Italian Scientists Found Guilty of Manslaughter for Reassuring Public Over Quake Risks

October 22nd, 2012
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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.

Via NPR:

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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22 Responses to “Italian Scientists Found Guilty of Manslaughter for Reassuring Public Over Quake Risks”

  1. 1
    Bill P. Godfrey Says:

    Maybe the remaining seismologists need to warn of a big earthquake every single day until someone legislates. (Assusimg its not a crime to be over-cautious.)


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  2. 2
    DV82XL Says:

    So how do you say “chilling effect” in Italian? Guaranteed no government scientist will open his mouth now on any matter, and that will probably hold for government economists as well. A sad dénouement to end of common sense from a county that once through its Civil Code brought order to the practice of law in the West.


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  3. 3
    Mirko Tavosanis Says:

    Here we come again with a worldwide case of Italy-bashing (even from scientists and organizations that shoudl know better), just as at the time of the indiction.

    Well, let’s say it again. It is simply not true that the indicted people “never stated that a larger quake was not a possibility”: they actually said so!

    For example, in this video in Italian, broadcast in the days before the quake, you can heard one of the indicted, Bernardo De Bernardinis, the Vice-Commissioner for Civil Protection, summing up the situation and saying literally that “there is no risk” (“non c’è pericolo”, at 2′47″):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kLIMHe0NnW8&feature=player_embedded

    So, even if tremors are a well known sign of possible (albeit not sure) future seismic activity, and of increased risk of a quake, the Commission in practice, at least in a few occasions, said to people living in tents to go back to their homes because “there is no risk”. This does not seem to me in line with current seismologic knowledge everywhere.

    Oh, well. The Italian law system has many issues, but in this case seems like it did the right thing. But, OK, it did so in Italy, so of course it must be a Medieval procedure or a witch-hunt. No need to actually evaluate statements and the issues: who cares? It’s an Italian thing, so it MUST be wrong.


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  4. 4
    josh Says:

    But what does that have to do with manslaughter? That’s a charge where you’re direct actions lead to deaths. How are the seismologists responsible and not the local authorities who failed to have a decent disaster response plans or the various parties responsible for the sub standard buildings in this area?


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  5. 5
    Q Says:

            Mirko Tavosanis said:

    Here we come again with a worldwide case of Italy-bashing (even from scientists and organizations that shoudl know better), just as at the time of the indiction.

    I’m an American. My government makes stupid decisions all the time and gets ripped to shreds from the rest of the world for it. Welcome to the club!

    But seriously: Stop pressuring scientists and putting hem on the spot about things that can’t be predicted and then putting them in prison when you don’t think their response was any good.


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  6. 6
    Apollo Says:

    I remember reading about this sometime ago, likely on this blog now that I think about.

    To be short, it wouldn’t surprise me if the next major seismic event is caused by the collective facepalm of the scientific community.


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  7. 7
    Matte Says:

    After Andrea Rossi, neutrinos fastar than light, this:
    http://blogs.wsj.com/tech-europe/2012/10/22/cellphones-cause-cancer-rules-italian-court/
    and now another court convicts scientists of manslaughter…

    Ok, it is official! Italy has shown the way into the future, stupidity will rule and we are all doomed!


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  8. 8
    Michael Says:

    well, as I said to my wife when she forwarded me an article about the cellphone case, this is the country with the high court that found that a woman wearing Jeans could not possibly have been “legitimately” raped, because “as we all know” “you can’t take Jeans off of a girl if she doesn’t want you to”. So yeah. Italian courts. Just great.


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  9. 9
    Jason C Says:

            Mirko Tavosanis said:

    Here we come again with a worldwide case of Italy-bashing (even from scientists and organizations that shoudl know better), just as at the time of the indiction.

    Well, let’s say it again. It is simply not true that the indicted people “never stated that a larger quake was not a possibility”: they actually said so!

    For example, in this video in Italian, broadcast in the days before the quake, you can heard one of the indicted, Bernardo De Bernardinis, the Vice-Commissioner for Civil Protection, summing up the situation and saying literally that “there is no risk” (“non c’è pericolo”, at 2′47″):

    I don’t understand Italian, but suppose the scientist said “there is a risk, evacuate now” and then nothing happened? Would he have been charged for creating unnecessary panic and inconvenience? If he had said “there’s absolutely no risk, go back home”, at most he would be considered understating the circumstances or has poor communication skills. His negligence didn’t cause the earthquake, so how can he be criminally liable? He is only guilty for giving the situation his best guess, which like anyone’s best guess could be entirely wrong.

    The court that tried the scientists were under the presumption the scientists could deliver information that would have saved lives and they failed to adequately do so. That presumption is incorrect.


