Published on Saturday, November 10, 2012 by Common
Soothsayers, Science and Skeptics
 by Christopher Brauchli <>

Religious feeling is as much a verity as any other part of human
consciousness; and against it, on the subjective side, the waves of science
beat in vain.
—John Tyndall, *Science and Man (1863)*

2012 has been a tough year for science. It took a direct hit in Italy,
escaped, temporarily, in North Carolina and had a minor set back in
Virginia. It was an especially tough time for scientific soothsayers in
Italy and North Carolina. In Italy they’re off to prison and in North
Carolina they’re muzzled.

Firefighters carry a woman out of a crumbled home in the city of L'Aquila,
Italy. (Cito/AP )Italy proves that soothsaying can be as hazardous as the
perils it predicts. In that country the fate of six soothsayers and one
government official was decided
<>by a judge on October 22,
2012, four hours following the conclusion of a
13-month trial. The case pertained to the failure of the 7 men to
accurately predict the April 6, 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila in central

Six days before the L’Aquila earthquake struck, Italy’s National Commission
for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks held a meeting in L’Aquila
at which the 7 men were in attendance. Ernest Boschi, the former head of
the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, and one of the men
convicted in the trial, was asked if the tremors that had been occurring in
L’Aquila during the preceding several months presaged an earthquake similar
to the 1703 earthquake that had devastated the town. In response to the
question Dr. Boschi said: “It is unlikely that an earthquake like the one
in 1703 could occur in the short term, but the possibility cannot be
totally excluded.” That meeting and comments made by the scientists
reassured an anxious public and evacuation plans were abandoned. Dr. Boschi
was right to say the possibility could not be excluded. The earthquake came
6 days later, measured 5.8 on the Richter scale and resulted in 300 deaths,
1500 people injured, 80,000 made homeless and extensive property damage.
Following their trial and conviction the seven men were sentenced to six
years in prison and ordered to pay 7.8 million Euros. The case is now on

Long before that case was decided, North Carolina began considering what
could properly be called a Scientific Soothsayer Protection Act known as
House Bill 819. When first introduced, and until amended in July 2012, it
outlawed soothsaying in determining future sea level rises although the
goal had nothing to do with protecting scientists from lawsuits in case
they got it wrong.

When scientists begin projecting what the sea level will be along the North
Carolina coast by 2100, the Coastal Resources Commission of North Carolina
issued a report that was based on computer models and came up with the
troubling projection that the state should plan for a rise in the sea level
of 39 inches by 2100, a rise considerably greater than what would have been
projected based solely on extrapolating from the rise that had taken place
since the beginning of the 20th Century. The projection alarmed (a)
developers who feared those projections would imperil development on the
coast and (b) legislators who don’t believe in global warming. Accordingly,
a bill was introduced entitled “Sea-level policy restrictions; calculation
of rate of sea level rise.” The act said, among other things, that no
“State agency, board, commission, institution, or other public entity
thereof shall adopt any rule, policy, or planning guideline addressing
sea-level rise, unless authorized to do so under this Article.” The article
banned the named entities from considering the possibility that climate
change might accelerate sea level rise saying the rates of rise could only
be based on historical data post 1900. In July the legislature succumbed to
ridicule. The language was
The reference to “calculation of rate of sea-level rise” was removed from
the title and instead of an outright ban on using science to calculate sea
level rise, the state regulatory agencies were not permitted to “define
rates of sea-level change for regulatory purposes prior to July 1, 2016.”
It further provides that in 2015 the Commission “Shall compare the
determination of sea level based on historical calculations versus
predictive models.” That apparently levels the playing field between
science and history.

Virginia is our third example. It commissioned a $50,000
to examine the question of sea level rise. It did not want the study to
become controversial, however, so in commissioning the study it avoided
using words that are inflammatory. The request for the study does not refer
to “climate change” or “sea level rise” because says Chris Stolle, the
sponsor of the study, those are “liberal code words.” He said that “sea
level rise” is a “left-wing term’ that conjures up animosities on the
right.” Mr. Stolle is also quoted as saying the jury is still out on
whether or not humans have an impact on global warming. Instead of using
the offensive words the legislature’s request refers to “coastal
resiliency,” “recurrent flooding,” and “increased flooding risk.” Those are
words filled with meaning for victims of Hurricane Sandy in New York and
New Jersey.

Outside observers may think Virginia and North Carolina are a bit of a
backwater. They’re probably right. However, no scientists in either state
have been sentenced to prison for their scientific endeavors. Yet.
 [image: Christopher

Christopher Brauchli is a columnist and lawyer known nationally for his
work. He is a graduate of Harvard University and the University of Colorado
School of Law where he served on the Board of Editors of the Rocky Mountain
Law Review. He can be emailed at [log in to unmask] For
political commentary see his web page at