We know that when something seems too good to be true, it probably isn't. But what about if it seems too bad to be true?
The decision by an Italian court to convict the members of the 'Great Risks' committee has made waves worldwide, including at least one lengthy diary right here on DailyKos. Theories searched into the 1616 trial of Galileo Galilei by an 'Italian' court (actually, by the Inquisition, as Italy had to wait another 250 years to get on the map), the anti-science pronouncements of Pope Benedict, those of bible-belt judges and politicians, and other such irrelevancies. Lousy explanations, to be sure, but much more familiar, and therefore reassuring to the cognitive biases that PR professionals rely on in distracting the public's attention. Everyone searched for explanations everywhere, except where they had been laying all along: within the story, in greater depth.
Fortunately, real journalists don't just regurgitate what they heard from other media sources, and so yesterday's front-page headline by the very reputable and independent Fatto Quotidiano online read:
Science has nothing to do with itBetween the content of that article and prior reports, it is possible to put together a coherent background.
It is known that the 'Great Risks' committee served at the pleasure of Guido Bertolaso, an Italian version of Michael Chertoff, then unaccountable head of the powerful and way-less-than-transparent Italian Civilian Defense under Silvio Berlusconi.
It is beyond established that Bertolaso has very close connections with the Italian versions of Halliburton, who have provided special personal favors for him and his family. Needless to say, the quid-pro-quo involved no-bid contracts and other special treatment on his part.
Bertolaso has been criticized and formally investigated during his tenure for a tendency to using emergency management powers on situations that were originally not emergencies, but that were left to spiral out of control while they could have been dealt with more effectively if dealt with preventively. He was able to do so with legal cover from special decrees by the government of Silvio Berlusconi.
It has also come to light that the risk assessment meeting that resulted in invitations to the population of L'Aquila to take it easy was requested by Bertolaso himself as a "media operation". Bertolaso said, in his own words, wiretapped as part of a separate bribery investigation:
...De Bernardinis, my deputy, will call you… I told him to have a meeting in L'Aquila tomorrow on this story of the series of shocks that is continuing, so as to shut up any imbeciles, put down innuendos, worries, and so on… I am not going to be there, but [the luminaries of Italian seismology] are coming… I couldn't care less where, you decide, so that it's more of a media operation, ok? So they, who are the top experts will say: it's a normal situation, these are phenomena that do occur, better 100 level-4 shocks than nothing because they release energy and there will never be the bad one… We want to calm people down...The intent of the 'media operation' seemed to be to prevent the citizens of L'Aquila from listening to alternative interpretations and taking the matter into their own hands by shutting down homes, businesses, schools, etc., which they had already begun to do. It appears that De Bernardinis and the others complied without hesitation. Significantly, one researcher who had publicly asserted that there was an increased risk due to increased radon gas emissions, was not invited to contribute or explain his dissenting viewpoint.
What was Bertolaso's motivation for prejudging science's predictions? Was it that the Civilian Defense would have looked less than organized in handling a spontaneous evacuation? Did they see their status threatened by the unorthodox methods of an upstart from outside the old-boy network? Clearly, as in previous cases, Bertolaso's corrupt cronies stood to gain much more from hastily awarded emergency no-bid contracts than from orderly awarded competitive contracts for building reinforcement. Some of them were wiretapped as they laughed with glee at the news of the catastrophic earthquake and lucrative prospects.
The final, incontestable fact, is that about 300 people, who were explicitly invited by officials entrusted with their safety to stay put in their unreinforced dwellings in the midst of one of Italy's two most active seismic areas, met their death among the rubble less than a week later.
Of course, it is possible that the pronouncements of the committee had nothing to do with Bertolaso's corrupt dealing, and that the scientists freely expressed their best professional opinion, that just happened to be so tragically wrong. That was the defense's claim. We will have to wait for the verdict to be deposited in order to read the judge's motivation, but it looks like a least at this stage in the trial, that the defense's argument failed to persuade the judge.
It now looks like some of the convicted 'scientists' may be going public, outing Bertolaso and the pressures they received. That may have been the investigators' plan all along.
UPDATE: Apparently, the minutes of the fateful scientist's meeting that preceded the requested announcement to the population not to worry and stay put were written only after the big earthquake, a week later. But maybe that too is standard procedure...