Damn Italy You Scary

This is one of those shaggy dog posts where I wander around and finally make a point tying it all together…

We’ve got the big storm rolling in tonight, through Monday and into Tuesday. Hopefully no power outages… school has already been cancelled for the next two days and the kids are home. Teenagers + power outrage + trapped inside = bad tempered pouting and frankly the kids don’t handle it any better than I do lol.


I’ve been having endless thoughts about this totally inane Italian court case against scientists supposedly predicting an earthquake wouldn’t happen in Italy. It would all be laughable except they were all found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to six years’ jail time. Apparently the phrase “We don’t think there will be a serious earthquake but you obviously can never rule it out.” was taken to mean, “Stay in your shitty homes constructed in medieval times, L’Aquia has been completely leveled three times in it’s history by earthquakes, and well you know how things come in threes.”

Having grown up in Wellington, New Zealand, I’m totally familiar with earthquakes and have felt several dozen strong enough to be noticeable. The entire city population is completely aware of earthquakes and what causes them. There’s always a middle school trip to see the seismic center measuring them off Victoria University. You can just stand there and watch the little needle twitching it’s jagged line on the scrolling paper in real time. The earthquakes never really stop. Wellington building codes are extremely strict for a major population center, “high rise” means six stories tall… and those buildings sit on massive coiled springs acting as shock absorbers. The greatest shock to Wellingtonians was that the big one in fact hit two hundred miles south in Christchurch a few years back on a fault line no one knew about.

What causes earthquakes is well understood by science, but obviously we are a long way off from any hope of predictive modeling for when major quakes hit. Even then, I’m thinking it’s going to be like weather forecasting… only fairly accurate.

What concerns me most though is that the entire city of a western nation is so scientifically illiterate, about their primary natural disaster concern, that they could demand what amounts to human sacrifices to appease their sense of vengeance against natural forces. If that doesn’t scare the shit out of you, I don’t know what will. That’s really really really bad. It’s not that far off throwing virgins into the volcano, which frankly is a waste of virgins.

I’m usually a pretty positive guy about civilization, but the truth is civilization can go backward scientifically. Realistically there could have been a man on the moon by say about the 16th Century…  but there wasn’t…  because we went backwards.

So anyway, as much as we all joke about weather forecasters having the ultimate bullshit job in the universe, for the most part they are reasonably accurate in short term prediction thanks to all the computer modeling. A hurricane 500 miles across is coming, we’re going to get the wind side of it as opposed to the rain side of it. Zeus played no part in making it because he only makes the nice days, it’s not punishment for sin unless it’s a country where people aren’t white. For what it’s worth, I find that all deeply comforting that we have the knowledge it’s coming and what to do about it. You just stock up on supplies, nail stuff down and ride it out as best you can.

Last year all of Connecticut was essentially without power for an average of about a week after the 2011 storm. The culprit was far too many untrimmed trees acting in a unison of Arborgeddon taking down power lines in one massive swoop. Which is to say we humans screwed it up. This year the trees are trimmed and already 1000 linemen have been brought in from Ohio in readiness. People learned a lot of lessons from last year and we’re as ready as we’re going to be.


Thanks to science, plenty of things are “fairly predictable” but it’s all a little like golf in that you’re expecting to drive the ball somewhere near the pin and not hit a hole-in-one every time. Good enough is good enough.

You and your relationship are also “fairly predictable” too. Once you understand how dopamine, oxyticin, vasopressin, testosterone et al work, a lot of things in your relationship and sex life become a lot clearer. I can’t give you a guarantee of exactly how things will play out, but storms in your relationship are fairly predictable too. The good news is that you can do things to be ready for them and when the bad stuff happens, instead of your whole life pancaking down like bad Italian construction, you can ride it out with minimal damage and maybe something to bond over. Some people find MMSL too late to save their relationship… even then, it helps you prepare for the next one.

So anyway… yay science and human effort.

