Italy: geologists may be charged for not predicting earthquake

by Walter Olson on June 26, 2010

“Experts who told L’Aquila city officials there was no risk of an earthquake six days before last year’s catastrophic quake are under investigation for gross negligent manslaughter, prosecutors said Tuesday.” [La Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno via Megan Sever, Earth Magazine]


1 Doug 06.26.10 at 3:55 pm

Don’t these people get it? Don’t they understand that if they criminalize these kinds of work, no one will want to do it.

2 Paul 06.26.10 at 6:37 pm

I predict this will lead to geologists predicting a high probability of disaster all the damn time, now. Also, look for a requirement to post signs…conspicuously, and everywhere…warning of the dangers of earthquakes.

3 Bob Lipton 06.26.10 at 8:00 pm

There’s something wacky about this. You couldn’t get a seismologist to claim there’s no chance of an earthquake anyplace on this earth. In a stable area, there’s always a chance. So there’s a mistransmission or misinterpretation.


4 Jonathan Bailey 06.26.10 at 8:18 pm

From Megan Sever’s post:

“….based on their statements to the Major Risks Committee (part of the Civil Protection Department) on March 31, 2009, that a series of small earthquakes (none over magnitude 4.0) over the previous six months did not mean that a large earthquake was imminent.”

I don’t know about anyone else but that doesn’t seem to me like a flat out statement that there’s no risk. It sounds as if they’re saying that a swarm of smaller earthquakes doesn’t necessarily mean a big one is imminent but that it can’t be ruled out either. I guess people looking to blame someone for an act of God just hear whatever they want to.

5 Joe 06.27.10 at 1:08 am

Weird. Most seismologists know enough to know that they don’t really know enough to predict an earthquake (or lack of one).

6 Ron Coleman 06.27.10 at 3:37 pm

Sounds like something from Stalin’s USSR.

7 David Schwartz 06.27.10 at 7:30 pm

Jonathan Bailey is dead on. That there was a major earthquake does not make their carefully-worded statement incorrect.

They said that the series of small earthquakes did not indicate that a large earthquake was imminent. To show negligence, you would have to show that this statement was incorrect, that is, that the series of small earthquakes *did* indicate that a large earthquake was imminent.

The actual occurrence of a large earthquake says nothing about whether the series of small earthquakes before it indicated the large earthquake was likely.

8 GregS 06.28.10 at 9:33 am

This is why we’ll never have any system of earthquake prediction. Geologists are certainly working on trying to be able to predict them accurately, but legally the stakes are so high if you get the prediction wrong that no one will ever be willing to actually make a prediction public as long as there’s any uncertainty involved. Fail to predict an earthquake and you’d be liable for the damages; predict one and it fails to occur, you’d be liable for the economic losses of people who took your prediction seriously. Of course, legislation could be crafted to protect against liability in this area, but in today’s political and legal climate we all know that’s impossible.

9 mojo 06.29.10 at 10:59 am

Sounds like they should have been honest enough to say “we have no idea.”

10 David Schwartz 06.29.10 at 6:27 pm
11 William Nuesslein 06.30.10 at 6:33 am

CregS correctly points out the legal risk to earthquake prediction. My understanding is there is no way of predicting earthquakes with any precision. But scientists are doing better with volcanoes, without the legal problems feared for earthquakes.

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