Scientists behind bars for manslaughter

A compilation of views from around the world…

Science community is shocked at the verdict given by court of L’Aquila to convict 7 prominent scientists, on 22nd of October for failing to warn the public about the disastrous earthquake that killed 309 people in 2009.

The shock comes in the wake that no scientist has ever been jailed for wrong predictions before. Predictions can’t be concrete anyway.

People listen to the verdict at L’Aquila (Italy) court Monday, Oct. 22. An Italian court has convicted seven scientists and experts of manslaughter for failing to adequately warn citizens before an earthquake struck central Italy in 2009, killing more than 300 people.
Raniero Pizzi/AP

The New York Times reported that this incident raises the issue of when a public warning is appropriate. It says that though “predicting the exact time and location of an earthquake is not possible”, warning can be given by the seismologists based on the likelihood of the event. “But if the likelihood is very low — as it was in this case, despite the increased seismic activity in the weeks before — a warning may do more harm than good.”

L’Aquila, a beautiful city, is set right in the middle of one of the most seismically prone zones in Italy. It witnessed plenty of small tremors in 2008 which had negligible impact. According to an article given in Science, De Berardinis, one of the government officials is said to have calmed the public by saying that he has been assured by the scientists that these small tremors picture a “favourable situation because of the continuous discharge of energy.” This statement was deadly for a lot of people as they bought this idea and ignored the risks. “It was repeated almost like a mantra: the more tremors, the less danger.”- said Simona Giannangeli, a lawyer who represented the families of few victims.

However, the scientists said that Berardini had made the statement before the meeting even took place.

An article in BBC read – “The seven – all members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks – were accused of having provided “inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory” information about the danger of the tremors felt ahead of 6 April 2009 quake, Italian media report.”

A blog by David Ropiek in Scientific American, titled  “The L’Aquila Verdict: A Judgment Not against Science, but against a Failure of Science Communication” said that it was irresponsible of the Commission to not have any expert be present while the information about the risk of tremor as a result of their discussions was being delivered to the public. He also points out the mistake on the Government’s side of not appointing a person for the vital job of risk communication.

In his blog, he mentioned Dr. Vincenzo Vittorini who had lost his wife and daughter in the quake and was the leader of ‘309 martyrs’ – referring to the people who lost their lives in the quake. Back then when the trial began, he said,“Nobody here wants to put science in the dock. We all know that the earthquake could not be predicted, and that evacuation was not an option. All we wanted was clearer information on risks in order to make our choices”.

As mentioned in The inquirer, further accusations were levelled at the scientists for their ‘Monumental negligence’ and ‘for taking their jobs lightly’. The families of the victims think that justice has been done.

Andrew Revkin took the side of scientists took the side of scientists in his blog Dot Earth wherein he posted a  thought provoking questions which come as an argument against the verdict. “In the days following the earthquake, all fingers were pointed at lax building codes and the possibility of local corruption. How many inspectors or builders or officials who approved inadequate building codes were prosecuted? (Please post links if you find them!)”

In The New York Times Science section Dr. Mileti, professor of behavioral science at the University of Colorado at Boulder, writes that  “One person saying once ‘You don’t have to worry’ is probably not why they didn’t do what they might have done to protect themselves,” he said. “Humans are hard-wired to deny low-probability, high-impact events.”

Giving once-a-year earthquake drills as one of the solutions, he adds “If you want to sell earthquake preparation in a way that it affects human behavior,” he said, “you have to sell it like Coca-Cola.”

The Daily Beast gives a true yet depressing conclusion to the event quoting Marcello Melandri who is the lawyer for scientist Boschi. He said, “In Italy you will now see many more false alarms in such situations, because experts will choose to cry wolf when in doubt. In the end they will become less and less credible.”