Too Long Didn’t Read…


  1. I’ve often wondered how Neil Degrasse Tyson reconciles being black and believing in evolution. Darwin has the races classified by some being more evolved than others. Aborigines being closest to apes, then black people and so on with whites at the top.

  2. Athol, if you had bothered to read more about the actual case than the sensationalist headlines, you would know this had nothing to do with “predicting” an earthquake. This had everything to do with downplaying and minimizing known risk signals. There were signs that, historically, preceded major earthquakes. The scientists, due to political pressure, maintained there was no risk at all, a known and obvious falsehood that led to needless death.

    Why not ask Vox? He (1) lives in Italy and (2) is far more conversant with the actual details of the case.

  3. Jeff Rose says:

    Love the Avatar scene. Seen every one several times.

  4. Hey Athol. Your characterization of the case appears to be based on media science propaganda and is incorrect. The criminal charges have nothing to do with the failure of the scientists to correctly predict the earthquake, but rather their failure to perform the risk assessments that the commission was required to do by law. Not only that, but when the people were freaked out by the smaller quakes and leaving L’Aquila, the national commission went and convened a special meeting at the town primarily in order to convince the townspeople that nothing was going to happen and they should come back to the town. That was a week before the fatal quake that killed 300.

    This has nothing to do with scientific illiteracy whatsoever. It has to do with the proven misconduct of scientists who were paid government bureaucrats, and who failed to perform their professional duties as members of that government agency. The case is more akin to a building falling down and the responsible building inspector being charged because he signed off on it as passing inspection even though he never visited the building.

    This is from Nature, which is far from an anti-science publication:

    “Prosecutors and the families of victims alike say that the trial has nothing to do with the ability to predict earthquakes, and everything to do with the failure of government-appointed scientists serving on an advisory panel to adequately evaluate, and then communicate, the potential risk to the local population. The charges, detailed in a 224-page document filed by Picuti, allege that members of the National Commission for Forecasting and Predicting Great Risks, who held a special meeting in L’Aquila the week before the earthquake, provided “incomplete, imprecise, and contradictory information” to a public that had been unnerved by months of persistent, low-level tremors. Picuti says that the commission was more interested in pacifying the local population than in giving clear advice about earthquake preparedness.

    “I’m not crazy,” Picuti says. “I know they can’t predict earthquakes. The basis of the charges is not that they didn’t predict the earthquake. As functionaries of the state, they had certain duties imposed by law: to evaluate and characterize the risks that were present in L’Aquila.” Part of that risk assessment, he says, should have included the density of the urban population and the known fragility of many ancient buildings in the city centre. “They were obligated to evaluate the degree of risk given all these factors,” he says, “and they did not.””

    My point is no one in Wellington would have believed them, because people in Wellington understand how erratic earthquakes are. The “big one” is always coming. That’s middle school level science class smarts. If buildings fall down, that’s a building code issue. The city is on a known and active fault line, so earthquake preparedness simply cannot be an afterthought in city planning. Why the hell would you send seismologists to evaluate buildings anyway? Scientists aren’t confused with prophets unless an scientifically ignorant populace thinks they are.

  5. And cue the System of a Down song “Science”:

  6. momnotmom says:
  7. The notion that religion is the force that has held back the scientific progress that would have saved the world by now is really a myth that needs killing. Christianity didn’t create the dark ages, and Christianity (or Catholicism anyway) has always been very supportive of scientific inquiry. I’m just going to point you here and leave it at that :


    Let’s be reasonable here. Religion has had no power in Italy’s government, none, for more than two hundred years. It was the SECULAR government that controlled he police forces that arrested these scientists, the courts that tried them, and the jails that detained them. And somehow all this is religion’s fault? Puh-leeze!

    If you watch the video, the dark ages were more correctly caused by changes in Islamic thought.

  8. Hmmm… this confirms to me that Athol is a redditor (cool) and subscribes to r/atheism (not cool).

    The Italy thing is scary, but the Nature article makes a good point: An engineer can be held accountable if he takes bribes and builds buildings that are not up to code. A doctor can be held accountable for malpractice.

