Italian scientists sentenced to jail for failing to predict earthquake

October 23, 2012 • 5:00 am

This is unbelievable. According to yesterday’s Christian Science Monitor, an Italian court sentenced six scientists and a bureaucrat to six years in jail for failing to predict a 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, a small city in the center of the country. That quake toppled ancient buildings and killed 309 people.

They were sentenced not for scientific inaccuracy, but for manslaughter.

Today, a court in the central Italian city of L’Aquila, 380 years after that miscarriage of justice, sentenced six scientists and a government bureaucrat to six years in jail on manslaughter charges for their failure to predict a 2009 earthquake that left more than 300 people dead.

. . . The seven convicted men stood accused of “inexact, incomplete, and contradictory” information about the risks posed by tremors in the weeks ahead of the April 6, 2009, earthquake that caused so much destruction.

The seven, all members of the “National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks,” were convicted after an apparently emotional trial in which the testimony of people who had lost loved ones was allowed, as if it was relevant to the question of whether current science can predict earthquakes. No grief, no matter how great, can answer that question (which is a resounding “no,” by the way).

As we all know, especially Americans who live in California, there is no way to predict when an earthquake will take place, even with advanced technology involving sensors placed along fault lines. Residents of San Francisco, for instance, all know that The Big One is Coming, but you don’t see people scrambling from of the city. It could happen today, or in a century. (Wikipedia has a decent article on the methods and success of earthquake prediction.)

The CSM continues:

The scientific consensus has been clear on this for some time. As much as the world would like the ability to predict earthquakes, it’s eluded the best efforts of scientists for decades. The plate-tectonic revolution in geology held out some hope for greater predictive abilities as it gathered steam in the 1950s and 1960s. But while scientists have a much better understanding of why earthquakes happen and where they’re likely to occur than at any point in human history, their predictive powers are so vague as to be practically useless – beyond recommending people shouldn’t live in quake zones like L’Aquila. People are generally resistant to such advice though. The city was rebuilt after major earthquakes in the 15th and 18th centuries, just as it has been rebuilt now.

Exactly what did they do to deserve six years in stir? Joel Cohen, a professor at Rockefeller University (and one of my old professors at Harvard) explains what the miscreants did:

Italy’s National Commission for Prediction and Prevention of Major Risks, which comprised the seven men now on trial, met in L’Aquila for one hour on March 31, 2009, to assess the earthquake swarms. According to the minutes, Enzo Boschi, President of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, was asked if they were precursors to an earthquake resembling the one in 1703. He replied: “It is unlikely that an earthquake like the one in 1703 could occur in the short term, but the possibility cannot be totally excluded (emphasis added).”

In fact, other seismologists agree that that statement was the most informed one possible at the time.

That’s science, folks.  We can make statements about likelihood of tectonic events, but can never have complete certainty.  In fact, we can’t totally exclude the possibility that evolution didn’t occur either, though, given the mountain of evidence supporting it, that possibility is extremely unlikely.

PuffHo has more information, including a BBC video of the quake, the trial, and statements by residents. (The video continues after the first pass-through).

The convicted are appealing (I hope the scientists haven’t been jailed yet), and I trust the Italian courts will come to their senses.  If they don’t, the upshot is this: Italian scientists will no longer make informed predictions about anything of social import lest they languish in jail for making a mistake.  The court needs to learn a lesson that scientists have long absorbed: we don’t know anything with absolute certainty (though we know some things with near-certainty).

h/t: Linda

59 thoughts on “Italian scientists sentenced to jail for failing to predict earthquake

  1. According to this news story, they are free on bail until after two appeals… which would seems pretty generous if they were convicted of a real manslaughter charge in a real court.

    1. “The convicted are appealing (I hope the scientists haven’t been jailed yet)” … in all fairness I hope they didn’t jail the bureaucrat either!

  2. They love this sort of drama in Italy. They’ve had the circus and it’ll be overturned on appeal. Berlusconi’s news outlets made a killing on sensationalizing the story. Everybody’s happy.

    1. Everybody’s happy.

      uh, no.

      the scientists aren’t happy.

      I’m not happy that scientists were convicted of manslaughter for this, dramatic escapade or no, it sets precedent.

      YOU shouldn’t be happy about it.

    2. So long as the Italians are happy to be an international laughing stock and for all their scientists to go overseas, then I guess you’re right.

  3. Nature among others , has been following the case – here is their take

    It is shocking. I cannot believe that they will not get off on appeal – but how many years of their lives will be blighted by this? It is too bad that people died, but the universe is indifferent to pain & suffering – so get over it. Take responsibility for yourself in an indifferent world & do not blame others where they were not the originators of harm.

