Strange, how it always takes a scientist, not a fortune-teller, to predict the future…

Considering that Peter Gatt’s last three geological predictions, on the trot, have already proven so deadly accurate, wouldn’t it be a little bit wiser, and more responsible, to actually listen to him the fourth time round?

Geologist Peter Gatt
Geologist Peter Gatt

How superstitious are we, as a nation? Alright, perhaps it’s a strange question to just throw at you like that; even if, oddly enough, it has been thrown at me a couple of times before (mostly by foreign friends and acquaintances, who always assume that Malta is still going through its ‘worshipping Fat Ladies’ stage…)

I have to admit, though – no matter how often I myself have scoffed at archaic beliefs and practices, that are still very much alive (or ‘undead’) in this country of ours – the question itself turns out to be rather hard to answer.

For starters, there’s the small matter of ‘cultural relativity’. I don’t think I would be too far out of line, in saying that the Mediterranean region, as a whole, is widely regarded as something of a hotbed for superstitious beliefs anyway: and that Malta – with its proliferation of clairvoyants, soothsayers, fortune-tellers, witch-doctors, and charlatans of the ‘I-see-dead-people’ variety – is clearly no exception.

But how superstitious are we, compared to, say… the Italians? Having been brought up on a television diet of satirical programmes such as ‘Striscia la Notizia’ – which, among other things, had exposed the astonishing extent of Wanna Marchi’s fraudulent Occult empire, back in the 1990s - my guess is: probably, not that much.

Yes, it is true that many people here do believe in even the most implausible (and, quite frankly, ludicrous) of supernatural phenomena – to the extent that we still hear shrill warnings, every Halloween, about ‘the dangers of Satanism’… and ‘Heavy Metal’… and ‘Yoga’… and ‘Harry Potter’, etc.…

… but my gut feeling tells me that Wanna Marchi herself would not have had such a field-day with gullible Maltese victims, as she so famously did in Italy. (Oh, and if you’re not familiar with the name, I suggest you google it: if nothing else, it will really put the fear of the Devil into you…)

For instance: I certainly do not exclude that many Maltese people place a lot of faith in ‘hocus-pocus’ – magical amulets, talismans, mysterious concoctions, that sort of thing - when it comes to treating ailments that are beyond the reach of medical science. (Nor do I even begrudge them for it: if you’ve just been diagnosed with terminal cancer, chances are you would cling to anything – anything at all - that might give you at least a tiny ray of hope).

But I seriously doubt that thousands of Maltese people (it was actually hundreds of thousands, in Italy) would be so easily duped into selling off their own homes, and/or signing away their entire life-savings, to satisfy the predatory cravings of a fraudster who was so obviously trying to rip them off.

I could be wrong, of course; and there may indeed be a few analogous local cases, here and there. But I somehow suspect that the typical Maltese citizen (male or female, young or old, credulous or sceptical, etc.) would quickly exchange ‘superstition’ for ‘suspicion’… the moment they are asked to part with large sums of their own, hard-earned cash.

As you can see, then, superstition is ‘relative’ on two counts: both in the sense that ‘some people are more gullible than others’… and also because there is (nearly) always going to be an in-built mechanism that somehow applies the brakes, when things get too far out of hand.

So even if Malta’s own brand of superstition sometimes takes the most atavistic, primeval forms imaginable… if you dig deep enough, I think you will find that it is also permanently underpinned by a solid bedrock of good, old-fashioned common sense.

Nonetheless, a few awkward questions do remain: like, for instance: why do so many people in this country insist on giving credence to (among other idiotic things) ‘the power of prophecy’ – when not a single one of Malta’s many, many fortune tellers has ever successfully predicted even a single, solitary historical event?

Ok, let me arbitrarily select a few ‘random’ examples. The collapse of the Azure Window, Dwejra, in 2017; at least two cases where individual houses likewise collapsed – one with fatal consequences – because of ongoing, adjacent construction works; and, more recently, the collapse of part of the Chadwick Lakes road, after this week’s heavy storms.

Now: I could, of course, have chosen much more dramatic examples, with far greater global impact: like, say, 9/11; the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami; or the fact that we lost last year’s Eurovision Song Contest (odd, isn’t it, how we only ever heard about those calamities AFTER – and certainly not before – they actually happened?)

