Italy: scientists sent to prison for faulty earthquake predictions

by Walter Olson on October 23, 2012

“Six Italian scientists and an ex-government official have been sentenced to six years in prison over the 2009 deadly earthquake in L’Aquila. A regional court found them guilty of multiple manslaughter. Prosecutors had said the defendants gave a falsely reassuring statement before the quake after studying tremors that had shaken the city.” [BBC, earlier] More: Orac.

Speaking of science and the Italian courts, Italy’s Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a litigant claiming cellphone use caused his brain tumor; most authorities have found no such link [Telegraph]

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Scientists Convicted, Sent To Prison For Failing To Predict Earthquakes. | Grumpy Old Man Blog
10.24.12 at 10:02 am

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1 Hugo S. Cunningham 10.23.12 at 11:34 am

In another famous episode of Italian scientific jurisprudence, Galileo muttered, in reference to the Earth: “but it does move!”

The prosecutor and judge responsible for this earthquake case themselves should be prosecuted and jailed for dragging their country’s name into the mud.

2 mojo 10.23.12 at 11:52 am

“A witch! A witch!”

3 John Cunningham 10.23.12 at 3:22 pm

Most of the press accounts totally misstate the facts! Gee, when have they done that before? the scientists were prosecuted not for failing to predict the quake, but for downplaying the risks and assuring the residents they were not at risk. Nature.com has a detailed, correct report, quoting the prosecutor–
“I’m not crazy,” Picuti says. “I know they can’t predict earthquakes. The basis of the charges is not that they didn’t predict the earthquake. As functionaries of the state, they had certain duties imposed by law: to evaluate and characterize the risks that were present in L’Aquila.” Part of that risk assessment, he says, should have included the density of the urban population and the known fragility of many ancient buildings in the city centre. “They were obligated to evaluate the degree of risk given all these factors,” he says, “and they did not.”

4 Leafs004 10.23.12 at 3:23 pm

This ruling will only encourage scientists to err on the side of total disaster.

5 Samson Isberg 10.23.12 at 3:30 pm

And are we so much better? Essentially, the scientists have been jailed for failing to predict the unpredictable. How many times have obstetricians been faulted by the US and European court for failing to predict the unpredictable – e.g. shoulder dystocia; or failing to avoid the unavoidable – e.g. cerebral palsy. This case is a logical extension of the new dictum og jurisprudence: “Someone must be to blame”.

6 Jim 10.23.12 at 3:32 pm

Hmmm, I wonder how the meteorologists feel about this one….

7 Hugo S. Cunningham 10.23.12 at 3:55 pm

@John Cunningham–

You leave a distorted impression of nature.com’s article, which concludes
>for now all efforts should be channelled into protest, both at the severity of the sentence and at scientists being criminalized for the way their opinions were communicated. Science has little political clout in Italy and the trial proceeded in an absence of informed public debate that would have been unthinkable in most European countries or in the United States. Billi should promptly explain his decision, and the scientific community should promptly challenge it.
[end of quote]

I would have more sympathy with criminal prosecutions of builders who put up weak buildings in an earthquake zone, and crooked or lazy inspectors who did not call them to account.
How were the scientists supposed to know that this pattern of minor tremors would be followed by disaster, when so many others, at other times and places, were not?
The scientists may have been chosen as scapegoats in place of more culpable locals with political influence.

8 Scott 10.23.12 at 4:14 pm

It was noted on a comment forum on another site that the building engineers must have stronger political connections than the seismologists.

9 Invid 10.23.12 at 7:50 pm

Since the scientists didn’t know with any certainty, they shouldn’t have told people that there was little risk of earthquake.

I wouldn’t have convicted them though.

10 OBQuiet 10.24.12 at 7:01 am

Invid,

If you want to require certainty, then RISK has nothing to do with it. If they had said,”We cannot say with certainty that the town will not be leveled and everyone killed”, I expect they would have been sentenced over the deaths of people fleeing.

I am not sure what was said but if if amounted to “based on past experience, there is little risk of a larger, more destructive quake based on the current tremors” and that was a reasonable accurate view based on the science, what more should they have done that would not have been a distortion of the truth?

11 rxc 10.24.12 at 1:34 pm

The problem with all of this is that they used words to describe the risk, instead of numbers. “Small chance” means different things to different people. 1 chance in 100 is more quantitative, but there is an uncertainty associated with it, and most people do not understand what quantitative uncertainty means. Low risk with large uncertainty does not mean that it will not happen.

Risk communication is very difficult to do with a public that is technically and mathematically challenged, especially when different people see the same quantitative risk in different ways. See, e.g., nuclear power.

And the so-called precautionary principle is nothing more than a prescription for the society to be ruled by those who tell the scariest stories.

12 lawinsider 10.29.12 at 12:27 am

I bet studying tort law in Italy is tons of fun!

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