Italy’s war on science and reason

Alex B. Berezow Editor, Real Clear Science
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Italy is a country that, for good or for worse, was at or near the center of the world for much of the past 2,000 years. Home of the Roman Empire, wellspring of the Renaissance and birthplace of Christopher Columbus, what happened in Italy often didn’t stay in Italy.

Oh, how things have changed.

As I discuss in my new book, Science Left Behind, Europe appears to be in the grips of an Anti-Renaissance — an almost laughable rejection of technology and a revolt against reason itself. Italy is the poster child of this insanity.

Last week, a judge issued a six-year prison sentence and a fine of $10 million to six scientists for failing to predict an earthquake. The prosecution claims that it understands that scientists are neither prophets nor able to predict earthquakes; instead, it accuses the scientists of providing contradictory information and false assurances. It’s a distinction without a difference. Science was put on trial, and science lost.

Just a few days later, Italy’s supreme court ruled that cell phones can cause cancer. Let’s set aside the extremely flimsy epidemiological evidence upon which this link has been posited. There is also the rather pesky problem that it is physically impossible for cell phones to cause cancer because the electromagnetic radiation they emit is not strong enough to break chemical bonds, which is necessary to cause the mutations which lead to cancer.

In 2007, University of Washington student Amanda Knox was arrested (and in 2009, convicted) of a murder she didn’t commit. The investigators were so sloppy in their gathering of evidence and the case against Knox was so shaky that 20 American forensic scientists sent a letter detailing their concerns to the Italian court. It was ignored. Not until October 2011, after nearly four years in prison, was Knox’s conviction overturned by a higher court. As reported by Discovery News, two of the American forensics experts blamed the initial conviction on “bad science” and prosecutorial hubris.

But Italy’s judicial system isn’t the only institution waging a war against science and reason. Indeed, the courtrooms appear to reflect the sentiments of the Italian people.

The Economist details that 69% of Italians are worried that electromagnetic fields from cell phone towers might cause them harm. Partially as a result of this public phobia, cell phone towers are disguised “as the arches of a hamburger restaurant, as a palm tree or even as the cross on a famous cathedral.”

Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi — whose “bunga bunga” parties made Bill Clinton look like an innocent choirboy — is a fan of nuclear power. But, Italians are not: A shocking 94% of voters rejected it in a 2011 referendum.

Since the glory days of yore, Italy has fallen upon hard times. From 2000-2010, Italy had the third-worst GDP growth rate in the entire world, beating only Zimbabwe and Haiti. One wonders if Italians’ fear of science and technology is at least partially to blame. Perhaps it is no coincidence that not a single Italian university ranked in the top 100 globally in 2012, according to U.S. News & World Report. (The best Italian school, the University of Bologna, comes in at #194.)

Indeed, the redoubt of the Renaissance has become the land of the Luddites. So, who can save Italy?

Sadly, Silvio Berlusconi isn’t available. He was just convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to one year in prison (and banned from holding public office for five years), so that could make a political comeback rather difficult. And, as we know now, scientists are put in jail, so they’re not available either.

Perhaps Italy’s most famous citizens — the entrepreneurs of the global underground economy — could help kick-start this ailing country. Even though Italians reject science and technology, maybe they will embrace Sicilian family values instead.

Alex B. Berezow is the editor of RealClearScience and holds a Ph.D. in microbiology. He is co-author of the book Science Left Behind. You can follow him on Twitter @AlexBerezow