Intermountain Jewish News

Oct 09th

What, you can’t predict an earthquake?

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The next time an 80-year-old man is diagnosed with cancer, blame his pediatrician for not predicting it — and taking the necessary steps.

The next time the Rockies are in spring training, blame its 100-loss season on Don Baylor, the Rockies’ original manager. He should have known, and done something about it.

The next time an immigrant comes to these shores, blame his first employer for not signing a 50% profit-sharing arrangement with him, knowing, of course, that the immigrant would invent Intel — and why shouldn’t the person who gave him his first break get a cut?

Or — and this one is real — tell the lady who spilled the hot coffee on herself to blame McDonalds, to sue McDonalds, and to win some $640,000 in court.

Or — and this one is unreal — go to the Italian city of L’Aquilla, which was hit by an earthquake in 2009, and blame the damage on Bernardo De Bernardinis and Franco Barberi. They should have predicted not only the earthquake, but the exact dimensions of the damage it would cause.

Well, this is just what an Italian judge did, sending both men to prison!

The two men, who are now criminals, were, at the time of the earthquake, members of Italy’s National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks. The critics of this commission, obviously, have never heard of the Talmudic dictum, “After the destruction of the Second Temple [in 70], only fools prophecy.” But nothing less than prophesy was expected of the two defendants. They were responsible for the deaths of the 309 victims of the quake, ruled the court. They should have known. They should have told — when, where, how much. How dare they not!

No matter. “Justice was done,” said the families of the victims, who, no doubt, have suffered beyond measure; but who also, no doubt, embody the modern inclination to blame somebody, something, somehow, for every bad happening, no matter how twisted or, indeed, non-existent the link between the deed and the supposedly guilty party.

Consider this: One of the defendants, a professor of volcanology (the other defendent was an expert in response to, not prediction of, disaster), said in advance of the earthquake:

“In a very high percentage of 980 out of 1,000 cases, seismic tremors don’t evolve into a destructive quake. That doesn’t mean that in one of Italy’s most seismic areas there won’t be a strong earthquake.”

Not good enough for the courts. Not prophetic enough for the people. Punish him! Even Gregory Beroza, chairman of the department of geophysics at Stanford, said (as cited in the Wall Street Journal) he was disappointed by the verdict, but added that scientists need to continue to communicate risk better with the public.

Professor Beroza, precisely which part of “that doesn’t mean that in one of Italy's most seismic areas there won’t be a strong earthquake” wasn’t communicated clearly?

It seems like Italian courts won’t be satisfied with anything less than an absolute prediction of an earthquake. That’s reasonable when it comes to the weather service — witness the accurate predictions of Hurricane Sandy — but not when it comes to earthquakes. Please!

Copyright © 2012 by the Intermountain Jewish News


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