    1. from that link:

      According to the prosecutor, such reassurances were the reason why 29 people who would otherwise have left L’Aquila in the following days changed their minds and decided to stay, and were killed when their homes collapsed.

      but… the point of what the scientists were saying was that the swarm of lesser quakes was UNRELATED to predicting risk for any particular area.

      It’s what they said, even during trial. This is a mockery of the law, of scientific understanding, it’s nothing more than a damn witch hunt.

  4. Misconduct is one thing, but manslaughter is quite another. If there are procedures they are supposed to have followed and they failed to do that, then punish them appropriately. But manslaughter?

  5. The BBC gives a somewhat different reading: these people are accused, not of failing to predict an earthquake, but of having given unfounded reassurements after the first minor tremors. Today they claim that it is impossible to accurately predict what is going to happen after such minor earth tremors, and that is simply a fact. But at the time they should have told the public precisely that, and loud and clear. Instead it seems that they made public announcements which led people to believe that everything was safe and under control, that it was certain that no bigger quakes would follow, and advising them to stay at home.
    But then, it would be interestung ti know how – and under what pressures – they made these falsely reassuring announcements. It seems to me that they are also used as scapegoats to protect civic and political authorities.

    1. The BBC gives a somewhat different reading: these people are accused, not of failing to predict an earthquake, but of having given unfounded reassurements after the first minor tremors.

      I’ve seen others make similar points on the matter, but I still fail to understand the difference of this distinction.

      If anybody deserves criminal prosecution, it’s those who failed to enact and enforce building code standards comparable to those in California, Japan, and other earthquake-prone areas. A 5.8 Richter / 6.3 moment magnitude earthquake just isn’t that big of a deal. Damage should have been limited to things falling off shelves; no structure should have failed.


    2. then the BBC is wrong.

      look again:

      The meeting was unusually quick, and was followed by a press conference, during which Italy’s Civil Protection Department and local authorities reassured the population, stating that minor shocks did not raise the risk of a major quake. In a television interview recorded shortly before the meeting, Bernardo De Bernardinis, then deputy director of the Civil Protection Department, said, “the scientific community tells me there is no danger because there is an ongoing discharge of energy”. Most seismologists, including several of the indicted, consider this statement to be scientifically incorrect.

      note the last line.

      it’s pretty clear that what the scientists told the political representatives was mistranslated BY the civil representatives.

      even with THAT however, even translating what the scientists said to:

      ” minor shocks did not raise the risk of a major quake”

      this in fact, is correct. a swarm of minor shocks over a large area, does NOTHING to affect the predictions of a specific area within the larger area.

      nope, the only people being irresponsible here are the italian courts.

  6. Many reports are maintaining that the trial was about the failure to predict the earthquake, but this is inaccurate to say the least.

    The scientists held a meeting behind closed doors, and the quote in the post is from the minutes of that meeting. But the minutes were not released to the public – they were actually written after the earthquake. What the population got was a press conference with reassuring remarks (“stay at home”, “have a glass of wine”). Some people behaved accordingly, took the rational course of action and followed the experts’ advice remaining in their homes. Some of them are now dead.

    Please have a look at this piece

    My opinion is that the meeting was staged as a PR event in order to reassure the population; the scientists just said what the politicians wanted them to say.

    1. But predicting damaging earthquakes is an imprecise science. The scientists may have given reassurances to the public but was that wrong given that statistically it was most likely that an earthquake would not happen.

      1. Depends on how reassuring they were. I haven’t red all the reports, but they should make sure that the public understands that even highly unlikely events do happen. Again, perhaps they did that and if they didn’t it was probably because of pressure from politicians, but saying yes to power is not a morally defensible excuse IMO

      2. Most likely…

        They were the members of the “Commissione Grandi Rischi” (great risks commission), whose task is not to predict earthquakes or other catastrophes but give advice about managing risks and minimize the loss of lives. From a scientific point of view their statistics were impeccable, but the issue is whether their public statements (not the minutes of their meeting) increased or reduced alertness and preparedness among the population and authorities.

    2. What would have happened if they had said “The earthquake is coming! Flee for your lives!”

      I trust that they did say, as they do round here: “This is an earthquake-prone area. Ensure that tall and heavy objects are well secured to the walls or floor, hot water cylinders are strapped into position, etc. etc.” We’re also encouraged to have supplies for a few days, torches, radios etc. We even recently had a nation-wide earthquake drill, reminiscent of your 1950s nuclear-attact drills, with “Drop cover and hold!” instead of “Duck and cove!” But that’s about all they can ever reasonably do.

      1. No, they didn’t say that. But that, in my opinion, would be the task of Civil Protection. What is known is that the head of CP convened the meeting with the objective of reassuring the population. The scientists just accepted to play their role in that pantomime.

