by Judith Curry
Six Italian scientists and an ex-government official have been sentenced to six years in prison over the 2009 deadly earthquake in L’Aquila. – BBC
The background to this story was discussed in a previous thread Liability(?) of scientists.
The BBC provides a thorough analysis of the trial in an article entitled L’Aquila quake: Italy scientists guilty of manslaughter. Some excerpts:
The BBC’s Alan Johnston in Rome says the prosecution argued that the scientists were “just too reassuring”. Prosecutors said the defendants gave a falsely reassuring statement before the quake, while the defence maintained there was no way to predict major quakes.
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.
In addition to their sentences, all have been barred from ever holding public office again, La Repubblica reports.
The case has alarmed many in the scientific community, who feel science itself has been put on trial. Among those convicted were some of Italy’s most prominent and internationally respected seismologists and geological experts. Earlier, more than 5,000 scientists signed an open letter to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano in support of the group in the dock.
After the verdict was announced, David Rothery, of the UK’s Open University, said earthquakes were “inherently unpredictable”. “The best estimate at the time was that the low-level seismicity was not likely to herald a bigger quake, but there are no certainties in this game,” he said.
Response from the AGU
The American Geophysical Union was quick off the block with this statement, entitled Conviction of Italian Scientists May Hinder Open Discussion of Seismic Risk. The complete text of their short statement:
The verdict and prison sentences delivered on 22 October in the trial of six Italian scientists and one government official charged with manslaughter in connection with the L’Aquila earthquake are troubling and could ultimately be harmful to international efforts to understand natural disasters and mitigate associated risk.
While the facts of the L’Aquila case are complex, the unfettered exchange of data and information, as well as the freedom and encouragement to participate in open discussions and to communicate results, are essential to the success of any type of scientific research. For scientists to be effective, they must be able to make good faith efforts to present the results of their research without the risk of prosecution. Outcomes such as the one seen in Italy could ultimately discourage scientists from advising their governments, from communicating the results of their research to the public, or even from studying and working in various fields of science.
The most appropriate response to natural disasters such as the L’Aquila earthquake is a renewed commitment on the part of scientists, engineers, and government officials to continue working together to more accurately understand and communicate the best available science and information for what can be done to protect the public.
Pielke Jr’s remarks
Roger Pielke Jr has a good analysis Mischaracterization of L’Aquila Lawsuit Verdict. Excerpts:
The trial in L’Aquila has drawn huge international attention, as well as outrage and protests. In 2010, more than 4000 scientists from Italy and around the world signed an open letter to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, calling the allegations “unfounded,” because there was no way the commission could reliably have predicted an earthquake. Alan Leshner, CEO of AAAS (the publisher of Science) called the indictments “unfair and naïve” in a 2010 letter to Napolitano.
Yet as the trial unfolded here over the past year, a more complex picture has emerged. Prosecutors didn’t charge commission members with failing to predict the earthquake but with conducting a hasty, superficial risk assessment and presenting incomplete, falsely reassuring findings to the public. They have argued in court that the many tremors that L’Aquila experienced in the preceding months did provide at least some clues about a heightened risk.
Meanwhile, a recorded telephone conversation made public halfway through the trial has suggested that the commission was convened with the explicit goal of reassuring the public and raised the question of whether the scientists were used—or allowed themselves to be used—to bring calm to a jittery town.
I discussed some of the dynamics at play in my Bridges column of October, 2011 (here in PDF):
On March 31, 2009, in L’Aquila, six days before a deadly magnitude 6.3 earthquake killed 308 people, Bernardo De Bernardinis, then deputy chief of Italy’s Civil Protection Department , and six scientists who were members of a scientific advisory body to the Department (the Major Risks Committee) participated in an official meeting and press conference in response to public concerns about short-term earthquake risks. The public concerns were the result of at least two factors: One was the recent occurrence of a number of small earthquakes. A second factor was the prediction of a pending large earthquake issued by Gioacchino Giuliani, who was not a seismologist and worked as a technician at Italy’s National Institute of Nuclear Physics.
The deputy chief and scientists held a short one-hour meeting and then a press conference, during which they downplayed the possibility of an earthquake. For instance, De Bernardinis went so far as to claim that the recent tremors actually reduced earthquake risks: “[T]he scientific community continues to confirm to me that in fact it is a favourable situation, that is to say a continuous discharge of energy.” When asked directly by the media if the public should sit back and enjoy a glass of wine rather than worry about earthquakes, De Bernardinis acted as sommelier: “Absolutely, absolutely a Montepulciano doc. This seems important.” . . .
. . . in L’Aquila, the government and its scientists seemed to be sending a different message to the public than the one that was received. Media reports of the Major Risk Committee meeting and the subsequent press conference seem to focus on countering the views offered by Mr. Giuliani, whom they viewed as unscientific and had been battling in preceding months. Thus, one interpretation of the Major Risks Committee’s statements is that they were not specifically about earthquakes at all, but instead were about which individuals the public should view as legitimate and authoritative and which they should not.
If officials were expressing a view about authority rather than a careful assessment of actual earthquake risks, this would help to explain their sloppy treatment of uncertainties.
The case is likely to be appealed, so the current verdict is not the last word. While the verdict rests on finer points of Italian law and jurisprudence, the issues at play are not accurately characterized as a failure to accurately predict an earthquake, or even more broadly as science vs. anti-science. The public responsibilities of government officials and the scientists that they depend upon are too important to characterize in such cartoonish fashion.