Geological Epochs and Criminalizing Science

Excellent cover leader and story in the May 28 issue of The Economist on “Welcome to the Anthropocene: Geology’s New Age.” In its usual calm, thoughtful, no-nonsense style, the British news weekly discusses the implications of a world made over by human activity. “What geologists choose to call a period of history normally matters little to the rest of mankind,” we read. “The Anthropocene is different. It is one of those moments where a scientific realization, like Copernicus grasping that the Earth goes round the sun, could fundamentally change people’s view of things far beyond science. It means more than rewriting some textbooks. It means thinking afresh about the relationship between people and their world and acting accordingly.” I would like to point out that I wrote an editorial entitled “Welcome to the Anthropocene” in the February 4, 2008, issue of C&EN. Read it here first. While we’re pointing to other publication’s coverage, there’s a very disturbing news item in the June 3 issue of Science, “Quake Experts To Be Tried For Manslaughter.” The story leads: “Seven scientists and technicians who analyzed seismic activity ahead of the devastating earthquake that struck the Italian town of L’Aquila on 6 April 2009 will indeed face trial for manslaughter, a judge announced last week. The defendants are members of Italy’s great risks committee, whose job is to assess risks of potential natural disasters. A year ago, they were accused by L’Aquila prosecutors of having failed to provide adequate warning of the magnitude-6.3 earthquake that killed 308 people.” Apparently, there was a fair amount of low-level seismic activity around L’Aquila leading up to the major quake, and the scientists now being charged with manslaughter had been monitoring that activity. They assured the townspeople that it was highly unlikely that the low-level activity was a harbinger of a more serious earthquake. While the statement was true, it turned out to be wrong. And I thought that only Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli was interested in criminalizing scientific discussions he found distasteful.

Author: Rudy Baum

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