    A scientist should not be held accountable for a mere opinion, but a professional seismologist should be held accountable if they succumb to to political pressure and fail to give honest, professional advice.
    These people were employed to supply the Italian population the best seismic predictions they could, and they failed to do so.
    This is honestly in the same league as medical malpractice or engineering fraud.

    Also, Neil deGrasse Tyson is not a historian. His opinion on history carries as much weight as your or mine.

    And based on my readings the middle ages were not dark. Europeans invented windmills, horseshoes, sailing ships, the magna carta and many other things, despite suffering from plagues and the collapse of the Roman empire.

    If the British empire had imploded in 1900, or if a third of the educated population had died to a worldwide plague, then we probably wouldn’t have landed on the moon in the 20th century, IMHO.

    Don’t have time to follow reddit.

  9. Also, for the record: I do not know enough detail of this case to decide whether the seismologists are guilty or not.

    If they honestly gave the best, soundest advice they could with the data available then they are innocent.

    But, if they willingly downplayed the risks and abused their position and credibility to offer false assurances to the public, then they are guilty.

    I think we can all agree on that.

  10. If they honestly gave the best, soundest advice they could with the data available then they are innocent.

    That’s not the issue. The issue is that they did not do the risk assessment that they were required to do, being members of the National Commission on Risk. One or two of the guys aren’t even scientists.

    If buildings fall down, that’s a building code issue. The city is on a known and active fault line, so earthquake preparedness simply cannot be an afterthought in city planning. Why the hell would you send seismologists to evaluate buildings anyway? Scientists aren’t confused with prophets unless an scientifically ignorant populace thinks they are.

    First of all, this is Italy we’re talking about. Your Anglo-Saxon assumptions of how things should be organized there simply don’t apply. Believe me, I’ve learned this over time. This isn’t even in the upper 50 percent of chaotic lunacy here. Second, the point is that the guilty men were sitting on the Risk Commission and yet they didn’t bother to see that the risks were properly assessed. No one expected them to go and personally inspect the buildings, but they were required, by law, to see that the proper risk assessments were made. That was their job, that was what they were paid to do, and they didn’t do it. That’s why they were found guilty.

    If it’s not even in the top 50% of lunacy, then “Damn Italy You Scary” holds.

  11. I hope that you and your family are safe during the storm and that you don’t have to deal with any power outages.

  12. If succumbing to political pressure to violate a public trust is a crime, then so is applying that pressure. Whoever was applying that pressure should have then been on trial as well. Who are they, and if they are not on trial, then why not?

    Also, seriously, was it the risk assessment body’s job to make sure people knew to bug out just before the big one hit? If you accept that, then you accept that there will be calls for evacuation when no big quake in fact comes. Would this be politically acceptable in Italy? Really?

  13. Who are they, and if they are not on trial, then why not?

    Because in Italy, being a politician tends to legally protect you against being punished for a crime. There are over 100 deputies in the Parliament who have been convicted of crimes but never served any time. It’s not happening.

    Also, seriously, was it the risk assessment body’s job to make sure people knew to bug out just before the big one hit?

    No. The problem is that it also was not their job to show up in the town and tell everyone to stop leaving, that it was very unlikely that a big quake would occur. I have to look into it a little more, but I suspect that’s why they were charged with 29 counts of manslaughter and not 300+. I think some, or all, of the 29 had left, or had concrete plans to leave, and then returned. But I could be wrong about that.

    Again, the main issue is that the Risk Commission was supposed to provide a risk assessment taking various factors into account. It did not due so and people died as a result. That is the central legal issue here. I think the scientists completely failed to understand the nature of their duties on the commission, just as many observers are failing to understand it now.

    Of course, Italy being Italy, it might be overturned just because of the bad international press. Or, more likely, because someone knows someone who knows the judge.

