Space between my ears – Sometimes We Need A Grade School Refresher

Occasionally there is a national news item that bubbles up to take headlines and starts a dialogue about a formerly fringe-ish topic. This week, there were two. In order of occurrence, the first is that an Italian judge has declared six scientists criminally negligent in predicting an earthquake and has sentenced them to six years in jail for manslaughter. The second is a US Presidential candidate thinks Iran is connected to Syria and that connection is what gives Iran a link to water (and thus shipping). Those two might not look connected, but they are. Let me take them in reverse order.

Let’s not get all political here about the relative merits of one party over another in US politics. We at VerySpatial don’t profess to know the intricacies of political policy, economics, foreign policy, and all the other issues surrounding US Presidential Politics. But we do profess to know at least thing or two about Geography, which apparently one candidate forgot. Mitt Romney said, “Syria is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world. It’s their route to the sea.” This is false as Iran has miles and miles of coastline, not to mention it isn’t even connected to Syria. You have to go through Iraq to get there, and its not like Iran and Iraq have a history of being buddy buddy. Obviously this is a major gaffe from a Presidential candidate, but the real issue here is that a surprising large number of journalist and general public do not even recognize it as such a gaffe. An error, sure, but do they think it is a big error? Not nearly as much. I think this speaks more to the lack of geographic literacy in the US as much as anything. More deeply, I think it speaks to the apathy of facts prevalent in US public discourse today. We need to remember that facts are the bedrock under which decisions are made. If we can’t get our facts accurate, how can we expect to make decent decisions or analysis?

This leads to the second news item, which is that Italy has convicted six scientists of manslaughter for failing to predict an earthquake. The punch line to the story is that these six scientists were unable to predict an earthquake and, in the eyes of the court, they failed to adequately predict the degree of danger and are therefore legally culpable. The obvious problem here is that earthquake prediction is a tricky endeavor at best. There are so many variables to contend with in earthquake prediction – time, location, magnitude – and each of those has so many sub-variables true earthquake prediction basically is a bit dodgy (editor – as the Itialians should say, impossibile). Further complicating this process is the fact that it is almost as bad to falsely predict an earthquake is going to happen as it is to fail to predict an earthquake is going to happen. Call it the ‘Boy Who Cried Wolf’ effect, if you will. The reality of earthquake prediction today is that we are simply ill equipped to adequately predict the future, only measure that which has already happened. Facts are important in this case, but we also have to know the limitation of facts. We have to have a good idea of what a fact is capable of telling us and what it isn’t. In my opinion, the Italian judge in charge of this case has made a grievous error in assuming facts that simply aren’t there, or at least aren’t predictable from known facts. How can we make decent decisions or analysis if we can’t understand the limits of what we know?

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