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  10. 10
    BMS Says:

            Jason C said:

    I don’t understand Italian, but suppose the scientist said “there is a risk, evacuate now” and then nothing happened? Would he have been charged for creating unnecessary panic and inconvenience?

    Heller’s Catch-22 was set in the Italian theater of WWII. Coincidence? ;-)


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  11. 11
    Mirko Tavosanis Says:

            Jason C said:

    I don’t understand Italian, but suppose the scientist said “there is a risk, evacuate now” and then nothing happened? Would he have been charged for creating unnecessary panic and inconvenience?

    Funny you mentioned it… one of the indicted, Enzo Boschi, actually issued a forecast for an expected quake in Garfagnana in 1985 (I remember it very well, since I was living a few kms away). The government promptly evacuated 100,000 people, but the quake never happened; Boschi’s actions were examined by a judge but the act was considered a reasonable warning according to scientific consensus so there was no prosecution (in the Eighties, quake forecasts were the fad of the day, worldwide, and one of the reasons why “forecasting” of quakes encountered such a bad press later and became, it seems, an acritycal and hysterical dogma, at least in some quarters).

    Boschi then shifted to the field of the “negationists” and had a discussion with Tazieff on the issue:

    http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enzo_Boschi#La_previsione_dei_terremoti (in Italian)

    In the Aquila quake there has been the Giuliani case: a quasi-scientist that working with a non-peer-reviewed model “predicted” the quake but in a different day and location and asked the government for an evacuation, but since his credentials were doubtful his advice was not followed (luckily): his position has been scrutinized by public accusators, but I don’t think he has been put to trial for “procurato allarme”, the legal term for unfounded and dangerous warnings.

            Jason C said:

    If he had said “there’s absolutely no risk, go back home”, at most he would be considered understating the circumstances or has poor communication skills. His negligence didn’t cause the earthquake, so how can he be criminally liable? He is only guilty for giving the situation his best guess, which like anyone’s best guess could be entirely wrong.

    The court that tried the scientists were under the presumption the scientists could deliver information that would have saved lives and they failed to adequately do so. That presumption is incorrect.

    It seems to me that you are taking second-, third- and fourth-hand reports as if they were actual truth. No, in fact those people (part of them scientists, part engineer and bureucrats) had the task to do risk assessment and risk communication as components of the “Big risks” commission. They failed miserably on both counts. It is simply wrong, from any point of view, to describe the situation in a known seismic zone as a “no risk” situation (some of them actually said so), or to dismiss foreshocks as irrelevant.

    The issue is well known:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earthquake_prediction#Seismic_activity

    As for me, it does not seem unreasonable that if you actually say to people sleeping in tents that “you can go back to your homes because there is no risk”, when the risk actually exist according to current knowledge, then you can be sentenced for manslaughter when the quake hits.


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  12. 12
    drbuzz0 Says:

            Matte said:

    After Andrea Rossi, neutrinos fastar than light, this:
    http://blogs.wsj.com/tech-europe/2012/10/22/cellphones-cause-cancer-rules-italian-court/
    and now another court convicts scientists of manslaughter…

    Ok, it is official! Italy has shown the way into the future, stupidity will rule and we are all doomed!

    Alright, before we start on the wanton country bashing, the neutrino incident was actually an international effort and it turned out to be an error in an extremely complex system. The scientists, who I assure you, are very smart people, saw the results, scratched their heads and repeatedly tried to find the error. They did not find one so they released the data. Others found the error. The process worked. These things happen. It’s why such surprising results are the subject of review and re-checked repeatedly.


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  13. 13
    drbuzz0 Says:

            Mirko Tavosanis said:

    As for me, it does not seem unreasonable that if you actually say to people sleeping in tents that “you can go back to your homes because there is no risk”, when the risk actually exist according to current knowledge, then you can be sentenced for manslaughter when the quake hits.

    Well, the risk is NEVER zero. That’s true anywhere. Even in seismically inactive zones, the risk is not zero. Major quakes can and do sometimes occur on long dormant faults that are not known of or mapped. Anyone reading this could experience a quake in the next few minutes – the risk is not zero.

    The question is relative risk. If you are going to say that any time there is a risk greater than zero, people must sleep in tents, then you will have everyone always sleeping in tents.

    The region has earthquakes, but major quakes are infrequent. minor increases in seismic activity are frequent and rarely have any relationship to a major quake.


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  14. 14
    seth Says:

    Read the Amanda Knox story to get a good idea of how the justice system works in the land of Mussolini.