  14. I hear generalities about the defendants’ guilt, but I see no specifics that suggest anything except shit flowing downhill and landing on the defendants. This case differs from scapegoating only in degree, not in kind.

    So, if the defendants did in fact show up in town and tell people not to leave, who put them up to it? Whoever did so might not be convicted, but at least they can be exposed.

    Also, was the risk assessment that the defendants were assigned to do reasonable? Were they truly asleep on the job and was that the proximate cause of the deaths, or was the job even doable given its actual parameters? For example, was it reasonable to expect them to do the jobs of building inspectors? If you address this question, please answer it instead of pooh-poohing it.

  15. This Tyson guy is a joke. He makes pretty much all of the same mistakes that your typical ani-religion left-wing nutjob makes when condemning religion as the source of all the world’s evils.

    First, he considers all religions equal, despite the fact that, in his video, he even points out that Jews outperform most of the rest of the world in scientific achievement. Right there, that might tell you that the Jewish religion is a benefit to science, but instead, he still lumps all religion together. Nonsense. He also fails to note that Islam BROUGHT the dark ages to the affected countries, while the Catholic Church SAVED the sum of human knowledge during the dark ages (monks preserved quite a bit of knowledge). That, right there, shows a fundamental difference between Christianity and Islam, yet STILL he equates all religions as equal.

    Second, he fails to note that Arab civilization was, in fact, considered one of the most advanced BEFORE the Arabs were converted to Islam starting in the 7th century. Once Islam took hold (usually by the sword), all scientific advancement stopped. However, in Europe, from the Middle Ages on, scientific advancement flourished under Christianity, culminating in the industrial and technological revolutions that occurred in the 20th century. A secular Europe is a post-WWII phenomenon – until then, Europe was devoutly Christian. Yet, this Tyson fellow, like all lefties, will look at the stifling nature of Islam and assign that quality to Christianity in his own mind. Ironically, he is probably one of those lefty morons who refuses to criticize Islam because it would be “racist”.

    Third, he takes scientific theories, like the Big Bang Theory, as objective truth rather than simply theory, and therefore thinks that anyone who disagrees with the theory, or thinks the theory doesn’t hold water, is “anti-science”. He puts up a picture of a billboard mocking the Big Bang Theory as an attempt to scare everyone into thinking that the big, bad Christians are coming to burn all scientists at the stake. First, it’s just a guy with a billboard, not the government, not the Church, just a guy, as compared to the entire structure of a religion like Islam which will forbid certain scientific endeavors under pain of death. And that guy is merely expressing an opinion about the theory, which is exactly what should happen. Any theory should be subjected to intense scrutiny and criticism. If it is a sound theory, it will hold up, but if it is weak or false, it folds. But to treat a theory as objective, infallible truth and thus consider anyone who opposes it to be an enemy serves not only to defend blindly a scientific theory with the fervor of religious doctrine, but to elevate such theories to the status of religion: not proven but taken on faith as true and any opposition is heresy.

    Meanwhile, the Italy thing has absolutely NOTHING to do with Christianity, or religion in general, unless you count the cult of secular humanism as a religion (which would probably be the most accurate description). Only an ideologue with an ingrained hatred of religion would use such an event as an excuse to bash all religion at once.

    Wikipedia – In modern science, the term “theory” refers to scientific theories, a well-confirmed type of explanation of nature, made in a way consistent with scientific method, and fulfilling the criteria required by modern science. Such theories are described in such a way that any scientist in the field is in a position to understand and either provide empirical support (“verify”) or empirically contradict (“falsify”) it. Scientific theories are the most reliable, rigorous, and comprehensive form of scientific knowledge,[2] in contrast to more common uses of the word “theory” that imply that something is unproven or speculative.[3] Scientific theories are also distinguished from hypotheses, which are individual empirically testable conjectures, and scientific laws, which are descriptive accounts of how nature will behave under certain conditions.[4]

    Tyson is an extremely prominent astrophysicist. As far as science is concerned, he is to be blunt, quite correct on the Big Bang Theory being “the answer”.

