Thursday, May 26, 2011

Blame the Scientists, Ignore the Prophets

It almost seems too ridiculous to be true, but, according to an article in Yahoo News, seismologists in Italy are being charged with manslaughter for failing to predict the 2009 earthquake in L'Aquila that killed 308 people. Of course, even with the advances made by science in many areas, forecasting the behavior of nature is not an exact discipline, especially when it comes to earthquakes, as one seismologist explains in the article. But something else strikes me about the accusation against these scientists. In a predominantly Christian country like Italy, the task of warning people of impending disaster falls not to priests or other religious authorities, but to scientists. Yet if there is a god who sent prophets in the past to warn his people of just such calamities, then why aren't we consulting these 'men of god' and putting them on trial when they let us down?

Perhaps it seems an unfair question, but I'm not strictly talking about holding religious leaders accountable for natural disasters. I'm talking about holding them accountable for their own failed predictions. This team of seismologists didn't make a false prediction - legal action is being taken against them for not making a prediction about the earthquake. On the other hand, what have the responses been to the failed predictions of doomsday prophets like Harold Camping? It says a lot to me when people would rather blame a scientist for not warning them about the future than blame a religious leader for making a distinctly false prediction.

Maybe it's because religion is privileged in much of Western society and science is not. In fact, science is seen as arrogant when it crosses into religious territory, and it's often dismissed with familiar sentiments like, 'science can't explain everything!' But then why are scientists being put on trial for being unable to predict everything? The scientists I've known are extremely humble and forthright about the limits of their own disciplines, and they've never pretended to be able to make flawlessly accurate predictions. But every self-proclaimed prophet believes he or she speaks with the flawlessly accurate authority of god. It seems to me that things couldn't be more backwards.

Don't mistake my commentary here for an advocacy of suing false prophets, because that is not what I am saying. Although I do think restitution should be allowed in certain cases where a great amount of damage has been done to victims of these preachers, I generally feel that those who are gullible enough to follow these frauds deserve to suffer the consequences (a fool and his money are soon parted, as they say). What I'm saying is not new or complicated. Once again religious believers are cherry-picking the world to line up with their ideology. God is the grand designer behind nature, but has nothing to do with natural disasters. His elect may be privy to special and miraculous revelations of absolute truth, but instead we blame the scientists for failing to predict what they never said they could predict with certainty in the first place.