        According to the minutes of their meeting, the scientists did make recommendations about controlling fragile structures (e.g. counter-ceilings), especially in schools. The assumption was that low-intensity shocks were likely to continue and to cause damage to non-structural elements. Major shocks were not ruled out, obviously, but no recommendation about their occurrence appears in the minutes. (Where is the science in this?)

        Yes, they could have said “this is a seismic zone, many buildings cannot stand a major earthquake, and you (authorities) have being wasting months without fixing anything.” But that was outside the purpose of the meeting.

    1. According to Deuteronomy, false prophets are to be stoned to death.

      If the fundies followed their magic book, all their leaders would be dead under piles of rocks.

  7. The only rational response from any scientist to any question having the potential to affect people in Italy is “get out now ; do not come back”. Doing anything else is raising the probability of going to jail for doing your best effort to mitigate events at minimal costs.
    In other news, the city of Naples is underlain by a major volcanic centre which has been intermittently active for millennia, and has produced major highly destructive pyroclastic flows in the past. Evacuating to a distance of 100km (minimum, the pryoclastic flows have approached this distance from the source ; more distance is recommended).
    It is recommended to avoid the area of Rome, particularly the South East of Rome, where ground movement and minor volcanic unrest has been noted in the last 0.002 Ma ; repeats of past explosive events cannot be ruled out.
    It’s the only safe thing to do.

    1. I tend to agree, but have you ever heard of a statement from the Great Risks Commission about the situation in Naples? I don’t think so. A few Italian geologists openly criticize the decision to build houses (and even a hospital) close to the “red zone” around the Vesuvius, but not a word as far as I know from those appointed to the GRC.

  8. Will the Catholic priests in Italy be prosecuted for their failure to predict the unsuccessful outcome from prayer or inappropriate reassurances offered by prayer?

      1. LOL wrong! Amos 3:7 “Certainly the sovereign Lord does nothing without first revealing his plan to his servants the prophets.”

        Jail all the prophets.

        Which would make for an interesting defense… We are priests, not prophets, so we don’t know what God is up to.

  9. Maybe there should be more advice on the possibility of earthquakes elicited from the Vatican – after all, the Pope has a direct line to his Boss, doesn’t he….

  10. The Romans had to cancel their summer holidays because of the unexpected heat wave.

    The lions ate all their augurs.

    (A geophysicist told me that one, many years ago.)

    Piergiorgio Odifreddi, in his blog on La Repubblica, has a terrific angle:

    But if we really wish to take it out on someone, why not indict the town’s bishop and priests for failing to forewarn of the earthquake? After all, they pretend depending upon someone who, according their view of the world, should be held responsible in the first place. Instead of bothering to restore churches, why not execrate the perverse principal and arraign his useless acolytes, rather than harassing the poor fellows who are honestly doing their human, and hence imperfect, job?

  11. Having spent many years, over the last decades, in Italy, I can think of 2 possible explanations.

    1. Apparently, one lawyer and one judge were key figures in bringing the matter to trial. It’s easy to posit that various organizations may have bought and paid for the lawyer & judge, because it would not do (for them) to have the inadequate building standards brought to light.

    2. The scientists assumed the role of policy makers and were pressured in assorted ways – rather like the mayor of Amity in Jaws pressured those who should have known better to keep the beaches open.

    In any case, this isn’t over, and we can all hope that cooler, more rational heads will prevail.

    1. you mean, here is another failed view?

      I note:

      but by give a proper scientific analysis of the probabilities involved

      the author of that blog has a lot to learn about what the reality of such probability analysis entails.

      in short, what the author asks for is impossible.

      if that is really what is being asked of scientists in Italy, then the scientists themselves should stand up and say “that’s bullshit” and walk the hell out.

      and if they are FORCED to do this because otherwise they would lose funding, that’s just as bad as having a court try and convict them on these insane charges.

      the whole thing is rotten.

  12. Sorry for my ignorance, but I’m unaware of how far in advance earthquakes can be “predicted”. So what if the scientists told people to stay home. What could they have done, tried to outrun the frigging earthquake?

    Some others online are saying some of that region’s buildings weren’t up to code. Why aren’t the builders in jail?

    1. You are dead right Alelie –
      Here is UCL’s ‘disaster man’ Bill McGuire –

      “It is now well established that the way to save lives and limit destruction as a result of earthquakes is not by trying to predict them but by ensuring that buildings are constructed so that they do not collapse when the ground shakes, and by reinforcing existing structures.”

  13. Nature has an editorial on this today –
    “Despite the way the verdict has been portrayed in the media as an attack on science, it is important to note that the seven were not on trial for failing to predict the earthquake. As members of an official risk commission, they had all participated in a meeting held in L’Aquila on 31 March 2009, during which they were asked to assess the risk of a major earthquake in view of the many tremors that had hit the city in the previous months, and responded by saying that the earthquake risk was clearly raised but that it was not possible to offer a detailed prediction. The meeting was unusually quick, and was followed by a press conference at which the Civil Protection Department and local authorities reassured the population, stating that minor shocks did not increase the risk of a major one.”