  16. Not sure why you felt it worthwhile to post a definition of the word “theory” from Wikipedia, but I’ll assume it is because you believe that it refutes my position that a theory is not objective fact. Well, even your cited definition (Wikipedia? Really?) doesn’t describe the term “theory” as anything even close to objective fact. It is merely differentiating a theory from a hypothesis. In the scientific method, you have hypothesis, theory and law. Hypothesis is an idea you pull out of your butt. You test and test and experiment, and if nothing that you find contradicts your hypothesis (and nobody else finds data to contradict it) you can elevate your hypothesis to the level of “theory”. However, in order for your theory to be considered a “law”, there must be no contradicting evidence and your theory must be REPRODUCIBLE to anyone who reads your theory and your methods to demonstrate it. That is why it is called “The Law of Gravity” and not the “Theory of Gravity” – because the hypothesis that Newton started with held up under testing, and the actions that his theory predicted could be reproduced by anyone who cared to try (or observed in the behavior of the planets, for instance). Therefore, we can view the Law of Gravity as objective (settled) truth, and rightfully view anyone who doesn’t believe in gravity as a crank.

    The Big Bang Theory (notice the use of the word “theory”) is merely a model for the origins of the universe that FITS THE CURRENT DATA. In other words, our wonderful scientists made countless observations, did a bunch of math, and devised a model to describe the expansion of the universe. They have no data from the supposed early days of the universe, so they have to extrapolate their findings to predict what the universe would have been like at t=0. The universe appears to be continually expanding, so they theorize that at one time all matter started from the same point, a la Big Bang. However, they cannot PROVE this, unless they can go back in time, and the Big Bang is only an accepted model now because it fits the data AS WE UNDERSTAND IT. If we find new data that points to some other type of origin, the Big Bang Theory will disappear. Most scientists accept the Big Bang Theory as the best theory going, but it is still a THEORY, and therefore, by definition, subject to change at will. IT IS NOT OBJECTIVE TRUTH, nor would you find any reputable scientist who would say that the Big Bang is 100% indisputable.

    Regardless of whether Tyson is a really, really awesome astrophysicist or not, the problem with Tyson in this video is that he engages in a sort of nearly irrational bigotry (I mean “bigotry” in the true definition, not the common misuse of the word by your various leftists), which is to say that that he thinks that everything he believes is the absolute, indisputable, objective truth, and therefore anyone who doesn’t agree with that must be mentally deranged, and then he blames that derangement on religion. Not a specific religion, mind you, but ALL religion. That is some seriously muddled thinking. There are quite a few Jewish and Christian (and probably many other types of religions) scientists out there who are advocates of the very same science he promotes, including the Big Bang, Evolution, and on and on. How then, can he claim that “religion” stops people from being scientific? He can’t. He is making blanket statements which are logically unsound on their face and appear to arise from his own prejudice against religion in general.

    If this guy were calling out Islam, in particular, for example, he could make a case for it being a negative influence on scientific advancement, and he could cite specifics (his example in the clip was a spurious connection, at best). He could say Caliph so-and-so forbade the study of astronomy because it conflicted with verse X in the Koran. But he doesn’t do that. He merely points out that the Arab world was once scientifically literate, and now they aren’t, therefore all religion is bad. That’s 3rd grade logic right there. Virtually all scientists in the Western world from the dark ages onward were Christian or Jewish, and look how far we got, but this guy says because Islam seemed to have a negative effect on science in the Arab world, that all religion is bad? And he uses a billboard questioning the Big Bang Theory as objective proof of that fact? He’s not operating from science on this subject – he is operating from his own anti-religion prejudice, which is to be expected in today’s academia.

    Nobody should make the mistake of thinking that just because a guy makes a name for himself in the academic world, that he is somehow infallible in all areas. He may have a genius IQ and have done some outstanding scientific work somewhere, but I wouldn’t trust the guy to make my fantasy football picks, so why would I trust him to tell me the true nature of religion?

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