Jailing scientists for not predicting earthquakes … is quite frankly ‘medieval’

The 2009 horrendous earthquake that killed more than 300 people and levelled the city of L’Aquila has now resulted in some Italian lunacy. An Italian court has convicted six scientists and a government official for failing to give an adequate warning and has sentenced them to six years in prison. These are not just any random set of individuals, they are the cream of Italy’s earthquake experts. This is quite frankly outrageous and has resulted in wide condemnation from many including the American Geophysical Union.

The result of this is now obvious:

  • Nobody will be prepared to advise the Italian government about earthquakes and all will refuse to join any commissions.
  • There will be a complete refusal to participate in any Italian seismology and seismic risk assessments.

This is not a prediction, it is now the current reality. On Tuesday, Luciano Maiani, head of the Italian commission that monitors seismic risk, resigned, saying: “I don’t see the conditions are there for working serenely.” His deputy also quit.

Doubt will not be permitted, it has been outlawed, and so now there will be either no warnings at all, or perhaps a swing to the other extreme; an endless stream of  just-in-case false alarms that will drown out any real concerns. Faced with an endless stream of false alarms I would envisage most would simply start ignoring them.

Seven good men who tried their best, but were thwarted by a whim of nature have now been jailed. The claim is that they had been called in by the civil protection agency specifically to reassure people …

“They reassured us and then we died in our homes,” said a resident, Domenico Di Giamberlardino.

But that is not what really happened …

Eva [One of the scientists involved] insisted neither he nor his colleagues had given any reassurances in their brief, 40-minute meeting. “We always maintained it was not possible to predict or exclude an earthquake,” he said.

With two appeals permitted under Italian law, the scientists will not be going to jail immediately, but Eva said his morale was devastated by the verdict. “I do not feel guilty from a scientific point of view,” he said.

If this is left to stand, then it will not just be an abuse of the legal system, but will ripple out and result in the deaths of many others who might have been saved, but because no expert will now be involved, they will instead perish.

What Happens Now?

The prestigious scientific journal Nature has been following the story closely. Today, it took a step beyond just commenting on the story, and has now called for protest.

There is also a rather interesting article within today’s Washington Post in which they speculate that there is more to the L’Aquila’s story than just hare-brained prosecutors misunderstanding seismology …

[Quoting Nature] …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 …

…L’Aquila residents have long sought an outlet for their anger over the 2009 quake’s damage. … But stronger yet is the resentment of those families who will never see their homes again, of those who feel abandoned and who believe that not enough has been done, that in three years nothing (or almost nothing) has changed: debris and rubble piled on the streets downtown ….

… media pressure for action, as well as residents’ apparent sense of profound wounded resentment, led to what he calls “many judicial inquiries. …

… It’s easy to see how the public demands for blood might have built momentum for a case that, on its own, would appear absurd …

There are other theories. … the Italian physicists got “trapped” into giving a “yes/no answer” because they were trying to downplay a local amateur’s claims of being able to predict earthquakes. A long Nature essay discusses the common misunderstanding that scientific risk assessment is the same thing as a prediction. New Scientists hints that L’Aquila officials, overwhelmed with the burden of protecting against earthquakes in an ancient fault-line city that is poorly equipped to handle them, may have shrugged their decision-making responsibilities onto the scientific advisers …

While indeed what they observe may be true, I’m still going with the thought that this is indeed an instance of hare-brained prosecutors misunderstanding seismology, because while Hydrogen may be the most common element in the universe, stupidity does vigorously compete for that same title.


Articles in Nature …

Washington Post article today.

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