Italian Scientists Jailed for not predicting earthquake – Verdict Overturned


This aerial image taken on April 8, 2009 shows a view of a church ofthe Abruzzo capital L’Aquila, epicentre of a violent earthquake. (Photo credit ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)

Back in 2012 there was an apparently utterly absurd decision by an Italian court to convict six scientists and a government official for failing to give an adequate warning of a 2009 Earthquake and sentenced them all to six years in prison.

That 2012 judgement has now been overturned.

As explained in Wired …

An appeals court in Italy has overturned the 2012 manslaughter conviction handed down to seven prominent scientists and engineers following a devastating earthquake in 2009. The decision came as a surprise—and a relief—to many of the accused’s colleagues, who worried that pressure from the community, victims’ families, and local press would compel the court to agree with the earlier decision.

The original conviction, handed down in October 2012, found the seven men guilty of manslaughter after a magnitude 6.3 earthquake killed 309 people in the Italian mountain town of L’Aquila. They each received a six-year sentence, two more than the prosecutor had requested, for not properly assessing the seismic risk and informing the public.

The decision was based on what the scientists said, and didn’t say, in the days leading up to the earthquake. 

Nobody can predict an earthquake, so the idea of jailing scientists for not predicting one is on the surface utterly absurd.

Oh but wait … it is not quite that simple.

A lot has been lost in translation here.

The real issue was never about scientists failing to predict an earthquake (I got that completely wrong when I blogged about it back in 2012). This was really about a very misleading statement issued by an official commission that assured the public that there would definitely not be a big earthquake and that it was safe to go home, then shortly after …BANG … and people who could have survived died.

Due to this grossly misleading information, all those on the commission were prosecuted and sentenced.

So what has now happened?

One guy still goes to jail, everybody else is free.

Much of the case, and subsequent appeal, hinged on an especially moronic statement made by De Bernardinis on the day of the now infamous meeting in L’Aquila preceding the quake. At the time, he was the number two official at the Civil Protection Department. In a television interview, De Bernardinis—whose training is in hydrology, not seismology—was asked if the swarm was a sign of worse to come. 

“On the contrary,” he said. “The scientific community assures me that the situation is good because of the continuous discharge of energy.”

As a stand-alone comment, it does sound reassuring, but almost all seismologists would say this is rubbish. Worse, the brief clip from that interview was aired after the experts met on the afternoon of March 31, leaving the false impression that it was a summary of their opinions, not a rogue misstatement from an official who should have known better.

The three-judge panel has now (surprisingly quickly for an Italian panel) acquitted the six scientists. The seventh, Bernardo De Bernardinis, the guy who issued that misleading reassurance, has received a two-year sentence.

This was never about being sent to jail for not predicting an earthquake, but rather was about misleading the public in a manner that led to people dying. If you stand as an official voice, the authority responsible, and give guidance that has no basis in fact, then there are consequences.

It is perhaps understandable that Mr De Bernardinis wished to calm things down and avoid a panic, and so he took a risk saying that it would not happen, and ended up getting it catastrophically wrong.

We know that you cannot predict an earthquake, and so with that thought in mind, you also cannot predict that there will not be one, – by doing exactly  that Mr De Bernardinis crossed the line.

Notes

  • Here is the statement (in Italian) issued just prior to the Earthquake in which Mr De Bernardinis assured all that there would not be worse to come.
  • Here is the YouTube clip of it (sorry yes, in Italian again)

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