Scientists Convicted For Not Predicting Earthquake
October 23, 2012

Italian Court Convicts Scientists For Not Predicting Earthquake

Peter Suciu for — Your Universe Online

On Thursday, six scientists and a government official were sentenced to six years in prison. These seven men were held accountable for the deaths of more than 300 people. They were guilty of manslaughter for reportedly remaining silent — and this ruling has shocked the scientific community around the world.

The “crime” these men were charged and convicted of was failing to accurately communicate the risk of the earthquake that hit the city of L´Aquila in 2009. The seven men were all members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks. On the surface it could be argued that it was their job, their responsibility, to inform the public of such events. But, as the scientific community had argued, predicting an earthquake is still a matter of guesswork.

How many times can scientists warn the public before it becomes a case of crying “wolf?”

“To predict a large quake on the basis of a relatively commonplace sequence of small earthquakes, and to advise the local population to flee” would constitute “both bad science and bad public policy,” David Oglesby, an associate professor at the earth sciences faculty of the University of California, Riverside, told in a statement. “If scientists can be held personally and legally responsible for situations where predictions don't pan out, then it will be very hard to find scientists to stick their necks out in the future.”

But this trial was also one of emotion as much as of facts. It has been noted that much of the testimony was from those who had lost loved ones in the devastating 2009 quake. In this regard the evidence given was not about the actual ability to predict a quake, but rather the emotion aftermath from failing to alert the public.

Earthquake prediction and forecasting comes down to two main approaches, which include looking at past history of a tectonic area to derive if there is any pattern of occurrences. For example, Southern California in the United States is known to be somewhat prone to earthquakes, but then again so is much of Southern Europe.

The second methodology involves looking at what happens as a fault zone builds energy toward an earthquake. This study requires trying to recognize precursor events that can be used to determine when earthquakes are likely to actually happen.

One notable issue is that smaller earthquakes, often called tremors, can precede major earthquakes, and can be used as a form of indicator that a major earthquake is possibly on the way. But tremors can take place without a major quake just as often. In this particular case experts have argued that there was an issue of failure of communication not calculations, which is one reason the men now face jail time.

In the Italian case the prosecutors argued that the defendants provided “inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory information about the dangers” that faced the Italian city. The court agreed with this argument and found the seven men guilty, and sentenced them to six years in prison and also ordered the Italian authorities to pay 7.8 million euros ($10 million) in damages. The seven men convicted on Monday will remain free during the appeal process.

Given that the earthquake in Italy was followed by massively devastating quakes in 2011 in Christchurch, New Zealand, which killed more than 200 people, and the March 11, 2011 quake in Japan that killed almost 16,000 people, it is clear that many people simply live in danger zones.