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  15. 15
    Matte Says:

            drbuzz0 said:

    Alright, before we start on the wanton country bashing, the neutrino incident was actually an international effort and it turned out to be an error in an extremely complex system. The scientists, who I assure you, are very smart people, saw the results, scratched their heads and repeatedly tried to find the error. They did not find one so they released the data.

    Others found the error.

    The process worked.

    These things happen. It’s why such surprising results are the subject of review and re-checked repeatedly.

    I know that, but Italy is part of the EU-SSR, they are just a little bit more ahead than the reast of us.
    I will go and carve my wrists up for a while…


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  16. 16
    Mirko Tavosanis Says:

            drbuzz0 said:

    Well, the risk is NEVER zero.

    That’s true anywhere. Even in seismically inactive zones, the risk is not zero. Major quakes can and do sometimes occur on long dormant faults that are not known of or mapped. Anyone reading this could experience a quake in the next few minutes – the risk is not zero.

    Yest. That’s why it is a particularly stupid thing to say “there is no risk” when you are standing in a known seismic zone in the midst of tremblors that could be, or could not be, foreshocks of a bigger quake.

    This is not a Galileo-like scenario. Is more like the classical “Jaws” setting, with the mayor of the town encouraging everybody to go swimming because it’s a nice day.

            drbuzz0 said:

    The question is relative risk.

    If you are going to say that any time there is a risk greater than zero, people must sleep in tents, then you will have everyone always sleeping in tents.

    The region has earthquakes, but major quakes are infrequent. minor increases in seismic activity are frequent and rarely have any relationship to a major quake.

    Of course it would be foolish to do so. But this is not a on / off situation: quake risk takes many forms. In some seismic zones it is forbidden to build anything. In some, you have to follow special building guidelines. And in some cases, it is not a matter of having a policy for long-term risks: you have a situation of real-time emergency (pretty common in Italy: the last cycle of quakes in Northern Italy lasted for weeks, aftershocks killed rescuers in already damaged structures and damaged buildings even in my hometown, Pisa) and you have to take decisions on the spot. Is it reasonably safe to send people evaluating the damaged buildings, or is it best to wait for a while? People should be encouraged to leave the zone?

    Of course, everybody knows that you can only do reasonable guesses in many of those situations. So, usually, in Italy or elsewere, nobody is prosecuted when rescuers are killed by unexpected aftershocks, or something of this kind. In the case of L’Aquila, instead, the Commission not only did a very disputable assessment of risk, but it made some spectacularly wrong statements. Some members actually said that there was “no risk”.

    So, as to your original post:

    “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.”

    No, actually they (or at least some of them, in some very visible occasions) stated that a larger quake was not a possibility.

    No, the presence of foreshocks, even if it is not a reliable indicator of a quake, is a REALLY GOOD reason, anywhere, to presume that the risk is higher than normal.

    Some other factual inaccuracies in the original post:

    - the panic at L’Aquila was not caused by bogus quake predictions; it was caused by continuing foreshocks, and, in hindsight, this seems a very reasonable source of worry (of course, later, the bogus predictions stimulated the panic)

    - the Italian government is not “turning against” its own scientists; the judiciary is not the government and it acts independently


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  17. 17
    Jason C Says:

            Mirko Tavosanis said:

    No, actually they (or at least some of them, in some very visible occasions) stated that a larger quake was not a possibility.

    No, the presence of foreshocks, even if it is not a reliable indicator of a quake, is a REALLY GOOD reason, anywhere, to presume that the risk is higher than normal.

    I still think you’re playing a game of semantics and using the lack of definitive statements to uphold the court’s ruling.

    Any scientist, a seismologist, a doctor, a structural engineer, a meteorologist, an economist – all will be called upon to give their opinion of future prediction. They don’t have crystal balls. They’re human and can make mistakes. When a doctor does his best during even during a routine surgery and complications happen and a patient dies, the doctor is not liable unless negligence can be proven.

    The question here then is, did the scientist give a reasonable qualifying statement/opinion about the chances of an earthquake? And if they did (and they did), under what circumstances of understanding did they give that opinion? I doubt they signed any piece of paper that had a criminal liability clause stating if their “opinion” was incorrect they would be held liable for any and all ensuing death and destruction. Nobody in their right mind would give an opinion under such a contractual condition or they would give an opinion so flaky like “I don’t know, it could happen anytime” so as to not be held liable.

    Where, if it does exist, was there any sort of legal understanding prior to “the deliverable” being submitted that this group of scientists agreed and stated they had any sort of reliable and tested method of predicting earthquakes? I bet it doesn’t exist. All of this points to is a case built on hearsay and scapegoating.


