Verdict in earthquake trial has scientists shaking

October 27, 2012 • Editorial

Top Italian seismologists have been found guilty of manslaughter in the deaths of 308 people during the L’Aquila earthquake in 2009.

The seven scientists have been sentenced to six years in prison and slapped with a fine totaling 7.9 million euros (about $10 million) in a case that blames scientists, not poor building standards, for deaths in a natural disaster.

Prosecutors argued the scientists, members of Italy’s National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, did not warn the public that there would be a massive earthquake. A top official from the government agency, a few weeks before the earthquake, suggested there was “no danger” but that the public should “remain alert, without panicking.” [auth] Experts point out that most seismic activity does not evolve into a massive earthquake. And seismologists can’t forecast when the next big quake is going to hit.

“I’m dejected, despairing. I still don’t understand what I’m accused of,” Enzo Boschi, the former president of the National Geophysics and Vulcanology Institute, told reporters in response to the verdict.

If the shocking verdict is upheld, this witch hunt with bizarre Dark Ages undertones, it will send a message to Italy’s scientists: Keep your mouths shut, and don’t volunteer an opinion. Alternatively, in accordance with the judge’s reasoning, it could encourage scientists to issue warnings all the time, instilling fear and fomenting in society a state of perpetual panic.

Alan Leschner, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, wrote an open letter to Italy’s government in 2010, when the scientists were first placed under investigation. “It is manifestly unfair for scientists to be criminally charged for failing to act on information that the international scientific community would consider inadequate as a basis for issuing a warning,” Leschner wrote. “Subjecting scientists to criminal charges for adhering to accepted scientific practices may have a chilling effect on researchers, thereby impeding the free exchange of ideas.”

According to the U.S. Geological Survey website, no earthquake has ever been predicted successfully. USGS says scientists can only calculate the probability of a potential quake, but do not expect to predict them for the “foreseeable future.”

It’s no surprise that four top Italian disaster experts quit their posts as a consequence of Tuesday’s convictions. The seismologists in this absurd case have been made scapegoats when politicians and builders could have enacted much stronger seismic building codes and seismic upgrade laws. Several Italian investigative reports have suggested Mafia infiltration and influence in construction contracts may have led to lax building codes that produced structures more prone to collapse in a quake.

To keep from getting slapped with manslaughter charges, perhaps, in the future, Italy’s scientists should couch their conclusions in Nostradamus quatrains.

Guest Editorial

The Orange County Register

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