Seven Italian scientists and experts were convicted of manslaughter for failing to predict the 2009 earthquake, and sentenced to six years in prison.
Among those convicted were some of Italy’s most prominent and internationally respected seismologists and geological experts, including Enzo Boschi, former head of the national Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology.
“I am dejected, desperate,” Boschi said after the verdict. “I thought I would have been acquitted. I still don’t understand what I was convicted of.”
The decision will be appealed, and I sure as hell hope it gets overturned on appeal. In the meantime, the decision has provoked an outcry in Italy, leading to the resignation of the head of Italy’s top disaster body.
Maiami, one of Italy’s top physicists and a former head of top partical physics laboratory Cern in Geneva, criticised the verdict as “a big mistake”.
“These are professionals who spoke in good faith and were by no means motivated by personal interests, they had always said that it is not possible to predict an earthquake,” he told the Corriere della Sera newspaper.
“It is impossible to produce serious, professional and disinterested advice under this mad judicial and media pressure. This sort of thing doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world,” he said.
“This is the end of scientists giving consultations to the state.”
Check the close of the article linked above, though, for why the residents of L’Aquila got so pissed off at these scientists as to demand a trial.
Italy’s top seismologists were called in to evaluate the situation and the-then deputy director of the Civil Protection agency Bernardo De Bernardinis gave press interviews saying the seismic activity in L’Aquila posed “no danger”.
He advised local residents to relax with a glass of wine.
The Christian Science Monitor reports that the seven (six scientists and one ex-government official, I guess De Bernardinis must be the government official) 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.”
A seismologist can predict with reasonable accuracy that a certain area will have, say, a major earthquake every hundred years on average. “Area” of course being defined rather loosely. A prediction of an earthquake at 10:26 AM this coming Tuesday in Jakarta, say? Impossible. Even to promise a major quake within a one-week or one-month window is beyond human ability….
That’s what the Italian scientists were convicted of today: exercising judgment in a murky area, getting it wrong, and being severely punished for it. If the verdict is upheld, that sends a message to scientists that they’d better keep their mouths shut when asked for their opinion in Italy.
The Christian Science Monitor also quotes a statement from one of the convicted scientists that sounds more cautious than the statement the other article attributes to Bernardo De Bernardinis.
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).”
So, fellow Alexandrians, what should the public expect from experts communicating about uncertain risks? Clearly, criminal charges are out of line for getting a judgment call wrong on something with as much uncertainty as predicting an earthquake, but what do you think residents can reasonably ask of experts, here, and what can’t be expected of such experts?