The title is a quote from the speech, "What is Science?" given by Richard Feynman at the fifteenth annual meeting of the National Science Teachers Association in 1966. We thought of it today upon reading that an Italian court has found seven members of the country’s National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks guilty of manslaughter. They were sentenced to lengthy prison terms. The crime? Failure to accurately gauge the risk of the L’Aquila earthquake of 2009.
If the convicted experts, leading seismologists and geologists, had been more humble about the limits of their knowledge some among the 309 killed by the quake might have fled when the tremors began. Instead they stayed, reassured by experts who publicly doubted that the tremors were harbingers of the devastating quake that would soon follow.
And if the court had understood that the business of science is to torment experts by seeking to falsify via observation and experiment the very theories that won them their renown it might have taken pity on the defendants. It might therefore also have understood that Nature has the last word and that she has a wicked habit of reminding us just how often even the most rational and widely held scientific beliefs are falsified when finally put to the test. If you need a more recent example, one from the past week, we suggest Gina Kolata’s "Diabetes Study Ends Early With a Surprising Result" in the 10/19/2012 edition of The New York Times.