But there is a reason why I opted for such unlikely candidates instead. Actually, two: the first is that – unless I am very much mistaken, of course – not one of those widely reported occurrences had ever been accurately foretold by any of Malta’s psychic seers, at any point when they might have still been possible to prevent.

The second is that… erm, guess what? All three had indeed been ‘foreseen’ – albeit in a much broader sense of the word – long before they occurred. Only not by any prophet, soothsayer or Tarot-wielding medium… but rather, by a geologist named Dr Peter Gatt.

Honestly, though. Who would have ever seen that one coming? Apart, of course, from Dr Gatt himself: who, by the way, did not predict those events by gazing into any crystal ball; or reading tea-leaves; or dissecting the entrails of freshly-sacrificed animals; or summoning ancient demons from Mesopotamia, with names like ‘Pikachu’ (no, wait, that’s from Pokemon… but oh well, what’s the difference?)

No: if he succeeded at all, where all Maltese clairvoyants have so far always failed, it was simply because he applied his own expertise in geology to the rock formations in those particular areas. (Duh!)

In the case of Dwejra, Dr Gatt authored a 2013 report which – while not predicting a total collapse, in quite as many words - warned of the imminent danger of rock-falls, and (more pertinently) made numerous recommendations – including the installation of rock-bolts, crack-meters, and other technical stuff like that - to ‘prevent further collapses from taking place’.   

Needless to add, it later transpired that none of those recommendations was ever actually implemented… with the result that, well, the predictable (and predicted) went on to spectacularly happen, just four years later.

In the case of the two collapsed houses - in Msida (2019) and Santa Venera (2020) respectively - Dr Gatt had this to say about the former: “the sad part of this story is that the geological mechanism (triggered by excavation) resulting in ground failure has remained unnoticed or ignored by authorities. The delusion that ground geology had little to do with the tragic event, as circulated by some, means that history will repeat itself, and more property and people will be damaged.”

And oh my, what an earth-shattering (ahem) surprise! The following year, ‘more property and people’ were indeed damaged in an entirely analogous tragedy. Only this time round, one woman ended up paying with her life, for what can only be described as our collective failure, as a nation, to ever heed any scientific warning on time.

As for the ‘sinkhole-style’ disappearance, last Monday, of part of the road leading into Chadwick Lakes: this is what Peter Gatt had written about works in that area, all the way back in August 2019 (i.e., over two years ago).

“{…] channels designed with vertical walls cut into clay or clayey sediments which are left unsupported […] may not be a good idea. Flooding from early rains (which may come soon) would trigger instability in the clay channel walls....”

Once again, it might not qualify as an outright prophecy – because it clearly stops short of envisaging the total collapse of the road itself - but still: the rains did indeed come; they did ‘trigger instability in the clay channel walls’; and yet again, it had to be a scientist – and certainly not any guru, shaman or witch-doctor – to call it correctly: not once, not twice, but at least three times in the past decade alone.

Ah… but those were the three times that Dr Gatt’s predictions actually came true, in a way that we can all individually confirm ourselves. What about the other occasions – and there are several – where the same geologist sounded warnings about things that (to quote Galadriel) ‘may yet come to pass?’

Let’s see now: on the subject of the Gozo tunnel, Peter Gatt has observed that:

a) no geological studies have ever been undertaken to determine the stratigraphy of the rock composition between Malta and Gozo, and;

b) “There are problems both in terms of the number of faults and large displacements […] technical matters [which], if not assessed seriously by experts of Malta’s geology, will cost lives during the construction phase.”

Now: considering that the same Peter Gatt’s last three geological predictions, on the trot, have already proven so deadly accurate – and that’s a better record even than Paul the Octopus in the 2010 World Cup, by the way – wouldn’t it be a little bit wiser, and more responsible, to actually listen to him the fourth time round?

What? No, of course not! After all, who needs any ‘geologist’ to tell us whether it is safe, or otherwise, to bore a tunnel right through an as-yet explored rock formation, deep beneath the sea-bed? We have fortune-tellers for that. And let’s face it: it’s much easier – and cheaper – to simply pay some local witch-doctor E3,000, and get him to cast a ‘magic spell’…