    1. Nice balancing act: “the meeting was unusually quick [maybe they didn’t examine the situation in so much detail], and was followed by a press conference at which the Civil Protection Departments and local authorities [so the message circulated at the press conference was not their fault]…”

      The (legal) issue is exactly whether the scientists were or not responsible for what was said at the press conference. I’m ready to allow that most of them (but not all of them) were absent or disinterested, but in order to reach a conclusion on this issue you need to know very minute details, and I don’t.

      There is also a “science” issue, i.e. whether other scientists would find that they did a good job at their risk assessment exercise (the one that was not communicated at the press conference). As Jerry would put it, “that’s science, folks.” Or, is it?

    2. Well, they said that minor shocks do not increase the risk of a major one. Which is AFAIK true. Therefore they said what they should have said and they should not be punished.

      The only correct way to handle this issue is to let other experts to evaluate the situation, reach a consensus and then, perhaps, take legal action. Not the other way around, not with testimony from relatives but no testimony from a wide range of experts.

    3. yes, sorry, but the entire system, from the top down, INCLUDING the way the courts handled it basically screams at us that science IS being attacked in Italy.

      it tells me that the court case is just the tip of the iceberg of an underlying serious problem with how science is viewed in Italy.

      1. Maybe science is under attack, maybe is culture, more generally. But Italian scientists – those at the top – don’t need the courts to do damage to science.

        A few years ago Prof. Boschi, one of the convicted, helped a member of Berlusconi’s party launch a defamatory campaign against the physicist Luciano Maiani, soon to be head of the National Council of Research (CNR). Thanks to the public uproar against this ridiculous plot Maiani won. Then, under Maiani, the vice-president of the CNR promoted a creationist book. Public uproar… but Maiani said it was none of his business (talk about accountability). These days Maiani is head of the Great Risks Commission and is defending Boschi (happy reunion!). Maiani is a true scientist, but a little too picky about the causes he chooses to defend. This time I’m not going to join the public uproar about science under attack.


  14. Hmmm. Didn’t a recent US government predict quick and total victory in two wars followed by the adulation of the invaded populations?

    How’d that work out?

    1. It would have been interesting to compare the court cases of those who might have been tried for war crimes in the states, vs these scientists being tried fro manslaughter.

      if, of course, charges had even considered being filed against those involved in the states.

      alas, we will never be able to compare the two.

  15. All I can think of is this as an example of life imitating art. In the Simpson’s episode “Bart’s Comet”, after the danger has passed the townspeople resolve never to let ‘this’ happen again, and burn down the observatory.

  16. I wonder whether this is a sort of reaction to the Vajont Dam disaster (over-reaction, the pendulum has swung too far the other way).
    The Vajont Dam disaster was foreseen and predicted and the authorities ignored it.
    See the Wikipedia page for details. In particular, see this photo – it’s staggering.

  17. I am afraid that all the comments on this thread are seriously misinformed.
    When basing one’s opinion on reports by or relying on the Italian press extreme caution should be applied. [Do you know that with a single exception ALL Italian newspapers are funded by the State to the tuned of millions of Euros or that, again with a single exception, no Italian newspaper is a profit-seeking organization, but rather the mouthpiece of either political parties or industrial interests?]
    If you read the indictment (which is the only document on which an objective judgement can be based, as the judges’ rationale for the sentence has not been published yet), you could see that, far from accusing the “scientists” of not predicting the earthquake, the “scientists” were accused of precisely the opposite, namely to have made a strong, unambiguous, and totally unscientific claim that no life-threatening tremor would take place and that Aquilans could return safely to their homes. Unfortunately many of them did and six days later died under the rubble.
    I have put “scientists” in inverted commas, for two reasons, neither of which was mentioned here (or in most of the Italian and world press):
    1. scientific competence was not the selection criterion for the “Great Risks Commission”, so much so that its leading member, Bernardo de Bernardinis, is a hydraulic engineer who boasted his total ignorance of anything sismic;
    2. the key meeting that took place six days before the devastating earthquake was not a scientific meeting, but a purely “political” one, convened with the sole purpose of restoring peace. How do we know? Because there are recordings of telephone conversations where the “Emergency Tzar”, Mr Bertolaso (currently indicted for corruption, etc.), describes it as a “purely media event” and his deputy, Mr de Bernardinis, speaking just before the key meeting, told the people of L’Aquila not to worry and “to drink a glass of local wine”.
    I could go on with other inaccuracies in comments on this thread, but I think the point has been made.

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