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"it is legitimate to hold scientists to account" (Guardian news article)

Discussion in 'Other Health News and Research' started by Bob, Oct 26, 2012.

  1. Bob

    Bob

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    The Guardian

    Wave a banknote at a pundit and he'll predict anything
    Of course it is outrageous to jail scientists for honest errors, but it is legitimate to hold them to some account
    Simon Jenkins
    25 October 2012

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/oct/25/italy-earthquake-laquila-banknote-predict


    "On the evening of 5 April 2009, Luigi Guigno of L'Aquila in Italy was phoned by a sister terrified by tremors under their village. He told her not to worry. Government experts in "the forecasting and prevention of major risks" had just been on the news declaring there to be "no danger" of an earthquake. They need not go out into the street. A few hours later an earthquake struck and Luigi, his pregnant wife, their son and 300 others were crushed to death."

    "This week a local judge jailed six of the scientists, not for failing to predict the quake but for giving what he regarded as reckless reassurances. He fined them £6m and disbarred them from public office."

    "If the variables are too great, science should shut up, rather than peddle spurious expertise."
    Enid likes this.
  2. Bob

    Bob

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    I do have some sympathy for the call for scientists and 'experts' being held to account when they make public statements, especially when in an official advisory position, or other position of responsibility.
    If they were to always qualify their statements of 'certainty', to make it clear that they are not in fact 'certain', then that would be enough in my opinion.

    But such an approach would raise many issues, and it could have many unwelcome consequences.
  3. Nielk

    Nielk

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    I always thought that the science of predicting earthquakes was an uncertain science to begin with. Not unlike predicting tropical storm patterns and hurricanes.

    How can a court hold these scientists responsible?
  4. Bob

    Bob

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    I don't know the exact details of the case.
    The article says that the scientists gave a public assurance that there would be no earthquake.
    If this was the case, then more people may have died than would otherwise have been the case.
    But it all depends on exactly what they said.
    If they had advised the public that there was only a small risk, statistically speaking, or a small probability, of an earthquake, and explained that a 'small risk' is not risk-free, then I don't think they could be accused of incompetence.
    But if they spoke with apparent certainty that there would be no earthquake, and advised people that it was entirely safe to stay indoors, then I think there's a problem.
    If this was what happened, then it seems that they may have been incompetent.

    Anyone in a public advisory position, paid to protect the public, should be held to account. This just means that people should accept responsibility for their actions, and that their actions should be scrutinised.

    In this case, their actions should be scrutinised to see if they were incompetent, and to see if their incompetence caused public harm. If incompetent, then they shouldn't have jobs with such responsibility.

    I'm not saying that they should have received criminal convictions, just that they should be held accountable.
    Valentijn likes this.
  5. user9876

    user9876 Senior Member

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    Prediction can be uncertain and a scientist shouldn't be held to account for having a wrong prediction. It may be the event was unlikely but happened. However they should be held to account where the models behind their predictions are done wrongly or in an incompetant manner. It may even be that the scientists making the predictions are not the ones to blaim but they are building on work where results have been manipulated.

    Weather prediction is interesting in that we know when weather is in a chaotic state and hence unpredictable. This was Michael Fish's problem when he missed a hurican

    In medical terms scientists following good process should not be blaimed for trials or experiments that give the wrong result. However those manipulating the results should be held to account - particularly where it relates to safety.
  6. Bob

    Bob

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    Being held to account just means that a person's actions are scrutinised, and that they must accept responsibility for their actions. So I think that scientists should be held to account for their actions, always.
    For example, if a scientist publicly asserts with certainty that 'X' will happen, but then 'Y' happens instead, then I think the public has a right to ask that their work is scrutinised.
    If it turns out that they were incompetent when they asserted with certainty that 'X' would happen, then I think that it should be public knowledge.
    Every scientist has a right to get things wrong. After all, science is based on failed hypotheses. But I think there can be a problem with how scientists go about making assertions and claims about science. And that's where they need to be careful.
    It's a complex issue, and I don't think that scientists should be censored, but I do think they do need to accept responsibility, especially where their actions have public consequences.

    In this particular case, they were public officials, with a remit to protect the safety of the public. So the public has a right to scrutinise their work to see if there was any incompetence.
  7. user9876

    user9876 Senior Member

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    Ok I was being in accurate in my language. I meant that they shouldn't necessarily get blaimed or pubished.

    Yes the work should be scrutinised and hence needs to be available to the public. One of the big issues is that a scientist may say X will happen meaning that X is the most likely thing to happen. However a model may also predict a small chance of Y happening and this is ignored or not reported. Sometimes unusual events occur.

    If it turns of they were incompetent, or deliberately mislead (e.g. by hiding information) they should be blaimed for their errors or fraud.

    To my mind incompetence is not about getting things right or wrong but its about not following a good methodology, or not making assumptions clear.

    I think that there should be an audit process for scientists especially in areas such as medican that checks that a good process is being followed. This would be extremely unpopular though. Perhaps in drug development the FDA already play this type of role.


    I agree with that, I think science should be much more open. These days it is easy to publish large amounts of data and the workings of how results were obtained as background to any results published in a paper.
    Bob likes this.
  8. biophile

    biophile Places I'd rather be.

