What Scientists Really Do

Bonestell LLC
Chesley Bonestell: Saturn as Seen from Titan [Its Moon], 1944; from Michael Benson’s Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time, to be published by Abrams in November. ‘Along with French ­illustrator and astronomer Lucien Rudaux,’ Benson writes, Bonestell ‘pioneered a genre of speculative solar system landscapes sometimes called “space art”…We now know that Titan’s atmosphere is so thick, a view like this would be impossible, which takes nothing away from the power of Bonestell’s achievement.’

Rien ne dure que le provisoire.
—French proverb

The current misuse of scientific findings can be tragic. At 3:32 AM on April 6, 2009, a devastating earthquake that measured 6.3 on the Richter scale rocked the medieval Italian town of L’Aquila, killing about three hundred people and leveling many buildings. Residents had experienced about thirty small tremors in the preceding three months and had become very apprehensive. A week before the quake, a meeting that included leading seismologists and public officials was held to evaluate the situation. According to seismologists, it is impossible to know with certainty whether small quakes are foreshocks of a larger tremor.

One of the expert geologists at the assessment meeting, Enzo Boschi, drew attention to this scientific uncertainty and noted that while a large earthquake was “unlikely,” the possibility could not be excluded. Despite this, when the vice-director of Italy’s civil protection agency, Bernardo De Bernardinis, emerged from the meeting, he assured locals that the tremors were routine and simply symptomatic of the earth releasing pent-up energy.

When the jolt of a quake woke up his two teenage children, a local resident, Giustino Parisse, trusting the report he had heard earlier on TV, calmed them down and put them back to sleep. Later that night, his house was leveled, killing both his children. Parisse and a group of residents sued the scientists and the local public officials for failing to warn them. The failure of these estimates of risk by the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks led to those expert scientists being convicted of providing “inexact, incomplete and contradictory” information about the danger; they were each given six-year jail terms in October 2012.

Closer to home, on June 12, 2012, the North Carolina Senate passed a law that effectively prohibited the use of any data about sea-level changes in determining coastal policy in the state. The law was drafted in response to a report from the state-appointed North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission’s expert scientists, who advised that sea-level rises of about thirty-nine inches could be expected in the next hundred years, putting coastal communities in the Outer Banks region at grave risk. The law, formulated to regulate development permits, discounts these projections and prescribes a new method—rejected by most qualified scientists—for calculating sea-level rises.

There is, on the contrary, near-universal agreement among climate scientists that the sea will probably rise a good meter…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.