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  18. 18
    Jason C Says:

            Mirko Tavosanis said:

    The issue is well known:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earthquake_prediction#Seismic_activity

    As for me, it does not seem unreasonable that if you actually say to people sleeping in tents that “you can go back to your homes because there is no risk”, when the risk actually exist according to current knowledge, then you can be sentenced for manslaughter when the quake hits.

    From the Wiki article:
    On March 29 he made a second prediction.[179] The details are hazy, but apparently he telephoned the mayor of the town of Sulmona, about 55 kilometers southeast of L’Aquila, to expect a “damaging” — or even “catastrophic” — earthquake within 6 to 24 hours. This is the incident with the loudspeaker vans warning the inhabitants of Sulmona (not L’Aquila) to evacuate, with consequential panic. Nothing ensued, except Giuliano was cited for procurato allarme (inciting public alarm) and injoined from making public predictions.

    Well, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t! Lesson for scientists in Italy: keep your mouth shut when asked for a prediction.


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  19. 19
    DV82XL Says:

            Jason C said:

    The question here then is, did the scientist give a reasonable qualifying statement/opinion about the chances of an earthquake? And if they did (and they did), under what circumstances of understanding did they give that opinion? I doubt they signed any piece of paper that had a criminal liability clause stating if their “opinion” was incorrect they would be held liable for any and all ensuing death and destruction. Nobody in their right mind would give an opinion under such a contractual condition or they would give an opinion so flaky like “I don’t know, it could happen anytime” so as to not be held liable.

    Even then it doesn’t matter. This is the worse case of confirmation bias in jurisprudence I have ever heard or seen. The court is making so many unfounded assumptions that it is hard to see how they can justify any verdict at all.


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  20. 20
    drbuzz0 Says:

    If you want to assign blame for this tragety then I’ll tell you where to go, because indeed it was unnecessary.

    The quake was a 6.4 on the Richter scale. That’s large, but not *that* big. Most modern cities in seismic areas are built so that they could sit on the epicenter of a 6.4 quake and there would be non-catastrophic damage and few deaths.

    Unfortunately, this was an old city with a lot of old buildings. Still, old buildings can be retrofitted and reenforced. There are techniques. Cables and steel frames can be attached within the buildings, rods can be driven through masonry, even dampers installed on foundations etc.

    It’s expensive, however. The problem here seems to be that the local authorities decided that it was too expensive or they didn’t want to risk the potential of disrupting historic structures.

    If the goal is to prevent another tragedy like this, investigations need to focus on the failure of building codes.


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  21. 21
    I'mnotreallyhere Says:

            drbuzz0 said:

    If you want to assign blame for this tragety then I’ll tell you where to go, because indeed it was unnecessary.

    The quake was a 6.4 on the Richter scale. That’s large, but not *that* big. Most modern cities in seismic areas are built so that they could sit on the epicenter of a 6.4 quake and there would be non-catastrophic damage and few deaths.

    Unfortunately, this was an old city with a lot of old buildings. Still, old buildings can be retrofitted and reenforced.

    There are techniques. Cables and steel frames can be attached within the buildings, rods can be driven through masonry, even dampers installed on foundations etc.

    It’s expensive, however.

    The problem here seems to be that the local authorities decided that it was too expensive or they didn’t want to risk the potential of disrupting historic structures.

    If the goal is to prevent another tragedy like this, investigations need to focus on the failure of building codes.

    It will always be a game of risk analysis versus budget. Like you said earlier, there’s an earthquke risk anywhere on the planet, it’s just extremely small in some areas and the probability drops away with magnitude for obvious reasons. Ultimately you assess, design and maintain construction based on certain assumptions for what is reasonable and the financial aspect will always be part of that. These decisions are made all the time.

    I specc’ed up a modification for a set of nuclear reactors in France which would, undoubtedly, make them safer (I’m going to choose to leave this ambiguous for the sake of my career) and in the end, bit by bit my proposal was thrown out because it would have cost millions upon millions of euros. The cost-benefit analysis said no. At the end of the day it’s just plotted on a log-plot of cost against reduction-of-annual-risk-of-core-fusion. A couple of straight lines divide the proposals into high and low priority and those to be rejected. End of.

    As for the Italy case, a lot of the case appears to me to hinge on the advice being given to ignore the minor quakes beforehand and stay indoors, drink a glass of wine and chill out. On another day it might have been good advice. One wonders what the overall societal cost of the stress and fear of over-conservative advice is on the wider population.


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  22. 22
    Eric L. Hanson Says:

    The charges against the scientists were silly; the convictions stupid; the sentences outrageous!

    http://www.businessinsider.com/italian-seismologists-six-years-prison-2012-10


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