In 2009, a series of small tremors rocked the city of L’Aquila. Several local individuals, who were not scientists, made predictions that a major quake was coming. The result was pandemonium and panic. Six scientists from the Italian government responded by noting that small tremors were not uncommon and that prediction of a bigger quake was not possible. They never stated that a larger quake was not a possibility, but said it was “improbable” and that there was no reason to presume the risk was higher for 2009 than normal.
As it turns out, there was an earthquake, which, of course, can happen at any time. More than 300 died. Now the scientists are convicted of manslaughter.
Six Italian scientists have been sentenced to six years in prison for what a judge said was a faulty forecast of the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila.
The BBC reports that prosecutors said the scientists, who work for the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, “gave a falsely reassuring statement before the quake, while the defense maintained there was no way to predict major quakes.”
According to NBC News, what happened is that L’Aquila had been feeling tremors in late March. One local man, who was not a scientist, made the prediction that a big one was on its way. Responding to the man on March 31, the group of scientists concluded it was “improbable” that the area would experience a major earthquake, “although they stopped short of entirely excluding the possibility.”
On April 6, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake killed more than 300 poeple.
Andrew Revkin, over at The New York Times’ Dot Earth blog, wrote about the case last year. He called the trial “a medieval-style attack on science.”
Revkin said the scientists were forced to provide the assessment after Giampaolo Giuliani, the non-scientist who made the prediction, made the public panic.
Revkin explains that Giampaolo’s methods are considered “unreliable, at best.” But the commission of scientists was trapped in a yes or no debate.
The bottom line, as 5,000 scientists wrote to Italy’s president in an open letter, is that “there is currently no scientifically accepted method for short-term earthquake prediction.”
NBC News reports that the prosecution acknowledged that saying the problem here is that the “the risk of a big temblor was not taken seriously enough.”
What can I say? Part of me is glad to see that the US is not the most anti-science country around. These scientists never said anything that was not accurate. The oversimplification of the press and the fact that they were faced with a situation where unscientific predictions risked danger put them in a very bad situation. Now the government, who employed them has turned against those doing their job.
I think the message here should be very clear to any scientists, especially in the geophysical sciences in Italy: Get the hell out while you can!
As an EU member state, it should be relatively easy to relocate to an area which is less prone to persecuting scientists within the continent. Otherwise, there may be other options. Sadly science jobs are not expanding very quickly in the US, although it might be worth a look. Japan has been hiring more geologists to assess earthquake risks and so has China. Language might be barrier, but as far as I know, the Japanese don’t generally throw scientists in jail for making accurate statements.
This entry was posted on Monday, October 22nd, 2012 at 4:59 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Culture, Not Even Wrong, Politics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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