Monday, October 29, 2012
The recent conviction of six Italian scientists on manslaughter
charges for their failure to predict a deadly earthquake probably
triggered a lot of water cooler conversation over at Caltech. Not to
mention a fair amount of outrage and disbelief.
After all, the Pasadena campus, home to some of the finest scientific
minds in the world, is News Central when a quake strikes, a place
where the world turns for data, analysis and even reassurance.
Indeed, two of the Caltech’s most public seismologists, Kate Hutton
and Lucy Jones, are rarely are seen on TV without the words “breaking
news” scrawled just below their chins.
Their commitment goes far beyond press briefings, however. Drs.
Hutton and Jones and their colleagues have done much to raise the
level of awareness of the risks of living in earthquake country and
have shown us how we might mitigate those dangers.
It is unimaginable that they could be prosecuted because something
they said was misconstrued and deemed to be criminal behavior.
But that’s exactly what happened in Italy, where the six scientists
and another official were found guilty of multiple manslaughter and
abetting grave injury for “providing an assessment of the risks that
was incomplete, inept, unsuitable, and criminally mistaken” following
a quake in L’Auila that killed more than 300 people.
They were sentenced to six years in prison, fined $10 million each in
damages and the cost of the trial. They must each pay $2.6 million
“I am devastated,” said Enzo Boschi, one of the condemned, after the
hearing. “I thought I was acquitted. To be honest, I still don’t even
understand what I was accused of.”
It sounds more like inquisition than inquiry. “Witch hunt” wouldn’t
be too strong a term to use.
I’m surprised they didn’t use the dunking stool to determine the
guilt or innocence of those involved.
The irony of the case was that it wasn’t the result of bad science
but of bad communications.
The city of L’Aulia, located in an active earthquake area (it had
been destroyed by a quake in 1703) had recently experienced numerous
tremors, alarming the populace. To make matters worse, a local
laboratory technician had warned of an impending quake based on his
measurements of radon levels, a test that is largely unproven,
according to news reports.
A panel of scientists was convened to assess the situation. It was
followed by a press conference in which a local bureaucrat (not a
seismologist) suggested “it's a favorable situation because of the
continuous discharge of energy” and told everyone to relax and have a
glass of wine.
Shortly thereafter, the devastating quake stuck.
But, according to the meeting minutes as reported in the publication
Nature, the scientists actually said, "It is unlikely that an
earthquake like the one in 1703 could occur in the short term, but
the possibility cannot be totally excluded." There is no mention of
The scientists aren’t entirely blameless, however. They may be guilty
of several lapses in judgment.
First, they let a non-scientist announce the results of their study,
a person whose agenda, it appears, was to calm the residents. The
scientists then failed to correct the misinformation that was
Second, they agreed to serve on something called the National
Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks. If I’m a
scientist that has been approached to serve on a body whose very name
suggests it can forecast earthquakes or other natural disasters, I’m
running in the other direction.
Either that, or I’m forming a group called the National Commission
for the Understanding of the Limits of Science.
Because the one sure thing about earthquakes is that they can’t be
predicted. Not if you form a commission, not if you study tea leaves,
not if you sacrifice a goat.
The real criminals in this case are those who would foster an
atmosphere where legitimate scientific expression is repressed by
fear. Ultimately, it could cost even more lives in the future.