Italy Jails Scientists for Failing to Predict Earthquake

Unbelievable.  We will be burning witches next.

Six Italian scientists and an ex-government official have been sentenced to six years in prison over the 2009 deadly earthquake in L'Aquila.

A regional court found them guilty of multiple manslaughter.

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 6.3 magnitude quake devastated the city and killed 309 people.

It took Judge Marco Billi slightly more than four hours to reach the verdict in the trial, which had begun in September 2011.

The seven - all members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks - were accused of having provided "inexact, incomplete and contradictory" information about the danger of the tremors felt ahead of 6 April 2009 quake, Italian media report.

This is what I call the layman's "CSI" view of science, which assumes that certainty is possible in analyzing and forecasting complex systems.  I am not going to blame the victim here, but I will note that scientists have to some extent made this situation far worse by insisting that they have levels of certainty they do not have, particularly in highly charged political debates (e.g. economics and climate).

Harvard physicist Luboš Motl argues it will give scientists roughly the same incentives doctors have in areas with lots of malpractice suits:

The verdict de facto lionizes crackpots who were screaming that there had to be a large earthquake and they just happened to be right in that case – while isomorphic and sometimes the very same crackpots are wrong in 99.9% of other cases in which they cry wolf – and it condemns the scientific method. They are wrong in 99.9% of cases because their predictive framework has nothing to do with science – it's all about a psychopathological paranoia – but even a broken clock is right twice a day.

The lesson for the scientists is clear: If you are a scientist who is qualified in a discipline that has implications for the safety of people, you must always recommend precautionary measures to be taken even if you conclude that the probability that something bad will happen is tiny. Italy may expect much more hysteria in various similar science-related situations than it has had so far because a court has declared a war on everyone who is honest and balanced.

Can you imagine that this sick logic would be applied e.g. to surgeons? Surgeons could spend 6 years in prison after every death of a patient whom they or others were optimistic about. It's just insane. People sometimes die, natural catastrophes sometimes occur, and it's just impossible to identify a human culprit in most cases. Only if a professional makes a mistake in which he or she has demonstrably violated some established and functional rules to reduce the risk – and whether or not this was the case may only be determined by another expert – he or she could be considered co-responsible for the deaths.

  • GoneWithTheWind

    According to the experts global warming ended 16 years ago and today the average temperature is cooler then in 1996. Considering the costs to consumers and taxpayers over the last 16 years in the fight against global warming spurred on by scientists and non-scientists who insist they know with certainty that AGW is real can we expect some trials soon to punish these frauds and maybe claw back some of that wasted money?

  • nehemiah

    While we are at it. I live in southwest Florida and put hurricane shutters on my home at great cost because of the exceptionally high probability of hurricane activity in 2010.

    Just kidding. I still don't have shutters. When the weatherman starts getting the 5-day forecast correct then maybe I'll rely on their longer range modeling on such things as climate, hurricanes, etc.

  • ErikTheRed

    Between this and the cell phone tumor ruling last week it's like Italy's courts have started an all-out war on science.

  • LarryGross

    should we jail the climate science scientists?

  • DrTorch

    "Only if a professional makes a mistake in which he or she has demonstrably violated some established and functional rules to reduce the risk – and whether or not this was the case may only be determined by another expert "
    That's disturbing. That just means people will cover for each other. This is just another commission of the same thing, "scientists have to some extent made this situation far worse by insisting that they have levels of certainty they do not have." It's not that hard to explain what you're doing to a reasonably competent layman.

  • LarryGross

    re: " demonstrably violated some established and functional rules to reduce the risk "

    is that a govt standard?

  • http://www.facebook.com/harald.bange Harald Bange

    Roger Pielke Jr has an excellent write-up on the background of this verdict. These scientists were defending their orthodoxy vs. an non-seismologist and therefore appeared to minimize the risk to the public.
    http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/admin/publication_files/2011.36.pdf

    Hal

  • http://www.grouchyconservativepundits.org/ Rusty Bill

    Heinlein. "Crazy Years".

  • anon

    This sick logic *is* applied to surgeons. Surgeons rejecting elderly patients out of fear of tarnishing their stats is a very well-known problem.

  • anon

    I guess it bears pointing out that all that happens to surgeons when a patient dies is that their career gets hurt, so while the logic is basically the same the strength of the penalties is much lower.

  • LarryGross

    re: surgeons... SOME.. MIGHT get harmed from malpractice but many do not.

  • diz

    I think the headline is misleading. They are not in trouble for failing to predict the earthquake. They are in trouble for not accuratley describing the science to the public.
    And "they" really seems to be the one politician, De Bernardinis who more or less told everyone "there is no risk stay home and have a glass of wine".
    Whatever De Bernardinis was doing and saying had very little to do with science.
    Regardless, it is absurd to call this "manslaughter", and it is absurd to try the scientists on the panel along with De Bernardinis, but it does not appear to be accurate to say they are in trouble for practicing science.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-Templeton/1079075015 James Templeton

    Are you crazy, jailing people because they didn't predict the wrath of God, they don't have to the Bible already tells you that at the end of times there will be earthquakes and wars so see the world is warned, besides people would not have believed and sought safety they would have stayed, so pray don't convict.

  • HenryBowman419

    That cannot be true: they are not Republicans.

  • HenryBowman419

    Just a note: Motl is not a Harvard physicist. He was in the physics department at Harvard, but left that post several years ago and, I believe, resides in Pilsen.

  • skhpcola

    "should we jail the climate science "scientists?"

    FIFY.

  • irandom

    There's the missing pet and full moon guy:

    http://www.syzygyjob.com/

    Mainstream science accidentally noticed ULF/VLF correlate with earthquakes in 1991, but it never went anywhere.

    http://www.stanford.edu/dept/news/pr/91/911231Arc1006.html

    Rediscovered when the Japanese earthquake hit:

    http://www.technologyreview.com/view/424033/atmosphere-above-japan-heated-rapidly-before-m9/