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    So, who is going to be held accountable for telling ME/CFS patients, in public or private, that it is "safe" to gradually increase activity levels back to normal, even though solid research evidence for this is lacking and patient surveys are universally reporting harm from attempting such an approach?
    WillowJ and Little Bluestem like this.
  9. ggingues

    ggingues $10 gift code at iHerb GAS343 of $40

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    Perhaps this has to do with pacing/listening to your body? I could see how a program set up to treat you in a time frame of even 3 months, which would be rare in the US, I'm thinking of Physical Therapy I have done, they limit you to a month, unless you get more time authorized.

    I am more active than I was years ago, not as severe as the worst (bedbound), but I thought I was very bad. You are being serious, right? I had my CFIDS triggered by Mono, had a lot of Infectious Disease blood work done when XMRV hit the scene, nothing significant found, at least according to 1 Dr. An ID Dr did diagnose me with CFS upon my 2nd try in 2005, after becoming ill in May of 2003.

    GG
  10. Valentijn

    Valentijn Activity Level: 3

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    GET is the opposite of pacing. Patients are told to push through and ignore symptoms. They are told their body is giving them false impressions and they will only improve if they keep to the exercise schedule.
  11. Purple

    Purple Bundle of purpliness

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    Really, the GET approach is the quickest and surest way to get crippled by this disease, often permanently.
  12. ggingues

    ggingues $10 gift code at iHerb GAS343 of $40

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    Thanks for the info, familiar with the acronyms but not the details. Yeah, that's totally stupid and (not listening to my body enough) sent me into a major crash and pain, I was out of work for nearly 3 months, and wondered if I would ever be able to work again, very dark days!!

    GG
  13. Little Bluestem

    Little Bluestem Senescent on the Illinois prairie, USA

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    I do not think that science should shut up if the variables are too great. Rather, I think that they should state that the variables are too great so that people will realize that they are dealing with an unpredictable situation.
    Valentijn and Bob like this.
  14. Little Bluestem

    Little Bluestem Senescent on the Illinois prairie, USA

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    I think the prediction of earthquakes is MUCH more uncertain than predicting tropical storm patterns and hurricanes.

    Predictions are already being made of a general area within which Hurricane Sandy is expected to make landfall in the US in three or four days. People in those areas are preparing. The possible track of the storm gets wider each day as the degree of uncertainty increases. This map shows all of the predicted storm tracks from different models.
    Bob likes this.
  15. WillowJ

    WillowJ Senior Member

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    that is totally different from the way reported on my news. What I heard (though I might not have caught the entire segment) was "earthquake scientists jailed for failing to predict earthquake". That made me feel pretty outraged and pretty much rule out visiting Italy ever (after Amanda Knox it was starting to look like a pattern, you know?), supposing I were ever well enough to travel

    I agree that it kind of depends on what they said.

    Models are notoriously unreliable. Earthquake science, by my understanding, is not advanced enough to accurately predict severity and pinpoint location of quakes.

    They should not be making definite assurances about something they are unsure of.

    But generally speaking, people should not be penalized for the uncertain nature of science, supposing they are conducting themselves in good faith. Tragedies happen. The fact that they were hired to hopefully predict earthquakes and hopefully protect the public doesn't change the limitations of science.

    Of course, when it comes back to how we are treated, ignoring whole swaths of literature because such studies contradict one's favoured model might not be considered working in good faith.
    Valentijn likes this.
  16. Enid

    Enid Senior Member

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    I much agree with "if the variables are too great science should shut up". The tendency to not shut up seems to go beyond predicting volcanos. Even worse in the history of ME in the UK amongst the psyches - blame it on something psychological (which cannot be proved) when the real answer is "we haven't got a clue". I did meet one honest Doc - a Consultant Neurologist who in different words admitted to this despite abnormal test findings. Too many variables - symptoms for clear diagnosis of the situation - precisely.
    Jarod and Bob like this.
  17. user9876

    user9876 Senior Member

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    Its not necessarily the number of variables. Take weather forcasting as an example. There are a large number of variables but prediction is often possible. They run the model with small variations in each of the variables and look how the model behaves. Often it is quite stable and the weather can be predicted. However sometimes the system is in a chaotic region and small changes in one variable can lead to wildly different results. This is what happened when Micheal Fish failed to predict a hurican in the 1980s - then they did not have the computer power to run the model many times. Using these techniques scientists have a good idea as to when they can predict and when they cannot. However they still often end up giving a best guess.

    I think that chaotic behaviour can be achieved with a couple of variables linked by a non linear equation so even relatively simple systems can become unpredictable.
  18. Bob

    Bob

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    Yes, that probably is what you heard, Willow... I heard the same in the news stories... I only heard that they were jailed for failing to predict an earthquake... I was equally shocked about it... But this article changes things slightly... It shows how reliable the news is!

    Yes, anyone saying that CFS/ME is a psychological illness, after the PACE and FINE Trials, and the recent paper on personality disorders, has a lot of explaining to do.
  19. Bob

    Bob

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    Yes, that's exactly what I think, Little Bluestem. There's no problem if they clearly tell people about the uncertainty of their predications or opinions.
  20. Jarod

    Jarod Senior Member

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    I think the journalist should be locked up for the misleading headline! ;) The headline I heard was the same as Willow's, that they were locked up for failing the predict the earthquake.​

    Little Bluestem and Valentijn like this.

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