the magnitude of a catastrophe and the exact time of its occurrence is beyond scientific knowledge. The role of science is to solve human problems; however, the pursuit of unearthing these problems should not be punishable since this would serve to bar the public from important knowledge. To this end, scientists would prefer to hold on to important pieces of information for fear of being convicted in case they fail to issue an appropriate warning prior to a disaster (Povoledo 3).
In a conclusion, the judge’s decision to convict the seven was not an appropriate decision since these people had no direct control of the disaster. While they can predict the occurrence of a disaster, scientists can hardly foretell the magnitude and the exact time of occurrence.
Hirschheim, Rudy. Scientific Knowledge Creation. Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 2002. Print.
Povoledo, Elizabetta. “Italy Orders Jail Terms for 7 Who Didn’t Warn of Deadly Earthquake.” New York Times. 2009: 1-3. Print.