Is providing false scientific information ever a crime? Usually not. But in a case that actually came to trial more than two years ago, a court said it was. In certain other cases, it should be.
A scientific crime? The L’Aquila earthquake
At 3:32 A.M on 6 April 2009, a magnitude-6.3 earthquake struck the town of L’Aquila, Italy, killing 309 people, injuring at least 1500, temporarily displacing 65,000 people, and destroying 20,000 buildings. Days before, experts on Italy’s Major Risk Commission had reassured the town’s citizens that the earth tremors they had been feeling for 3 months indicated that stresses beneath the town were being harmlessly released— a good thing, they said. The experts also claimed that future tremors would be no stronger than those already felt. The four scientists, two engineers, and one governmental official who had provided the superficial analysis and false reassurances of the seismic risk were each put on trial, convicted of manslaughter, and sentenced to 6 years in prison.
As you might expect, most scientists following this case were outraged that these Italian scientists were punished for simply giving advice. An editorial in Nature stated,
The verdict is perverse and the sentence ludicrous. … all efforts should be channelled (sic) into protest, both at the severity of the sentence and at scientists being criminalized for the way their opinions were communicated.
Five-thousand scientists from dozens of countries signed an open letter to the President of Italy, calling the allegations “unfounded,” because earthquakes cannot be reliably predicted, and scientists will be less likely to give policy makers technical advice if punishment could result. Does this verdict set a dangerous precedent? Is science on trial?
The real crime: false teaching on evolution
We all make mistakes, but when those holding positions of trust make mistakes, misinform, are not scientifically up-to-date, or don’t acknowledge their uncertainties, appropriate penalties may follow. The principle is simple: With authority comes responsibility. Officials should be as concerned about doing their jobs correctly as they are about expecting respect from others. This applies to political leaders, military leaders, and teachers—including those teaching false information on the creation-evolution issue.
Providing false or superficial information on the creation-evolution issue does not suddenly kill people. but if you read “What are the social consequences of belief in evolution?” on pages 511-513 of my book, you will see that millions of lives have been lost and many more have been adversely affected. No law exists against providing such misinformation. But that does not make misinformation and negligence acceptable. In fact, most people would agree that providing misinformation, especially to young minds, is deplorable—even if it is only due to a sloppy examination of the evidence or “following the party line.” But most people providing this misinformation really believe it. Isn’t ignorance of the facts an excuse? Not if the misinformer is using his or her scientific status as a reason for others to believe the misinformation. So the issue becomes, Who is doing a superficial analysis and providing scientific misinformation, and what should be done about it?”
A search and destroy mission
A common military tactic is “search and destroy.” Infantry troops are used to search out the opposition. Once located, appropriate weapons, such as gunships, artillery, or bombers are called in to destroy the opposition. A variation of this tactic can be used to combat false ideas about evolution. If you know an outspoken evolutionist who uses his or her position to convince others that
- evolution is correct, and
- creation and the global flood never happened,
you can perform the “search” function. Others will do the rest. Here’s how it will work.
If you carefully study the scientific case for creation and the flood, as laid out in my book, and would like to present some of this case to the evolutionist, you can call our office at 602-955-7663. We will mail you at no cost the latest draft of the next edition of this book (in a PDF format on a CD-Rom). You may duplicate it as often as you like for friends and the evolutionist. Urge the evolutionist to participate in one of the two debate offers that are described on pages 528–530. The first debate offer deals with creation, and the second deals with the flood. We will inform you of all communications we have with the evolutionist.
Scientific incompetence, whether by an Italian risk commission or by teachers and professors—even if unintentional—can have serious consequences. Ignoring the incompetence only perpetuates it. Will you take action?
Stephen S. Hall, “Scientists on trial: at fault?” Nature, Vol.477, 15 September 2011, pp.264-269. doi: 10.1038/477264a
Edwin Cartlidge, “Aftershocks in the Courtroom,” Science, Vol.338, 12 October 2012, pp.184-188. doi: 10.1126/science.338.6104.184
“Shock and Law,” Nature, Vol.490, 25 October 2012, p.446. doi: 10.1038/490446b