A building damaged by the April 9, 2009 quake.

Photo by Downing Street

As many of you have probably heard, this week an Italian court convicted six scientists for manslaughter based on a “falsely reassuring” evaluation regarding the risk of an earthquake in the town of L’Aquila.  The sentence included 6 years in prison and payment of $10 million in court costs and damages.

The scientists were brought in to evaluate the risk following a string of small tremors that hit L’Aquila.  In a very short meeting, the scientists stated that the risk was raised, but they were unable to offer a detailed prediction.  The Civil Protection Department and local authorities then held a press conference where they reassured the population that there was no increased risk of an earthquake.  One week later, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck the town, killing over 300 people.  The prosecutor argued that 29 people that would have left decided to stay because of the press conference, and that the scientists’ “inadequate” risk assessment caused the authorities state false information in the press conference, and thus the scientists caused the deaths.  This argument was apparently successful, though the judge has yet to state his reasoning for the conviction and sentence.

As one might imagine, scientists and level-headed people all around the world aren’t too thrilled with this outcome.  Many scientists are concerned about the possible chilling effect on publication of research in Italy.  Not only can a scientist be criminally liable for failing to predict a bad outcome, but there might even be chilling effects on predicting bad outcomes.  An incorrect prediction of a bad outcome could result in unneeded expenditures and evacuations, and thus provoke similar wrath from the government.

Much of the outrage from this decision stems from incredulity.  How could Italy convict for this?  Don’t they understand science?  Don’t they understand that earthquakes are unpredictable?  In this author’s opinion, Italy knows very well how science works and why the seismologists couldn’t give a prediction.  The essential problem in the conviction is causation: The scientists actually said that the risk was elevated, but the 29 people supposedly stayed because the Government said that the risk was not elevated.  This case seems less like the government failing middle school geology, and more like a corrupt shifting of the blame for their mistake.  The government faced additional heat after the earthquake due to supposedly muzzling a earthquake prediction.

Even the government has come out and agreed with the chorus from the world and said that earthquakes are unpredictable.  There is, however, at least one counterexample to this contention.  In 1975, China did the impossible: it predicted an earthquake, and acted upon that prediction successfully.  After wide reports of peculiar animal behavior, a series of foreshocks led Chinese officials to evacuate the Haicheng region.  A 7.0 magnitude quake then hit the region, killing roughly 2,000 people.  It is estimated that without the evacuation, the number of total casualties might have exceeded 150,000.  While this prediction is the most successful and important one so far, there have been a handful of other predictions where the magnitude, location, and time period were roughly correct.

However, each of these predictions have been made using decidedly unadvanced technological equipment.  The successful earthquake predictions were largely made with basic seismographs and, in the case of the Haicheng earthquake, the basic realization that animals behave strangely during times of high seismic activity.  Attempts to use modern technology to predict earthquakes have been met with little success.

If we do get to the point where correct earthquake prediction is commonplace, it is not far fetched to think that the kind case that happened in Italy would crop up in America.  After all, at one point the weather was largely unpredictable.  Now corporations are suing the government for failing to predict floods, with only sovereign immunity, rather than reason, standing in the way.

–Jacob Schumer

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4 Responses to Why Convicting Italian Scientists for Not Predicting an Earthquake is Only a Little Crazy

  1. Sonal Patel says:

    There has always been this tension between scientific research and its use in society. Many scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project had qualms and moral issues with creating such a destructive weapon even though the initial idea was simply a scientific breakthrough in nuclear fission. It’s sad that these scientists get blamed for giving their best educated analysis. It’s equally sad that sometimes, scientists can create something so groundbreaking and then policy makers take that science and apply it in a way the researchers never imagined. Funds and uses for research are so tied up in policy, it seems there is no time for good, fun science anymore.

    • Jonathan Hoffmann says:

      I think Sonal hit on one of the core misunderstandings that can bring about such absurd situations like this one Jacob brought to light.

      Studies, particularly those whose findings are statistically based, largely look for explanations for observed phenomenon not predictions. With funding tied up in policy debates, the objectivity of the explanations produced is suspect. When explanatory findings tainted by political influence are used to make predictions, absurd results follow.

      Hopefully, we will have time for more good fun science before we join Italians in convicting our scientists.

  2. Brooke McLeod says:

    This is interesting especially in light of Avery’s comments about climate change. There have actually been a series of cases (http://www.climatelawyers.com/post/2012/03/22/Dismissed-Means-Dismissed-The-First-Climate-Change-Liability-Damages-Suit-Comer-v-Murphy-Oil-Is-Tossed-Again.aspx) where the plaintiffs’ claims have been dismissed because they cannot show a traceable injury back to the defendant. For example, in Comer v. Murphy Oil, the plaintiffs’ claims that oil companies were responsible for increasing the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina were dismissed with the court saying the plaintiffs could not prove a traceable injury. It seems like the case from Italy can be distinguished from this case in more that the scientists had a duty to warn as opposed to a traditional negligence/strict liability claim.

  3. Avery VanPelt says:

    What a great post, Jacob. It does seem perverse and rather short-sighted to hold scientists criminally liable for essentially not being able to predict the future with 100% accuracy. I would love to know what differences exist between what the scientists conveyed to the government, and what the government conveyed to the public. Blame-shifting at its worst? If this case isn’t viewed as a complete outlier, I agree that a dangerous precedent could be set here, particularly given topical concerns about climate change and whether it can be linked to predicting storms in general, or storms in particular, such as Sandy. As recently discussed in my environmental law class, many scientists feel confident saying that global warming will lead to longer storm seasons and more intense storms, but fewer could (or would) confidently say that global warming created the “perfect storm” conditions that led to Sandy’s destruction.